On Europe Day, fifteen years after the EU’s expansion east had allowed the family of nations to put to rest the Iron Curtain, that had long divided the continent – since the Second World War – many EU leaders met in an informal summit to decide the fate of the continent’s future.
Meant as a show of unity in the face of the chaos caused by Brexit, European Union leaders met in Sibiu, Romania; where they agreed that the top priorities of the union must be combatting climate change, safeguarding the rule of law, finding a better model for growth, and safeguarding democracy. However, the leaders remain unsure of how to achieve these goals, as divisions sow disagreement among the states.
Coming just weeks before the European Parliament elections, they also sought to divide and assign the EU’s most difficult and powerful jobs for the coming year.
Climate change is an issue on everyone’s mind, and of keen importance to some heavy hitters in the bloc. France, and eight other EU countries, are strongly in favour of getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And the bloc – as a whole – must figure out how to finance transitions to environmentally-friendly policies as part of a five-year agenda.
“In fifteen days, some 400 million Europeans will choose between a project (…) to build Europe further, or a project to destroy, deconstruct Europe, and return to nationalism”, French President Emmanuel Macron told his fellow leaders. “Climate, protection of borders, and a model of growth, a social model (…), is what I really want for the coming years.”
The move was supported by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “It’s an absolute priority that we leave our planet to the next generation in a condition that we inherited it, and climate change is a threat to life on this planet”, he said. “So we put it right up there with jobs and the economy, with migration and security challenges. We’re very much part of that group of people that wants us to intensify climate action.”
However, not everyone agrees with Macron’s rise to radical action. “Nothing has changed when it comes to divides and different opinions about it”, said the chairman of the talks, European Council President, Donald Tusk. Tusk is the former prime minister of Poland, and also sluggish to move forward on EU climate reforms.
“What is new is this very fresh and energetic pressure”, he said of youth protests growing in Europe, to demand radical action to safeguard the planet. “There is no future for politicians without this sensitivity and imagination.”
German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was also slow to back Macron; likely due to how it might affect Germany’s car industry. Whilst she didn’t refuse to endorse the French-led proposal entirely, she instead supported spending a quarter of the EU’s next joint budget for 2021-28 on climate and energy efficiency.
Taking it slow might not be good enough. The World Wide Fund (WWF), and the Global Footprint Network, have both criticized the EU for its overconsumption of resources at a rate faster than they can be renewed.
Instability and the Rule of Law
The EU is also concerned about the rollback of democracy in Europe and worldwide, aided by the spread of disinformation on social media and the internet. To that end, the European leaders pledged to protect the rule of law. This is especially relevant considering the departure from democracy in post-communist member states like Poland, Hungary, and Romania, all of whom stand accused of attempting to undermine democracy within their borders – which in turn destabilises the Union.
Tusk has condemned Romania in particular, saying that the judicial changes made by Romania’s ruling Social Democrats have reversed decades of democratic reforms, and weakened the state’s ability to combat corruption.
“There is no Europe without rule of law. Not because of some ideological doctrines, this is the quintessence of Europe as political entity”, Tusk said at a news conference.
Many member states disagree on a host of issues, but the entire EU is destabilised by the ongoing drama of Brexit, a wave of right-wing populism sweeping the continent, and external challenges from Russia, China, and the United States, along with keeping alive the nuclear deal with Iran after the United States’ exit from the JCPOA. Compounding these issues is the fact that the EU lags behind other states in many areas, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
European leaders at the meeting explicitly reaffirmed their commitment to the Iran nuclear deal. “We remain fully committed to the full implementation of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], of the nuclear deal. It’s a matter of security for us and for the entire world”, EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, told reporters.
In such challenging times, the EU leaders signed a declaration promising to “defend one Europe”, “stay united, through thick and thin” and “always look for joint solutions” ahead.
The stakes were never higher in the lead up to the European Parliament elections, which is widely considered to be a referendum on the institution itself, and the forces of rising populism.
Human Rights Watch notes that the European Parliament has played a vital role, as a human rights watchdog, both within the EU and beyond – a status dependent on the bloc’s stability and rule of law. In a statement on their website, Human Rights Watch says, that “the May 26th
elections will determine whether the EU founding values of human dignity, democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights, remain at the heart of EU action”.
But, as occurred in 2016 (and multiple elections since), a rash of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia, and/or far-right groups have flourished, each spreading disinformation in order to sow discord and encourage distrust in establishment parties, and even the structure of democracy itself. EU investigators, along with academics and advocacy groups, note that current efforts share many of the “digital fingerprints” used in previous Russian attacks, including interference in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. It seems that Russia remains undeterred in its campaign to widen political discord in the West, to weaken Western democratic institution, despite widespread indictments and recriminations.
Not all such efforts are Russian. A number are local populists and far-right copycats, who often echo Russian talking points, making the distinction between Russian disinformation, far-right disinformation, and genuine political debate difficult. And while intelligence officials have not accused Russia of backing specific populist parties or candidates in Europe – the way Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly sought to promote Donald Trump in 2016 – Putin has long sought to divide and weaken the EU, and has quietly supported the populist movements that would undermine it from within.
What isn’t especially difficult to see, is that in the run-up to EU Parliament elections, a network of social media accounts and websites are spreading false and divisive stories about the EU, NATO, immigrants, and much else. Conspiracy theories are often peddled – such as the notion that the Notre Dame fire was the work of Islamic terrorists (or a spy agency, or a secret cabal that runs the world).
Daniel Jones is a former FBI analyst and a United States Senate investigator. He runs the non-profit Advance Democracy, and they recently flagged multiple suspicious websites and social media accounts to law enforcement. He notes that, “The goal here is bigger than any one election”.
“It is to constantly divide, increase distrust, and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They’re working to destroy everything that was built post-World War II.”
Up for Grabs
Tusk also announced a follow-up summit to take place on May 28th, just two days after the European Parliament vote, so that national leaders can agree on appointing new people to the EU’s top roles until 2024. This will likely involve a lot of compromises and horse-trading, to reach solutions amenable to as many governments as possible.
“I would like to announce that just after the European Parliament election, on May 28th, I will call the meeting of all EU leaders, in order to start the nomination process”, he said after the conference.
The five positions that will open up this year, are the head of the European Council, the executive European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Central Bank, and the joint diplomatic service. The outgoing Parliament has already picked their preferred candidates for the Commission. The two top picks are: conservative German Manfred Weber, and Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans. Brexit negotiator and French citizen Michel Barnier, and Denmark’s current commissioner Margrethe Vestager, are also in the running.
Weber has already received the backing of Germany’s Angela Merkel, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. However, support was not unanimous: Hungary’s eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, both spoke against Weber.
Weber and Timmermans have already gone head-to-head, clashing on a televised debate focusing on climate change, taxes, migration, and terrorism. Timmermans accused the European People’s Party (EPP) of being “dinosaurs”, with regard to combatting climate change.
“The European Commission president has to become personally responsible for climate change”, Timmermans said. “If we wait another five years we have lost, and the EPP are dinosaurs in this question.”
Weber rebutted the charge, saying that the EPP “is ambitious” in combating climate change, and that his focus would be on lobbying other continents, such as China, the United States, and Latin America, to join combatting climate change along with Europe.
Under the so-called Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) system, most pan-European political groups have nominated a top election contender – among which Timmermans and Weber count. But many national leaders distrust the opaque process, and would prefer to control the process for themselves. France’s Emmanuel Macron, along with Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg, and President Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania, opposed the idea of going along with Parliament’s choice.
Macron took issue with the entire system, and said: “We must avoid a compromise to take the least good candidate, which has been the case sometimes before.”
But Bettel summed things up in a simpler manner, calling the system a “stupid idea“.
Agreement is hard to reach as it is. For the last time around, agreement on who would sit in the top roles, took three summits to hammer out – but this time, Tusk wants the new leadership in place by July, and was willing to push for a majority vote if unanimity was unobtainable.
“It would be best if we managed to reach consensus on all these decisions”, Tusk said. “But I will not shy away from putting these decisions to the vote, if consensus proves difficult to achieve”, he added.
Creating the European Union was a major political achievement, and while the institution has its flaws, it is generally considered a positive force among citizens across the continent. Europe’s rising far-right want to make the upcoming elections about national identity. But the rest of Europe wishes the family of nations to work together to overcome challenges, not least of which include climate change, and defending democracy itself. What that looks like remains to be seen – and until the votes are counted, what happens next is anybody’s call.