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A New Chance for European Politics

MADRID – Most political leaders in Europe want the European Union to emerge from its current crisis stronger and more united. But the economic policies that have been implemented in most EU countries since the crisis began have given rise to an unprecedented threat to deeper integration – and, indeed, to what already has been achieved.

After five years of financial and economic crisis, anti-European politics has come resoundingly to the fore in many EU countries – France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria, Holland, Finland, Greece, Portugal, and even Germany. Growing institutional disaffection has become a corrosive reality almost everywhere in Europe. The only way to overcome Europe’s existential crisis, and to respond to citizens’ demands for change, is to confront Europe’s domestic opponents head-on: politics without palliatives.

Europe needs, first and foremost, to break the vicious circle of recession, unemployment, and austerity that now has it in its grip. That means, first of all, refocusing economic policy on growth, employment, and institutional innovation. It is impossible to advance toward political union while seeming to abandon Europe’s citizens along the way, which is the impression that unremitting austerity has created. Sacrifice, too many Europeans believe, is not laying the groundwork for a better, more prosperous Europe, but is dragging them into a fatal tailspin.

European leaders cannot remain passive in the face of the dangerous populist tsunami now crossing the continent, and they know it. There is still time to react – by demonstrating strong leadership and prioritizing growth over short-sighted policies – but that time is limited and the clock is ticking.

Next year will be crucial, for it will mark the end of the current political cycle and the beginning of a new one. There will be a new German government, European Parliament elections, and, at the end of the year, a new European Commission. It is here that political leaders should devote their efforts.

No one wants the EU to fail because of its citizens’ disaffection. To take advantage of the political opportunity offered in 2014 requires launching an open, pedagogical effort now. European citizens have already shown a sense of responsibility and capacity for sacrifice, but they should know why hope – in the form of higher employment and living standards – is not futile.

If that does not happen, next year’s European elections may give rise to an unfortunate paradox. Just when, as a result of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament gains more power than it has ever had, the risk of it being condemned to irrelevance is greatest. If, reflecting the mood in the member states, the elections result in a fragmented Parliament – possibly rendered less representative by low voter turnout – paralysis, disaffection, and ineffectiveness are guaranteed.

That is why Europe’s leaders should take advantage of the coming political cycle to correct Europe’s institutional design and strengthen its democratic legitimacy, thereby enabling them to respond to Euro-skepticism and ad hoc bilateral deals with more integration. If Europeans are to overcome their fear of giving up sovereignty in order to achieve political union, a civic sense of attachment to Europe and its institutions must be regained and nurtured.

Achieving this requires, among other things, the recovery of the Franco-German axis as Europe’s driving force. It also presupposes a European budget that is sufficient to meet expectations and equal to the challenges that await. Resolving these issues is as important as resolving individual countries’ economic problems. Indeed, they are in large part the same problem.

Institutions are legitimized in part by their effectiveness, and the EU must recover its authority to defend common interests and harmonize them with national concerns. The European Parliament can exercise its power only if citizens feel represented there. As Kemal Derviş, a vice president of the Brookings Institution, recently put it: “If independent technocrats are allowed to determine long-term policy and set objectives that cannot be influenced by democratic majorities, democracy itself is in serious jeopardy.”

Next year will also mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. From that moment until the present, Europe has both endured the worst and enjoyed the best of its history. We should bear in mind the enormous symbolism of this date in order to understand how much Europe has changed – and, at the same time, to recognize the need to defend those changes.

The EU is one of the great political milestones of mankind. For this reason, and in order to emerge stronger from the difficult situation in which Europeans now find themselves, Europe’s leaders must work with the conviction that the future is inexorably linked to a more integrated and more capable Union.