Ljubljana, 1–3 December 2017

 

On 1 and 2 December 2017, the Slovenian Paneuropean Movement organised the first international conference as part of the project entitled Joint Citizens’ Forces – Common European Future, which is co-funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union. Under the title Understanding the European Union, the conference aimed at discussing the state of the EU and the outlook for its future development. In five sessions the discussions offered exchanges of different views on the concept of European citizenship, the relationship between EU institutions and members states, European institutional reform, translating EU policies to the national level, and the future of the European Union. The conference was attended by 109 participants from 20 different states.

 

In his opening speech, Laris Gaiser, the President of the Slovenian Paneuropean Movement, outlined the main points of the project, stressing that the European Union was faced with challenges that must be addressed, such as Brexit, the political crisis it is still facing, the issue of Catalonia, and the institutional reform the EU urgently needs if it is to maintain its legitimacy in international politics and in relation to its citizens. Moreover, he highlighted the importance of financial mechanisms for the civil society as the only way of successfully contributing to a formulation of constructive solutions and proposals.

 

Milan Brglez, the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, pointed at the slow pace at which European policies are developed as a result of inter-institutional relations. This leads to the EU responding too slowly to the biggest geopolitical changes in international relations, such as the migrant crisis, or the rise of Euroscepticism and nationalist tendencies. The EU should become an institution that shapes events on the international stage, not just passively following events. Therefore, the future of Europe lies in close cooperation among all stakeholders, and particularly in strategic dialogue in search of common solutions.

 

Zoran Stančič, the head of the Representation of the European Commission in Slovenia, illustrated the relationship between the EU and its citizens as fish in water. Only when you take a fish out of the water will it realise its importance. This is why it is important that citizens discuss how they see the European Union, and the rights and possibilities it provides. For Slovenians, the EU is important as it sets the framework where the voice of a small country is heard on the bigger European stage. He also spoke about the White paper on the future of Europe, and the importance of the EU addressing the needs of its citizens.

 

Alain Terrenoire, the President of the International Paneuropean Union, said that in politically unstable times we could no longer count on European bureaucratic procedures to protect European values and interests. The European Union should work as an independent and sovereign actor that is capable of dealing with external and internal challenges. In this respect, it is still greatly dependent on other world powers, which puts it in a strategically and geopolitically subordinate position. It is therefore the duty of every individual to assume an active role and start realising European values and fostering our common achievements.

 

The first panel session, titled European citizenship—legislation and rights, offered a discussion that focused on how citizens understand the concept of European citizenship, what it means for them to be part of the EU, and their attitude towards the European policy-making process.

 

Moderator Dejan Hribar, the Secretary General of the Slovenian Paneuropean Movement, open the debate by outlining some of the key rights and achievements that are most recognised among citizens and are directly related to European citizenship. Another key question for the discussion that ensued was how much citizens trust European politicians and policies.

 

Adolfo Morganti of the University of San Marino started by stressing that the European Union was built on the principle of subsidiarity, which means that states must determine issues on the national level first, and only later transfer them to the European level. The EU is a particularly important framework for the functioning of small states, because they can take their interests to a higher level, and at the same time the institutional framework protects them from larger states. This gives small states better possibilities for preservation and prosperity. However, the European Union is not only important for small Member States, but also for small states like San Marino, Andorra and Monaco, with which there is intensive dialogue. European citizenship is still largely considered an extension of national citizenship, which quickly takes precedence if the EU were to get into trouble. Therefore, citizenship should be viewed from the political, sociological and cultural perspective. Morganti presented the example of San Marino, where citizenship is on the one hand a social contract between the heritage of the Enlightenment and on the other hand a heritage of political tradition. That is why citizens of San Marino consider their citizenship as an honour and with pride, which are built on historical achievements. And this could be a basis for the conception of European citizenship—citizens of EU Member States should take pride in their European citizenship as it is a result of historical efforts.

 

Matevž Tomšič of the School of Advanced Social Studies (Nova Gorica, Slovenia) said European citizenship could be defined as either a political category in terms of rights and obligations, or a cultural category in terms of values and ideas. European citizenship should be viewed more from the perspective of shared European values and identity. With respect to history, these can be sought in the Judeo-Christian tradition, democracy and secularism. The European Union is often criticised as an elitist project with a gaping democratic deficit, but the key obstacle to European participatory democracy is the absence of a European demos. And it is precisely European citizenship that could fill this void. Different crises have led to a loss of trust in European political elites, which is an obstacle to a common European identity. In other words, European citizenship is a path to European identity.

 

Bent Nørby Bonde, founder of the European platform Europe’s People’s Forum (Denmark), described the rights derived from the concept of European citizenship as something that directly affects the rights of each individual. Here, the media also play a crucial role. The media report about different aspects of EU politics and policies, but there is always doubt whether the views they present are also what the broader public thinks. Two main perceptions of citizens’ rights have developed in the last few years: the first considers rights as something good, the second as social dumping. Political elites have the biggest impact in policy making, while citizens have the feeling their discussions have little to no impact in this process. Citizens vote for extreme political groups because they feel excluded, which drives them towards nation-centred politics. That is why European citizenship should be an instrument of the European Union for including citizens in the decision-making processes.

 

Patricia Mindus of Uppsala University (Sweden) shed light on United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and what it means for the concept of European citizenship. This topic should be viewed in light of the realisation that people have a different status in different EU states under the same conditions. From the legal perspective the loss of European citizenship in the case of Brexit is involuntary. A state that withdraws for the EU can no longer enjoy the rights that European citizenship provides. For many people European citizenship means being included in the decision-making processes and thus belonging to a particular community. European citizenship also brings rights and obligations, among which European citizens mostly know the right to free movement, but they are not aware of the obligations this also entails. This is why such discussions and raising awareness among citizens are essential, as they increase the level of understanding of the concept of European citizenship.

 

 

 

Under the title Relationship EU institutions – Member States, the second panel featured a discussion on the role of European institutions in national policy making, and on how much European institutions take into consideration the interests of Member States.

 

Rainhard Kloucek, the Secretary General of the Austrian Paneuropean Movement, outlined the relationships between European institutions and their influence on the European policy-making process. In light of the current situation, the European institutional framework needs to be reformed to make the EU quicker and more effective in reacting to social, political and economic changes in Europe. The institutions’ rigidity gives Member States the impression that their interests are not respected enough. On the other hand, Member States do not receive timely and harmonised signals from the EU regarding the challenges Europe is facing.

 

Karl von Habsburg, the President of the Austrian Paneuropean Movement, stressed that when speaking about European institutions we should take a look at their founding documents and understand the atmosphere in which the founding fathers set up these institutions. The fathers of the European Union survived two world wars and fought nationalisms, which were among the main incentives for European unification. The time was also strongly marked by the spirit of change. Another objective was to create an area of peace and security. As a rich continent, Europe needs a good security mechanism to protect and maintain these riches. The third key element for the creation of a unified Europe was ensuring the rule of law, under which citizens will enjoy rights and freedoms. Only when looking at Europe from the outside do we realise the admiration coming from other country groupings (e.g. ECOWAS). When we look at European institutions today, we unfortunately no longer feel the spirit in which they were established. This perception is only deepened by the complicated and rigid relations between institutions.

 

Gyula Csurgai of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations (Switzerland) presented certain analyses and studies indicating that the European Union will fall apart by 2040. Every major crisis is on the one hand a threat to the EU and on the other a chance for individual states. New impetus for reviving the entire EU could come from Central Europe, which could reduce the impact of Brexit and provide more balance to the dominant role of Germany. Central Europe has a more Realpolitik-based approach to shaping Europe, and builds more on subsidiarity—the two main shortcomings of the EU. The euro crisis is not yet over as the eurozone has still not recovered enough to be ready for the next major economic crisis. On the other hand, it is necessary to set up appropriate security structures that will be able to identify and intervene in case of national or European threats. All the while, the EU must face another important issue: devising a strategy or vision for answering key challenges, such as the Catalan crisis, the situation in Ukraine, or the Middle East. He believes that European multiculturalism with non-European identities cannot be the right solution for Europe, since Europe should first form its own European identity.

 

Emanuelle Sessa, researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Economists Association (Spain), sees the foundation of development in more unified European policies for the Mediterranean region, as the EU must seek solutions for security and cooperation there. He believes that the European partnership with this region is not pursuing win-win situations, since the countries of Northern Africa benefit less compared to European countries (at the moment particularly because of migrations). Who makes European policies and how is well reflected in the example of development aid, which is guided by national interests of the most important European states. One of the main problems is the lack of responsibility and accountability of both politicians and European institutions. This is also a bad example for states and European citizens on how to operate on the national level. Another problem of European institutions is that they largely respond to challenges and have no clear vision for playing an active role. That is why he sees a key challenge for the future of the European Union an integration in the balancing of European institutions.

 

Willem Pieter de Groen, researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (Belgium), put inter-institutional relations in the light of the financial crisis of 2008. Bank losses were translated into losses in public finances, which was very problematic from the perspective of the global economy. EU banks received over EUR 4.8 trillion in state aid (i.e. 33% of the EU’s GDP). Member States had no structural plan for saving the banks until the banking union was set up—the Single Supervisory Mechanism and Single Resolution Mechanism. Finalising the banking union is the most important task for the EU in order to avoid future financial instability. However, the moment the crisis eased up the will for upgrading and finalising the banking union faded, which reflects the relations between EU institutions and Member States.

 

Giacomo Morabito, the President of Mediterranean Affairs (Italy), sees one of the biggest problems for the EU in a communication deficit, or poor communication of EU institutions with Member States and their citizens. This is reflected in many areas, e.g. the low turnout in elections, the rise of nationalisms and Euroscepticism. The European Union has even taken more aggressive action against some of the members with regard to the implementation of European policies (e.g. issues with migrations)—but it has thereby lost its legitimacy in many states. Migrations are a touchstone of inter-institutional relations and relations between EU institutions and Member States. Morabito sees a solution particularly in more suitable communication of European policies, and even more so in more harmonised or coordinated policies, which would improve the perception that the EU is really working for the benefit of all European citizens.

 

 

 

The third panel bore the title European institutional reform, and was dedicated to discussing ways of reforming EU institutions to improve their responsiveness to social and political challenges, speed up the decision-making process and include Member States more.

 

Laris Gaiser, the President of the Slovenian Paneuropean Movement, stressed that the complicated inter-institutional rules made it difficult to quickly make the decisions that were necessary in the globalised world today. Moreover, this structure makes it impossible to adopt appropriate strategic documents that would put the EU on the global map of proactive communities. It is therefore necessary to redefine the relationships and rules between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council.

 

Damir Črnčec, the President of the Institute for Global Studies (Slovenia), pointed out that the EU first split between the north and south in the economic and financial crisis, and then between the east and west in the migration crisis. In the sense of Realpolitik, the EU is still a community of sovereign states, which does not allow politicians to successfully fight challenges like migration together on the European level. As a result, states took to erecting fences and tightening security measures. According to Črnčec, one of the greatest challenges for the future of Europe is Islamisation (tolerating Sharia law) and (intentional) neglect of Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots, leading to the disappearing of European identity. A crucial dilemma is how European institutions will respond to such challenges, and what measures they will take.

 

Sophia Russack, researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (Belgium), focused on the supranational and inter-institutional level of European policies, where it should be made clear who is responsible for which policy, which would increase the EU’s efficiency. The inefficiency of the system in its current form can be seen from the frequency of discussions on jurisdiction in the decision-making process. Another weakness in the EU decision-making process is that all Member States simply cannot be represented in all portfolios. At the same time, the extremely high level of bureaucracy has distanced European institutions from citizens, which means further loss of legitimacy. European citizens therefore quite justifiably expect the EU to use the momentum of Brexit to carry out the all too necessary European institutional reform.

 

Luis Lobo Fernandes of the University of Minho (Portugal) pointed out that Brexit would weaken the EU in a time of great geopolitical challenges. The EU has been dedicating too little funding to policies that turn states or institutions into global players. One reason for the weakening of the EU on the global stage is the failing communication with citizens, and the second are rigid institutions. The EU is faced with a lack of a common approach and the dominance of the European Council as the highest political authority. When setting up the European political structure, we expected more intergovernmentalism, but instead we got more political centres of power, among which Germany takes the leading role. This also had an impact of the decision of Great Britain to leave the EU. If Europe continues to face an absence of enlightened elites, it will continue to struggle with growing nationalism and populism, which jeopardise the common European project.

 

Ondřej Timčo of the Institute for Democracy 21 (Czech Republic) presented the necessity and different possibilities of reforming electoral systems to adapt them to the 21st century, focusing on an example of a system where each citizen would have one positive and one negative vote. He set this in the context of the alienation of the EU from its citizens, the rise of populism, low election turnouts, initiatives for states to leave the EU, etc. In such circumstances, direct democracy is merely window dressing for indirect tyranny. Every citizen should therefore have a voice in what kind of EU they want. A general theorem of election theory says that each citizen has one vote in an uncertain order of priority. With respect to the circumstances of a citizen, the vote on a particular set of priorities reflects either agreement with policies or complete disagreement. But since policies are not black and white, we should consider reforming the electoral system in a way that will allow citizens more than just one vote, whether cast in a positive or negative sense, allowing greater and more effective participative power.

 

 

 

The fourth panel, entitled Translating EU policies to the national level, featured a discussion on how policies adopted in Brussels are transferred to Member States, how well citizens know the European decision-making process, how they can take part in it, and above all how EU policies affect their everyday lives.

 

Dejan Steinbuch, editor of the news site PortalPlus (Slovenia), highlighted the feeling of alienation of the EU among citizens and their lack of understanding of the policies prepared in Brussels and later implemented on the national level. Only by raising awareness, informing and explaining European policies will we achieve that citizens will understand the role of European institutions better, and especially the advantages (as well as the downsides) of individual policies.

 

Gordana Đurović, the President of the Montenegrin Paneuropean Union, presented the case of how EU policies are adopted in Montenegro as a candidate country. As a member of NATO, Montenegro has made progress in security cooperation, reforms in the area of defence and security, civil protection planning, cooperation in science, and public information measures. Support for EU membership in Montenegro has always been between 50 and 60%. This means that there is interest in membership, but the EU should also speed up the process on its part if it wants to maintain and increase support for the EU in the country. Therefore, more attention should be given to encouraging the national policies necessary for joining the EU. Currently the greatest challenge for European integration is still institutional capacity and efficiency, which is also a key problem for other countries of the Western Balkans that are in the waiting room for EU membership. In the context of the long wait for joining the EU, Đurović highlighted the high investments in Montenegrin tourism and economy from Russia, China and Azerbaijan, which give the impression that these countries are much more interested in the development of Montenegro than the EU.

 

Matteo Gerlini of the NATO Defense College Foundation (Italy) illustrated the transfer of EU policies to the national level with the example of values and principles as introduced by EURATOM. The Treaty of Rome was the most important treaty at the time, providing a basis for cooperation in the economy, science, etc. It was not hard to translate the ideas from it to the national level, since citizens perceived it as something very positive, something that would ensure peace. The EU should work on policies today that will offer people what is missing: a clear vision and political unity on key policies and challenges.

 

Peter J. Verovšek of the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) stressed that the EU was created to prevent the far right and nationalist forces from dividing the people and creating new tensions. The EU should find and underline such elements of identity that prevent divisions among citizens. One of the key issues is the protection of the welfare state and social values. Nationalist forces have regained control over their followers, which is a problem particularly in the context of representative democracy. Mere market integration is not enough to preserve the EU and solve its legitimacy crisis. The Catalan crisis is a clear signal of this for EU institutions. For Slovenia, its independence only became a reality in the European context, while this is not the case for Catalonia—in this case the EU has remained quiet when its Member State used force on its own (European) citizens. The whole development illustrated great absence of a broader European strategy and perspective.

 

Maria Helena Guimarães of the University of Minho (Portugal) explained that the main element connecting the EU was the common market—despite still flawed regulations and ever present tendencies towards protectionism. And the common market also offers policies that citizens feel the most in their everyday lives and affect them directly. The common market also brought Member States closer together in light of Brexit, which indicates that connecting elements could again be sought in this policy. The common market and economic policies are felt by citizens directly (from food to the automotive or chemical industry, etc.)—this is also why this policy has more bottom-up cooperation. Economic nationalism can be managed through legal means and other regulatory mechanism. With the common market, Member States also have more power, since they can vote for more nationally oriented solutions in case of violations. The SOLVIT information system was set up exactly for the purpose of overcoming obstacles to the functioning of the common market in a pragmatic and quick way, in particular when it comes to administrative issues.

 

 

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