Florence (Italy), 7–8 May 2018

 

The Slovenian Paneuropean Movement organised on 7 and 8 May 2018 the second international conference as part of the JOCICEF project under the title Euroscepticism and its role in integrating the European Union. The conference, co-funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme, featured discussions on the rise and dangers of Euroscepticism in the European Union, the role of the media in addressing this phenomenon and in the European integration process, as well as the perspectives of other global players about the EU. The event, which took place at the University of Florence, was attended by 68 participants from 7 countries.

 

The first session, which took the form of a citizens’ agora and was entitled European Union and its perspectives, was aimed at debating the future of the EU, the presence and roots of Euroscepticism in Member States and European institutions, and the perception of the EU among citizens.

 

Laris Gaiser, the President of the Slovenian Paneuropean Movement, stressed that the Paneuropean manifesto from 1923 highlights certain facts that are still highly relevant in today’s context (e.g. the issue of maintaining peace, the importance of European integration, social stratification). When we talk about Euroscepticism, we must first ask about the borders of Europe and the importance of closer integration of Europe, since they are an important factor in understanding this phenomenon. In a short experiment, Gaiser asked those in attendance how many of them considered themselves Eurosceptic. But although a relatively high number of people raised their hands, no one would want their country to leave the EU. A United States of Europe is a project that envisages a federal order in Europe. Member States often put the blame on European institutions’ decisions, but it is essentially still the states that decide on policies through the Council of the EU. As long as this is the case, Europe cannot become a true federation. Gaiser added that in the EU the awareness about sovereignty is increasing, since the EU needs to act united, and above all needs appropriate leadership and a clear vision if it wants to become a player on the same level as the USA, Russia, China and other superpowers.

 

Luciano Bozzo of the University of Florence (Italy) warned that, when talking about Euroscepticism, we need to be clear which Europe we are referring to: the EU as a project, or EU policies. European citizens often express disagreement with EU policies, while their attitude towards the EU as a project is positive. Citizens often feel that European policies are dictated from Washington. But it is interesting that, when asked whether they would prefer Berlin or Washington to have a bigger influence, most would choose the latter. According to Bozzo, this shows that the problem of the EU is internal, because we do not know exactly what we want. He gave the examples of Ukraine and the Western Balkans, where both the US and Russia have clear visions and interests, while the EU has no clear picture about what it wants to achieve. This is why particularly countries of the Western Balkans have problems since they get no clear guarantees regarding enlargement and European integration—this situation pushes them into the hands of alternative alliances, and spreads more and more doubt about the European project among their populations. Bozzo thus argued that it was not political leadership that was missing in the EU, but especially a European strategy and vision.

 

Trineke Palm of the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) explained that the future of Europe was based on past experience, since international politics is strongly tangled with emotions like anger, fear, or hope. This makes creating a common European future a complicated process. She pointed out that Coudenhove-Kalergi linked creating a European identity to the same values that build and maintain a family. This was clearly visible in the case of Brexit, where campaigns targeted the feelings with which people could easily identify: Remainers played on the fear of separation because the UK is stronger within the family of European states (economically, politically, socially, etc.), while Leavers bet on the disappointment and anger with the lack of responsibility on the side of members of the European family (if we go our separate way, we can decide on our own fate and will not depend on others). She concluded with a quote from Coudenhove-Kalergi’s 1923 book Pan-Europe, describing a United States of Europe as “the only escape from the present chaos, the only safeguard against the future collapse”.

 

 

 

Under the title What drives the political opposition towards the EU?, the second session saw a discussion on the rise of populist political parties with negative attitudes towards European integration.

 

Mattia Zulianello of the University of Florence (Italy) stressed that populism had spread into every part of society, but it was a shallow ideology. A link between populism and Euroscepticism exists, since highly populist parties are usually also Eurosceptic and give priority to national politics and solutions on the local level. The absence of a common European migration policy is currently wind in the sails of populist parties and enables their rise on the European level. The solutions they propose are local or national, but this only transfers the problems to other regions or states—this has a spill-over effect, as each state then tries to protect only itself. The first problem—which will be a hard nut for European leaders to crack—is rooting out populism on the national level, since populist parties have started forming European coalitions with other similar parties. Another problem is that populist parties stress and address only issues that appear in their particular state, making them appear as the main parties that are trying to solve them. Media play the biggest role in this by giving them a lot of attention, thereby popularising populism and Euroscepticism. This then also gets into the parts of society that are otherwise not opposed to European integration.

 

José-Apeles Santolaria de Puey y Cruells of the University of Barcelona (Spain) explained that populism was starting to be treated as the will of the people, which leads to populist leaders justifying their actions with the wishes and the will of the general population. But at the same time, the term populism is used as a synonym for demagogy. Populism was part of the Catalan independence rhetoric, which Catalan politicians thought would get them the support of the EU against Spain. However, the independence referendum showed that a large part of the electorate nevertheless did not support independence.

 

Adam Casals, former Catalan Ambassador in Austria, responded by asking whether there was any Spanish party that did not use populist tactics, noting that populism had crept into every aspect of politics. Populism targeting migrations in Catalonia is not justified, since Catalonia is a land of immigration and anyone can become Catalan. Casals added that Catalonia had lost a battle in its struggle for independence, but also stressed that a high share of Spain’s foreign direct investment was exactly in Catalonia. Casals argued that the approach of arresting everyone defending the idea of Catalan independence would damage European democratic standards. Law is not the same as justice, and things that are legal can sometimes be unjust. With respect to migrants, Casals pointed out that they must be treated humanely. We need a humane Europe and European institutions that can show sympathy. Borders are not immovable and they do change, he stressed.

 

 

 

The third panel, titled Euroscepticism and the role of the media, was aimed at considering how the media perceive and report about Euroscepticism and politics directed against European integration.

 

Massimo Balducci of the University of Florence (Italy) explained that Euroscepticism was very much alive, but what exactly it referred to was often blurred (policies, projects, European institutions, etc.). He pointed out that European institutions and European policies were always interpreted through the eyes of states, which leads to misunderstandings and even opposition. We should be aware that the EU will never be a “super state” that would replace nation states, but we should work on bringing different views as close together as possible. We do not yet know how we will achieve this, but some things will definitely need to be done differently than they are today, Balducci argued.

 

Patrick Bijsmans of the University of Maastricht (Netherlands) pointed out that Euroscepticism caused confusion and doubts both in Member States and in the EU. This is in part due to the media, and particularly the news that are still state-focused. Media in Member States mostly report on what happens on the national level, and much less on the developments on the European stage. A great weakness in the EU is the absence of common EU-wide news outlets, which allows Member States to interpret EU affairs as they wish.

 

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič of the newspaper Delo (Slovenia) said that one of the most frequent Google searches after the Brexit referendum was “What is the EU”. This shows to a certain extent how people think. With regard to Euroscepticism, he stressed that everyone should be sceptical. It is only a question towards what and to what extent.

 

Silvia Pezzoli of the University of Florence (Italy) said that the term Eurosceptic was too often confused with anti-European, even in the media. These are two different terms, each with its own, completely different connotations. She further stressed that EU institutions had not built a uniform institutional communication or practice that would help the media understand their work better by providing them with additional information, or correcting or warning them about errors. One of the factors contributing to the scepticism towards European integration and the EU in its current form is the poor understanding of how the EU functions compared to the understanding of nation states. Here, the media should play the most important role and should present European challenges in a way that citizens will feel they are their own, like national challenges.

 

 

 

The fourth panel, dubbed Perspectives about the EU from global players, focused on how the most important global actors see the EU, whether they perceive it as a single entity or a collection of individual states.

 

Daniela Vitiello of the University of Florence (Italy) explained that the EU was built on normative policies, aimed at building an area of peace. European policies are focused on educating people and giving them a European dimension of thinking. However, the risk of losing one’s own identity leads to a misunderstanding of the relation between national and European. The EU has set up the European External Action Service to communicate and interact with other countries of the world, but it is still quite ineffective because of the interests of individual EU Member States. Nevertheless, she stressed that this was still a good institution, as it builds on common interests and measures, even if only on the level of the lowest common denominator.

 

Daniela Irrera of the University of Catania (Italy) highlighted two key challenges for the EU when it comes to crises of European proportions: transparency and democratic deficit. In such cases, the EU invests a lot of money and energy in setting up committees and other bodies that are useless or inefficient. She illustrated this with the example of the relations between the EU and the countries of the South Mediterranean, where the EU still prefers bilateral agreements instead of common European ones. This gives these countries the perception that the EU is weaker than individual Member States. In this respect, the relations between the EU and the Middle East should be transformed if the EU wishes for the countries of this region to take it more seriously. Irrera concluded that what the EU needs at this point was not an institutional reform, only an appropriate institutional adjustment.

 

Davide Fiammenghi of the University of Bologna (Italy) illustrated how a stronger state can exert pressure over a weaker one with the example of China’s policy towards Japan. The EU can prevent this by acting as a single unit on the market and in politics. Of course, appropriate compromises need to be found among EU Member States, since different states face different problems (Greece and Italy have different issues than Sweden and Finland). But the EU must first consolidate internally (economic and political tensions and disagreements), as internal issues are vital for its existence. They are even more important than acting as a single player in international affairs or in the area of security and defence.

 

 

 

The fifth session was entitled EU security policy and its external borders—what signals for citizens? Its aim was to debate how the protection of external EU borders in the time of the refugee and migrant crisis affected citizens’ perception of security in the EU, and what is the connection between security and Euroscepticism.

 

Trineke Palm of the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) understands the crisis of European borders as a shift in European security policy from viewing security comprehensively to a policy of border security, where FRONTEX has taken the lead role. EU Member States could change their attitude and approach to exchange of information within the EU if they saw their own national interest in it. In this respect she highlighted the setting up of PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), which she sees as very promising, although it is still too early to judge its results. Moreover, she pointed out that we are not aware enough that it is worth fighting for the values of the EU, particularly for the freedom of movement, although ensuring a high standard of living also requires limiting it sometimes.

 

Andrea Foffano of the security studies department of ASCE Venice (Italy) explained that EUROPOL was a relatively small EU agency compared to others, but it was doing its job very well. He noted that the exchange of intelligence was not working today as it should, which is the reason for ever more vocal calls to establish a European central intelligence agency to facilitate work especially in the field of security policy. The issues of terrorism and intelligence require a special approach (definitely not a political one), because terrorism is a multidimensional and cross-border issue. With regard to migration, he said that demographic trends did indicate that Italy needs it. However, the government should also ensure appropriate solutions regarding jobs for migrants, he stressed.

 

As the last speaker, Igor Kovač of the University of Cincinnati (USA) summarised the main thoughts of previous panellists. The term Euroscepticism was first used in 1990. But it only spread into more common use after the signing of the Treaty of Nice, because it did not solve the institutional problems that had arisen. The key problem of the EU is normative: how can the EU call itself a normative power if our courts and institutions do not adhere to the same ethical principles. According to Kovač, norms are very important, as they can also be seen as a tool of power. The EU needed a shock like the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, because only this got it to start taking security policy seriously. However, it will take quite some time before the EU achieves PESCO objectives. If the EU wanted to catch up with the USA in terms of security and defence technology, Member States would need to dedicate around 5% of GDP for this for the next 10–20 years. But of course there is no political will to do this. Because this is a long and expensive process, Russia and China do not want to compete in the traditional military area, and rather focus on other areas, such as cyber. The EU should follow their example and find an area where it is already successful and build on this. The strategic context in which the EU must operate is more complex than ever.