On Monday, March 4, 2019, the Transatlantic Dialogue Program of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation welcomed Michael Link MP to Washington, DC for a discussion on the upcoming European Parliamentary Election to be held in May of 2019, the current challenges facing the European Union, and approaches to handling these challenges from the perspective of Germany’s Free Democratic Party.
The EU and the US need to build a culture of trust in each other as equal partners on defense, security, and trade because each faces the same global problems and will solve them more effectively through cooperation. From the perspective of the FDP, the EU as it is currently structured does not have the tools at its disposal to respond adequately to contemporary challenges, particularly in the areas of security, defense, and trade. The upcoming election in May will present the opportunity to develop these tools and create a balance between further decentralization and further integration of the EU member states.
The EU needs to balance continually between decentralization and integration of the member states according to the specific issue at hand. Decisions regarding economic and social affairs, such as taxation, social welfare, and education should be made on the level of the individual member states, while further European integration is needed in the areas of defense and national security.
A path to integrate further in Europe on defense and national security would be to increase defense spending in Germany and revise the procurement scheme in order to work together in financing jet planes and combat tanks for the next generation. In terms of reforming the leadership structure, the EU should have a Minister of Foreign Affairs so that it can present a coherent, unified position on issues in international affairs. Currently, the EU requires a majority and a consensus vote in the Council of Ministers, which is often not achieved. In the past week, the EU disagreed and could not reach consensus on three major issues: the recognition of Juan Guaidó as President of Venezuela (blocked by Italy); the joint declaration with the Arab League on Migration (blocked by Hungary); along with the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, also blocked by several member states. In addition, the EU aims to strengthen the European pillar of NATO and take into account the members who are not part of NATO. Working through disagreements among the member states can help to strengthen the EU and reach a higher level of integration.
On economic and social affairs, the EU needs to take a more decentralized approach and create a better framework for promoting business and scientific research in the areas of artificial intelligence and data protection. By contrast, in Germany, the Green Party and Social Democratic Party will be campaigning on a European-wide minimum wage and European-wide standards on social welfare, promoting a “national champion” economic policy. The Free Democratic Party in Germany opposes integration in this area and will be campaigning on further decentralization on these issues.
Along with the need to balance the demands of the member states, the Brexit negotiations will affect the upcoming European Parliamentary elections. The EU does not want to reschedule or delay the elections due to Brexit because this might bring legal challenges from the courts. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is lacking a majority, and having more time for the negotiations will not necessarily bring one about. Brexit will be a lose-lose situation for both UK and EU citizens, especially in business, when investments are withdrawn from the UK. In Germany, the Free Democratic Party has demonstrated that its members are ready to reform the EU and work together with the UK. The EU will also be worse off without the UK when it comes to defense and trade. Even if the UK and EU reach a deal, there are 165 international agreements that will need to be negotiated. The international treaties that need to be re-affirmed will also need the ratification from all of the members. Even if all of these agreements are successfully ratified, the outcome of Brexit is a worse situation for everyone involved. In addition, the EU is a larger market than the UK’s other trading partners. The idea of “global Britain” will end in “little England”, with both the independence movement in Scotland growing and an unpredictable situation in Ireland taking shape.
Due to these problems, the EU is insisting on a backstop solution with Northern Ireland. The backstop solution is very beneficial for the Irish citizens because they will be fully integrated in both the EU and UK markets. The EU hopes that the Northern Irish Members of Parliament in the House of Commons will see that having such a backstop solution is a better option than having no backstop and no deal because then the land border would have to be controlled in both countries. If there is no way back from Brexit with a second referendum, the next best solution would be the customs union. The EU will try to come to a reasonable compromise with the UK, in which a customs union would deliver on the Brexit but remain together on some issues, including the single market.
The upcoming European Parliamentary election will feature ideologically diverse parties, which is a good outcome. The pro-EU parties in Germany (FDP, CDU, SPD and the Green Party) will need to differentiate their positions more clearly and have coherent messages in order to respond to the challenges from both the extreme right and extreme left on the political spectrum. In Germany, the extreme left is not so strong politically, but in France, Spain, and Italy, parties with extreme left positions will join in attempting to weaken European institutions. The upcoming elections could see a result between 30%-40% of Members in the European Parliament representing parties on the extreme left or right that actively seek to undermine the European Union institutions, rather than working together to reform them.
Despite internal disagreements on taxation and defense policies, the pro-EU parties need to cooperate on European integration in order to mitigate the more extreme positions on the political spectrum that are growing in prominence and undermining European institutions. Through discussing shared concerns together in Washington, DC, European and American partners can continue to re-build trust in each other and foster a stronger partnership.
Transatlantic Dialogue Program, Friedrich Naumann Foundation