This week’s summit could be a profound one in setting the direction of Europe for the next five years. It will decide whether the European Union will again be a driver of growth or double-down on policies which have failed and will continue to fail.
At every stage in the last five years Europe’s leaders have failed to show the urgency or ambition desperately needed by countries caught in the biggest economic crisis for 70 years. There has been a stubborn refusal to accept when radical changes are required. Worst of all, real damage has been done to the foundations of a Union which can only be effective when members understand the need for solidarity and respect.
Today the Union in general and the Eurozone in particular, is faced with the threat of deflation and falling growth rates. Even the most optimistic projections say that employment and living standards will be squeezed for the foreseeable future if current policies are maintained.
The economic forecasts of every international agency say that the European economy is weak and threatened with significant problems. The President of the ECB has said that extraordinary measures may soon be required to stop a new recession.
This is the background to the summit and it demands a far more serious response than we have heard so far from the Taoiseach and his fellow members of the Council.
In area after area the Union’s policies are simply not delivering. And there is no plan for charting a new course.
The European institutions badly need new leaders. Leaders who understand the scale of the crisis and are not obsessed with justifying the status quo.
It the discussions about who these leaders will be that will determine whether this summit is a success or another missed opportunity.
What is worst about the process so far is that the debate has all been about who will get the jobs and not what they will do in the jobs.
There is no doubt that last month’s elections saw large proportions of the citizens of Europe express their dissatisfaction with the current situation in the Union. As with most election commentary, many people are describing as ‘winners’ groups who came nowhere near winning majority support.
Let’s get some perspective. In both Ireland and Europe as a whole over two-thirds of people voted for parties and candidates which are broadly pro-EU. Those who want to roll-back or even abolish the Union did well in many places, but they are the voice of the minority of the people.
In our election the exit poll confirmed what has been shown in every survey that has been carried out in recent years: the Irish people want a Union which is more effective in doing the jobs we need it to do.
We don’t want the right-wing vision of a skeleton free-trade area which maximises competition and minimises work and living standards. We don’t want the extreme-left vision of massively regulated markets and anti-business rhetoric.
We don’t want to dismantle hard-won progress achieved over the last 60 years.
What the Irish people time and again have said is that we want a Union which works better.
That understands the need for a deep reform.
That takes credible action to support growth and living standards.
That talks less and achieves more.
The first and most effective way of responding to this is in the three major appointments which are due to be finalised in the coming weeks.
I have nothing against Jean-Claude Junker, but it is absurd to claim that he is somehow the democratic choice of the people of Europe to head the European Commission.
He has a substantial claim to be considered as the leading candidate for the role of Commission President – but to say that any alternative would be anti-democratic is to adopt the fiction that these were a single pan-European elections where citizens voted for both the Parliament and Commission at the same time.
It remains the case that Ireland has not received full justice for its case on relief of the full impact of bank-related debts. Every independent report has made the point that the scale of these debts was significantly impacted by EU policies which were doggedly enforced in 2008-10 but have since been abandoned. Were the policies in place today adopted then there would have been no Irish bailout.
During those years Jean Claude Junker was president of the Euro group. He was frequently a loud public advocate for the failed policies which caused so much harm.
The question for the Taoiseach is whether he sought commitments from Mr Junker before announcing his total support for him?
Did he seek assurances for support for Irish debt relief, or did he just go along with the bandwagon?
Equally important, did he seek any information from Mr Junker about how he proposes to revitalise the Commission and the Union?
I welcome Mr Junker’s intention to push for a social impact assessment to be added to the narrow financial provisions of existing budgetary regulations and bailout provisions.
If this is a signal of a wider radicalism, then he may be a good choice, however his failure to comment on a wide range of other issues, such as the complete inadequacy of the banking union, is a cause for concern.
He is also right that dealing with Britain’s threats to the Union must be a priority, where he is wrong is talking about the single market as the priority in this regard.
If what we get is a further pressure to gut the EU budget, to withdraw it from vital social and economic activities then it will be a major step backwards.
It is, of course, hard to fault Mr Junker for not saying more because our own government has given no specifics about where it sees the future development of the Union.
The choice for Council President may actually be just as important as the Commission post. The national presidencies are becoming less influential and the Council has so far failed to work effectively in its much larger format.
The agenda is increasingly getting diverted into formalities and minor incremental changes driven by advance agreements brokered between a handful of states.
The Council must reassert itself as a forum where all states are treated fairly and where decisions don’t have to wait for a major crisis before anyone does anything.
As far as the role of High Commissioner is concerned, a strong personality who shows a commitment to European values and respect for the views of all member states is required. In the last year there has been a lot of talk about a united European approach to shared foreign policy concerns and very little reality to this talk.
Catherine Ashton has done well in setting up the External Action Service. What has not yet happened is the adoption of a common understanding of what the Service can achieve for us all.
Whoever takes her place must be of senior status and capable of obliging the larger member states to take them seriously.
The Summit is due once again to talk about the crisis in Ukraine. Due to the sheer number of international crises at the moment, Ukraine is receiving a lot less attention, but the situation continues to be very grave,
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, a European country has been unilaterally partitioned by a powerful neighbour who believes in its right to dominate all former satellites.
When taking control of Crimea, Russia adopted a strategy of acting on the ground while angrily denying it in public. Since then the Russian President has confirmed that his government was lying when it denied actions by its troops.
It is difficult to see the circumstances where Russia can be forced to reverse it’s partitioning of Crimea from Ukraine; however we cannot let that distract us from recognising what is now happening there.
The free media in Crimea is being destroyed. Civil society organisations are under daily pressure. The largest ethnic minority, the Tartars are facing particular discrimination, with Russian efforts to actively undermine the traditional commemoration of the exile of Tartars under the Soviet regime. It is in fact a criminal offence to publicly state in Crimea that you disagree with the Russian annexation.
In Eastern Ukraine Russian supported groups continue to push for the further partition of the country. The last time Europe saw such intimidation of a small state by a nuclear superpower was in 1968.
Our history teaches us what can happen when a powerful neighbour refuses to respect the territorial integrity of a weaker state. We must stand with the democratically elected government of Ukraine and say to Russia that they will face real consequences if they continue.
The ongoing use of gas supplies in support of state policy has only reinforced the need for Europe to get serious about both energy independence and climate change.
During the recession there was a major backing away from these objectives in much of Europe. Our government has been a leader in trying to make sure that whatever is done about sustainable energy comes nowhere near matching the rhetoric.
Energy is on the agenda for the summit and it is to be hoped that it will involve some concrete action.
The summit will also sign-off on the latest part of the ongoing European Semester process for coordinating economic and fiscal policy. This is unlikely to get any attention but it is still very significant.
For all of the fine talk about supporting jobs and growth the recommendations to countries which will be agreed by the Taoiseach and his colleagues see a doubling-down on the policy of austerity for all.
There are places where fiscal reality means that there is no alternative to running a tight policy – however in much of Europe a boost to demand from looser budgets is exactly what is needed. To try and return to sustainable growth through monetary policy alone is simply ludicrous.
It is not credible in any way.
The ECB’s recent plans are unlikely to have a practical impact unless they are followed soon by full-scale quantitative easing. President Draghi is clearly committed to doing as much as he can – what is missing is a stubborn adherence to a policy which continues to suppress demand, leading to low growth, low inflation and low confidence.
Why has Ireland refused to join Prime Minister Renzi of Italy in calling for a more growth-oriented approach to budgets? Why have we sat on the side-lines and nodded through recommendations which will achieve nothing but undermine growth and limit living standards?
In starting this summit at Ypres the Council will quite rightly remember one of those conflicts which made the 20th century the bloodiest in Europe’s history.
It is absolutely correct to say that the European Union has given our continent an unprecedented period of peace between states. This should be noted and celebrated at Ypres.
What leaders would do well to remember is that the greatest cause of First World War was a failure of leadership.
Whether they were dynastic or democratic, Europe’s heads of state and government a hundred years ago could not see where their narrow view of national interests and stubborn adherence to failed strategies was leading them.
It was a senseless and destructive war.
Historians have shown repeatedly how millions died in a conflict between states too proud to understand their common interests.
Today there is a deep sense of drift in Europe. The extremes are still in the minority, but they have grown in strength.
We cannot afford more of the same – more timidity, more delay. We need the leaders of Europe to recognise the deep crisis to which they have contributed and to commit to reforming both their work and the policies which are so clearly not working.