Senior European political figures appealed yesterday for the EU to set aside lofty debate as it struggles with Brexit-style populism, and instead to focus on measures which clearly benefit citizens.
Leading the charge, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble – a linchpin of the Berlin coalition government – scorned “political sermons”, institutional reform and changes to EU treaties as proposed fixes for Europe’s faultlines.
“This is not a time for grand visions,” the 73-year-old veteran minister, long a passionate supporter of the European project, told Welt am Sonntag weekly.
“The situation is so serious that we have to stop playing the usual European and Brussels games,” Schaeuble said. “The EU is facing an acid test, perhaps the greatest in its history.”
Schaeuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said that the EU had to work “with speed and pragmatism” to unlock growth and thus create jobs.
He sketched initiatives from a common energy policy to job training to harmonising national defence procurements.
The CDU’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, meanwhile stressed strengthening the safety net for the poor or unemployed – two big factors in the perceived collapse of confidence in the EU.
The goal must be to “not only create competition but also social security”, said Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, describing the crisis in Greece as a pointer of a possible north-south split in Europe.
In the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence, the European commissioner for economic policy, Pierre Moscovici, called for “strong initiatives ... to reinvent Europe”.
“Status quo cannot be a reply to Brexit,” he said, referring to the June 23 referendum in which a majority of Britons voted to leave the EU.
The vote dealt a body-blow to European federalists, who want the bloc’s states to come into an ever-tighter embrace.
Critics of federalism have argued that many citizens are hostile to Euro-centralism.
They contend Brussels is not addressing concerns about jobs, living standards and migration.
Moscovici threw his weight behind widening and extending the so-called Juncker Plan – a scheme named after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker which uses EU funds as a lever for investment in areas such as energy, infrastructure and research.
The three-year plan, running from 2015 to 2018, has funds of €21bn ($23.39bn) from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank (EIB), with the hope that this will leverage private investment of €315bn.
In its current form, the Juncker Plan “is probably insufficient, both in scale and timeframe”, Moscovici told journalists at a business meeting in Aix.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde, who also attended the meeting, said that the EU had to do more to project its image so that citizens were more aware of some of the benefits of membership.
“When for instance the European Investment Bank makes very big investments in areas but doesn’t say very much and people aren’t aware of it, without there being a measure of Europe’s economic effectiveness, that’s incredible,” Lagarde said. “It means that the talk will continue to be about ‘excessive regulation, bureaucracy, it’s all Brussels’ fault’.”
Pollsters say regions of Britain such as Cornwall, Wales and Yorkshire which have been huge beneficiaries of EU funds were also those that voted hugely in favour of leaving the Union.
Lagarde said laconically that Britain’s exit should simplify decision-making in the EU.
“Now that the English have, in inverted commas, left ... at least there are a number of things that I’ve heard European commissioners say, one after another, ‘’it’s so complicated – we can’t do it because of the British’,” Lagarde said. “Perhaps there are now things that should be envisaged, as the British won’t be at the negotiating table.”
Lagarde did not elaborate, but French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said that the British departure could open the way to strengthening the eurozone.
“We have become a bit paralysed in thinking that there taboo geographical areas, and we have spent months and months not daring to meet as members of the eurozone, thinking it would upset the Poles and British.”
Moscovici reiterated ideas for boosting the 19-country eurozone, with a common budget and a “common economic policy”.
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