By Syed Kamall, MEP for London and chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group
So what is the state of the Union? In the spirit of British understatement, things have been better. On Wednesday morning, we will hear from Mr Juncker. A lot can happen in a year, but I feel that few of the events that we have seen have marked any real progress.
The EU still stands on a cliff edge of public opinion, with a debt crisis that rumbles on, a migration and asylum crisis which it struggles to control, and Russia biting at the heels of the EU’s external borders. There have been some very near misses in member states in general elections, unemployment is still too high, increasing costs of living, delays in the adoption of vital trade agreements, and a summer of horrific terrorist attacks, which have highlighted just how vulnerable we are.
Of course, it is all too easy to list problems, but the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) Group – which I lead – believes that this State of the Union speech should force the EU to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and really evaluate what the EU is doing and where it is going. It seems that we talk about the same challenges year after year, but they continue and deepen. Perhaps if we stopped the navel-gazing and paused before continuing to walk along the same well-trodden path of more regulation and a growing EU budget, and instead looked up at what is happening in the rest of the world, then we could find a better path forward. One which regains the confidence of our voters, one which allows entrepreneurs and companies to create sustainable jobs and opportunity, and one which creates a European Union of cooperation rather than top-down lawmaking.
But this cannot be achieved if Brussels continue to be a Union of pet projects, of advancing the European Project of creating a pan-EU government at any cost, and a refusal to accept that sometimes the EU has just got it wrong.
Now is the moment that the ECR Group would like to see the EU choose to change direction for the better. Earlier this year President Juncker brought out his paper on the Future of Europe. This could be an important step moving forward, or it could be a missed opportunity. That is up to EU leaders and the EU institutions to decide.
But if the Brussels elite would just listen to what voters in our countries are saying, they would realise it is time for radical change. Time to focus on what is truly important, that Brussels and the EU could be so much more effective if it would just do less, and do it better.
I am hopeful that the predicted emphasis of President Juncker’s speech on international trade, is a sign that the European Commission will be looking to do more to make the EU a place that attracts business, growth and opportunity. Even though my country the UK will be leaving the EU in 2019, as a future neighbour who wishes to see a prosperous EU with whom the UK can trade and cooperate, I would like nothing more than to stand here in 12 months time and see that the European Union has taken that first important step in listening, in reforming, and growing stronger as a consequence.
I believe that an approach, where the EU focuses on what Member States and their people believe they first signed up for, could really help the EU reconnect with citizens in all its countries. For every new piece of regulation, for every new ECJ judgement, for every new agency and department that has opened, the people have grown to feel more and more disconnected from the EU.
The ECR Group and its members have shown an unprecedented expansion for a new political group in the European Parliament’s history. That growth mirrors the growing desire by our voters for change.
EU leaders and President Juncker should be asking themselves, when the UK leaves the EU, is it really the best use of its resources to replace the 73 UK members of Parliament with new EU wide Members, and a continuation of the costly trek to Strasbourg 12 times a year.
Do the people of EU countries want another costly agency such as an EU FBI, or do they want national police forces to better cooperate across borders; by increasing the competence of those national agencies that others are reluctant to share information with; using the networks we already have in place, and invest resources where appropriate in a EUROPOL, that cooperates with its non-EU neighbours.
While voters in EU countries understand the need for regulations that make us safer or that stop exploitation, do they really welcome those regulations that are overly prescriptive on the sale of goods and services, and that might make businesses reluctant to hire extra workers, or do they want initiatives which help to train up our work force in an evolving and technological focused world, offering apprenticeships and support for entrepreneurs. And do such initiatives need to come from the EU or does the EU have a role to play in helping those EU countries that have a poor record in getting their people into work?
Do the people want the EU to push forward with a refugee relocation scheme which doesn’t work, has divided EU governments, and doesn’t tackle the root cause of the problem; or do they want us to focus on providing humane facilities for arriving asylum seekers, on increasing the rate of returns for economic migrants who do not qualify to stay – and are simply attempting to jump the queue over those who have applied legally – and tackle the roots causes such as human traffickers and criminal networks.
So much of this seems like common sense, yet so little of it seems to be the focus of our efforts. The ECR group’s hopes for this year’s State of the Union and the next 12 months is that we finally turn a corner. That we realise that rules from Brussels should not seek to fill every corner of our lives with regulation and rules, and that the EU does not need to replace but should seek to complement our national governments to be valuable and effective. If this happens, then next year, I will be one of the first people to walk over to the President of the European Commission to shake his hand. As a far more eloquent Englishman than I once said, “hope springs eternal”.
How Kamall thinks Juncker should begin his speech
“Today marks a turning point for the future of the Europe Union.
“For too long, the EU institutions and laws made here in Brussels, have been disconnected from the voters.
“The challenges we face are many and complex, but it is not too late to change direction, and chart the right course.
“The EU should be a beacon of global free trade, of fiscal responsibility, of opportunity and tolerance, of small but effective governing.
“The EU should seek to complement its national governments, not replace them.
“The EU should seek to provides laws which works within the confines of their budgets and their competences.
“Today, is the day when we restore the faith of our citizens, and choose to do less but do better.”