Debating the future of Europe: Perspectives ahead of the 2019 elections

With the European elections a little more than six months away, AmCham EU and EURACTIV recently hosted a lively debate on the future of Europe. Brian Maguire of Euractiv moderated the discussion between leaders from the four main European political groups as they shared their views on a wide range of topics, from EU values and the European economy to populism, migration, disinformation and more.

The event was opened with the launch of AmCham EU’s Agenda for Action 2019-2024. The comprehensive publication gives AmCham’ recommendations to European policymakers on driving the European political and policy agenda over the next five years, outlining four key areas for moving Europe forward: empowering people, boosting the Single Market, leading global co-operation and investing in the future.

As the four leaders introduced themselves, Antonio López-Istúriz White MEP, Secretary-General of the EPP Party, reminded the audience how cold it is outside the EU but that “United we will survive. Together we have an opportunity”. Hans van Baalen MEP, President of the ALDE Party, concurred with a message that “Member States can’t do it alone. We have to do it together. But we have to offer citizens results”.

Mercedes Bresso MEP, Vice-President of the S&D Group, took that reminder one step further saying, “We have to show our citizens we can go beyond the current crisis”. She was referring to, among other things, the rise of populism on the back of growing dissatisfaction and growing feelings that Europe’s economic growth is not benefitting all. 

Reminding the audience of Europe’s economic diversity, Jan Zahradil MEP, President of ACRE, emphasised his view that the EU is sometimes “over ambitious when it comes to the political dimension of the integration” and “has to be patient”as it is not a question for five or ten years but instead for generations.

The European economy

When asked about economic growth, the panel agreed on the import role SMEs have to play in Europe’s economic growth and their need for a simplified regulatory framework. “We believe SMEs are the core of EU growth and we have to support them,” said López-Istúriz White. “We want to lower taxes and to cut red tape.” Van Baalen added, agreeing that while SMEs are key at both a national level and European level, they can’t cope with the administrative red tape and with being taxed more and more.

Zahradil suggested Europe should “remove all redundant, invalid or outdated regulations” because reviewing the EU’s regulatory framework to make it simpler and more flexible would boost the economy.

Industry 4.0

Asked whether Europe’s economy is ready for Industry 4.0, the political leaders turned their thoughts to trade and to investment. “We need free markets and it is better for the US economies that we have free trade because to protect has never served anybody,” noted van Baalen.

Discussing investment and noting the limits of the EU budget, Zahradil suggested restructuring the budget towards innovation, science and technology to boost the economy, with “real investment in innovation schemes in scientific research”.

Focusing on the social impact of Industry 4.0, Bresso emphasised that “while Industry 4.0 needs a lot of investment in the digital agenda, we also need to invest in preparing our citizens. A little later in the debate, she explained how she felt investment in people was probably far more important than investment in structure because now is “a very difficult moment for people to adapt”.

EU values

When the discussion turned to EU values, Bresso’s list included the rule of law, inclusivity and democracy, noting that “We need to invest in European people to reduce inequalities between citizens, between regions, between states”.

Van Baalen, made the point that there are instead universal values that “apply to every country”. He noted that democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties and human rights must be applied inside the EU.

Disinformation

With the elections looming, the leaders want a clear and honest debate with European citizens. “A high turnout is most important,” states Bresso. “We must lure people to the ballot box. We must be open and show we can bring European solutions”.

But the challenge of combatting disinformation is on everybody’s minds, though there were differing views on the potential impact of ‘fake news’. While Spain’s López-Istúriz White felt fake news had played a key role in Spain’s Catalan referendum, Czech MEP Zahradil, who revealed he had grown up under a Communist regime and surrounded by false propaganda, felt propaganda could not “substantially change a political climate in a democratic country”.

The panel, however, agreed that something needed to be done about fake news in the short term with the elections approaching fast so European citizens make an informed decision at the ballot box.

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