European elections: one year on

It’s been a year since the European Elections of 2019 and it’s clear that much has changed across the continent. Even before the coronavirus epidemic, there was a shift taking place in the political arena.

Across Europe, conservative parties are having a renaissance. In the recent elections in Slovakia, a new centre-right government has taken over, with a staunch fiscal conservative taking over the finance ministry in the form of my old colleague Richard Sulik. Whilst in Italy, the Fratelli d’Italia party, or Brothers of Italy, is reaching new record heights in the opinion polls.

Were European Elections to be held today the results would undoubtedly be different, least of all for my own political alliance which would increase in size. However, the overall shape of the European Parliament would be different as well. MEPs with mandates on the centre-right would increase – with most of those also bringing with them the message that the European Union needs to reform.

We can see in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland, and the Netherlands increasing calls for reform being translated into vote shares. Even during the coronavirus epidemic – most have turned to the comfort of their national governments for support first. The demand for change is there but it seems as though the European Union is so far unwilling to listen.

This has been evident during the current crisis. The changes that have come with the coronavirus have shown the need for caution when dealing with the European Union. Throughout the crisis, the Commission has tried to sneak through reforms and structural changes as emergency measures, even though these have always been on the agenda.

The worse instance of this has been the renewed calls by the European Commission to introduce measures by which they can raise their own resources through EU level taxes, including taxes unrelated to the crisis on plastic and corporation earnings. Equally, we have seen them attempt to push through the European Green Deal, rebranded as the ‘Green Recovery’. Rather than approach things with due process, they have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Or perhaps the worst act of all during this crisis, the soft approach taken by the European External Action Service when dealing with China. Twice now we have seen Beijing influence the language used by European diplomats during this crisis – with little to no repercussions. High Representative Josep Borrell has offered only limp apologies and weak excuses to his friendly approach to the Communist Regime in China – whilst at the same time continuing to undermine confidence in the office that he holds through his actions.

Now, more than ever, the European Union needs to be open to reform. The people of Europe are waking up to the fact that this Commission is simply not up to the job. Their slow response to the crisis resulted in a mass loss of confidence from citizens who were most in need and showed immense weakness on the world stage by giving in to the demands of China. Such a crisis of confidence in EU institutions can only create more problems, including disunity and leave us open to outside influence.

We need to see new ideas being put forward by the Commission on how to make Europe work for everyone, rather than simply recycling the same line on “ever closer union” that they have been using for the last half-century. We must be looking at how we can go back to basics with Europe and promote a European Union of sovereign states working together on issues that matter.

When this crisis is over – we must look at what went wrong and what went right. I believe that the greatest area of strength was the way in which EU members voluntarily came together to offer support. From Polish doctors working round the clock in Italy, to Czech and Slovak medical equipment being distributed in Spain. We have seen what can be achieved when Europe works together on a voluntary basis without the interference of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Equally, the possibility of financial support and the loosening of regulations, including on state aid, has helped to prevent worse damage to our economies. However, we have seen over 50% of that money set aside for those purposes used in Germany which risks unbalancing the internal market in their favour. Of course, we will still need to do much work to recover from the hit that we have all taken as a result of the lockdowns – but through mutual cooperation this is possible.

The strength of the European Union is in a support role for its member states, not as a master telling them what to do. We need the EU to be responsive to the needs of the Member States and to work as a vehicle through which cooperation can take place in order to create a Europe that ultimately does less but better.