Wanted in Europe: leadership

EU leaders should humbly respect the UK referendum result and see that the EU strives to reconnect its leadership, polices and institutions with its citizens

Brexit leaders Nigel Faraga and Boris Johnson, out; EC president Jean-Claude Juncker: can he propel the Union forward?
Brexit leaders Nigel Faraga and Boris Johnson, out; EC president Jean-Claude Juncker: can he propel the Union forward?

When historians come to discuss Brexit they may crudely split it into four parts. The first, David Cameron’s shameful populism to save his political skin at the last general election – by promising to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership without having the political courage to negotiate better conditions for his country as an EU member.

Secondly, the rise of showbiz politicians – the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage who led people to believe that Brexit would work in their favour, which clearly it would not. Third, how the Brits, after decades of cold approach to the European project, are now shocked by the result to the extent that a new, EU-friendly Britain has been born. ‘Brexit not in my name’ is trending on Twitter. Millions of Brits, mostly young people, are eager to correct the failures of their elders.

Fourth, how the EU – due to its bureaucratic and inefficient institutions – grew distant from the needs and aspirations of its citizens. 

Bleak outlook

Economic suicide, in free fall without a parachute – the death metaphors are flowing from political analysts, business and political leaders following the Brits’ decision to leave the EU. The Brexit decision has rattled the world and it will have a negative impact on the UK’s and the EU’s economy – as the fallout of this decision is likely to be felt for years to come. Brexit would also have a major negative effect on Malta as once the UK leaves the EU, Malta will have lost its strongest ally in the bloc.

The big picture is admittedly frightening: the bleak outlook for the UK economy, and in particular the financial sector. The EU is facing the gravest crisis since its inception. Aside from the economic impact of Brexit, another grave concern is geopolitical, especially if other member states head for exit. Despite its flaws, the EU has helped keep the peace in Europe for decades. 

Vengeful hysteria

What is equally shocking is the EU leaders’ reaction to Brexit. There is vengeful hysteria amongst the Brussels top elite following the UK’s EU referendum result. President Jean Claude Juncker was quick to declare that Britain should leave the EU without further delay. 

Juncker’s statement epitomizes all that is wrong with the EU’s top, unelected officials. Instead of playing the bully and projecting the EU as an exclusive club, Juncker and his colleagues should, first and foremost, be looking at solutions, and equally important asking themselves why millions of EU citizens feel alienated from Brussels and its institutions. 

Juncker’s insistence that the UK withdraws from the EU as soon as possible by triggering Article 50, would almost certainly trigger a domino effect as euro sceptic parties across Europe will see it as an opportunity to call new referenda on their country’s EU membership. Common sense scoffs at such possibilities.

Miles apart

There’s something distasteful in projecting yourself as the epitome of democracy, and then when you don’t agree with a decision taken by the people in a democratically held referendum, instantly join the chorus of bashing people for their decision. Juncker and Martin Schultz have been promising to bring the EU closer to the people. Their actions don’t fit their words. The stark truth is that they failed miserably. They are presiding over a European Union Commission which is miles apart from the needs, challenges and aspirations of its citizens.

It portrays itself as being way too focused on unnecessary laws and regulations. It is the disjunction between values and actions that is so damaging for the EU and its leaders. They claim to believe in the individual sovereignty of member states, social justice and solidarity, yet their record shows inconsistencies on all three. 

People first

The rise of the far right in many EU member states is also the result of failed EU policies. The dignified thing for Juncker, Schultz and their colleagues to do is to refocus on the issues that matter to people. The EU may have been disappointing. But it isn’t a disaster. Since its inception from the ruins of the Second World War, it has brought about peace and prosperity. But for the past decade, it focused its attention solely on financial and economic measures – mostly austerity measures putting aside its social model.

This record in itself is enough to alienate voters across its member states. The far right in France and Sweden has seen a steady surge in support, whilst in Italy Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Stelle ‘movement’ has shored up support, winning the key cities of Milan and Rome. People have become too confused and disillusioned. It’s time to give the EU back to the people. 

Not more Europe

Extraordinary times call for far-reaching solutions. For people facing cuts in their wages and pensions, and millions of EU citizens struggling to make ends meet while the handful elite, and the EU’s unelected top officials, salaries continue to flow without restraint, talk of more Europe, as some Europhiles suggested, is not the solution.

To prevent the EU going into free fall, Juncker and his colleagues need to focus on people’s daily needs – helping those who have lost jobs and creating employment by implementing the right policies and putting social justice at the very top of their political agenda. They should spend less time munching on big abstract ideas with EU member state leaders, which are alien to its citizens, and more thinking about hard-pressed workers and their families. 

Unfortunately, EU citizens increasingly feel that a spectre is haunting the EU – the spectre of arrogance from its unelected leaders. Juncker’s initial reaction to Brexit showed an EU sleepwalking into another fiasco. Punishment and threat have defined the chosen tone. Unless EU leaders, especially those in Brussels, restore lost confidence of its citizens in their leadership and its institutions, other EU countries shall follow in Britain’s footsteps and that would be an economic and political disaster.  

The Brexit test

EU leaders, in Brussels and in the capital cities of its member states, have every reason to feel under greater pressure right now than they have ever been before. Brexit is a test of the EU leaders’ seriousness of intent. If Brexit goes through, the UK and EU need to redefine their relationship. Various options are being considered. 

A delicate balancing act is needed because as a non-EU member the UK cannot expect to enjoy the benefits of membership without obligations. The EU is not an à la carte menu. Free movement of people is one of the core values of the EU – and free movement seems to be unacceptable to the UK. However, the EU would do well to let the situation within the UK stabilize before negotiating the way forward. Rushed up decisions would only serve the purpose of making the situation messier than it already is.

A wake-up call

Brexit could be a wake-up call for the EU, setting Europe back on the path of job creation, social justice and solidarity whilst becoming more serious about the immigration issue. The challenge is formidable because the EU has failed its people. It has never been weaker – and now Brexit has weakened it more. Soul-searching is needed if the European project is to be conserved. Its current leaders seem to lack the skills needed to lead a 21st-century European Union. There is a remarkable lack of leadership.

The most obvious skill gaps are in communication and the ability to empathize with working men and women across the member states. All this is coming to a head. Today’s challenges – terrorism, lack of employment, climate change and immigration – cry out for a visionary EU. But many EU citizens feel that the EU, due to lack of leadership and vision, is unable to deliver on these issues that matter mostly to them. The EU’s founding fathers must be turning in their graves.

Instead of bullying Britain out of the EU, EU leaders should humbly respect the UK referendum result and see that the EU strives to reconnect its leadership, polices and institutions with its citizens. That would get the EU the most precious of things: confidence. Let the work of change begin.

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