Contemporary challenges within the EU

Contemporary challenges within the EU

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission
  • Frans Timmermans © European Union 2016 - European ParliamentFrans Timmermans © European Union 2016 - European Parliament

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, joined students of the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po on February 25th.

The conference, introduced by Yann Algan, dean of the School of Public Affairs and moderated by Renaud Dehousse, Director of the Centre d'études européennes at Sciences Po, touched on a range of issues that the EU is facing today. First Vice-President Timmermans called on the importance of coherent and collective action in creating solutions to these challenges. Echoing his 2015 publication on "brotherhood", First Vice-President Timmermans concluded that solidarity and tolerance are key elements in building modern European societies.

Read the article written by Vasiliki Kladi and Pierre-Adrien Hanania, students of the Master in European Affairs of the School of Public Affairs:

An ode to youth and brotherhood: Frans Timmermans at Sciences Po

Frans Timmermans is far from one of those opportunistic politicians who exploit wide public interest in the EU for personal interest - the presentation of the Vice-President of the European Commission at the conference "Fraternité : l'Europe face à la crise du vivre ensemble" at Sciences Po, is telling of that fact.

A more tolerant and organized European society for a better european future

The Commissioner was there not to discuss technical dossiers, but to expose Europeans - and young Europeans in particular - to the contemporary challenges of ‘living together’ in the Union. When questioned on his motivation in undertaking the daunting task, the Commissioner reaffirmed his (pro-)European DNA, along with his refusal to choose between the different cultures that have forged his identity. “It’s an impossible choice,” he remarks, referring to reflections on being both father and son.

The concept of borders, given the above, is not explicitly contradictory in this context. After all, the peoples of Europe could not exist as they are, without this concept. However, the kind of borders that eventually ensure there is mutual respect among states, must go hand in hand with another kind, which are more open: “To note the richness of one’s own culture is to accept the friction with those who are different.” To that extent, if intellectual exchange among Europeans were instead to be closed off and constricted out of fear of a loss of identity, then borders would precipitate a loss of diversity and a subversion of the future of the Union.

It is on the fringe of this thought that Frans Timmermans endeavoured to write an ode to ‘brotherhood’, in his homonymous pamphlet published in 2015. In the quest for this value of brotherhood, and the construction of coherent and cohesive bonds in Europe, youth has a central role to play and must demonstrate responsibility, to ensure a brighter future: “Otherwise there are others who will form our future,” according to Mr Timmermans. It is imperative, within society, to assert the will to forge ahead and oppose extremist currents of thought and politics that try to sell narratives of “a past that has never existed.” For this to be attainable, the Commissioner makes an appeal to the self-confidence of his audience, despite a broader contemporary context that all but favours this type of optimism.

In fact, Mr Timmermans warns of a social and economic mirage that threatens modern-day youth: there is a very real sentiment of downward social mobility, insofar as “it is not certain that everyone who has a place in the economy today will have one tomorrow.” At this moment though, young people still harbour high hopes, and to capitalise on this the Commissioner urges that “the task you [youth] will have, during your entire life, is to create the conditions for the great majority of our society to find a place in the economy.” He also notably cites the concepts of the circular economy and the service economy; concepts that can be utilised to cope with the increasing labour supply of a expanding global demographic trends.

Evidently, the challenge is not a small one, and when Commissioner Timmermans issues a call for commitment to this daunting task we are remind that it is at the face of this difficulty that populism flourishes - given easy solutions constitute the essence of its success. 

The importance of youth, long-termed vision and collective action

And indeed there are links to be drawn between the rise of these movements and the impasse that political ‘vivre ensemble’ in Europe has reached, according to Frans Timmermans. The massive popular support that these political movements elicit confirms that responsibility lies not just with political leadership. “We are all guilty,” he reminds us. The root of economic hardship Europe is traversing lies less with austerity and more with the irresponsible politics which brought it on. And in fact, Commissioner Timmermans once again sees again younger generations at the core of the solution, to exit the aforementioned impasse. These are, most importantly, generations that are “more gifted [skilled] than ever”, but also less organised and “much more eclectic” - be that meticulous or fastidious, depending on the Commissioner’s interpretation.

Notably, there are two competing currents - of pro- and anti-European thought and politics, without any attempt to unite them. Any attempt to reconcile divergent visions though, and to establish some cohesion among young people “presupposes the will to look through others’ eyes”, as Mr Timmermans remarks quite astutely.

On the subject of political action though, there is a question of what the appropriate timeframe for it is - the short- or the medium-term. Frans Timmermans responds on two levels. On one, political institutions would have lost sense of each of these ‘terms’ because of the fear of electoral defeat, at the end of each electoral term. Therefore, it would be necessary to reach some form of political consensus which would allow a long-term vision to be attainable, without as much uncertainty in the short-run. On another level though, the Commissioner defended short-term action as inevitable, especially if we are to adequately respond to modern challenges such as the refugee crisis. “If the house is on fire, we cannot discuss long-term security strategies. We have to call the fire brigade.” The major problem henceforth on the European stage, where the norm is becoming for every country to fend for itself, “Decisions are being made but not implemented. There is a need for political leadership, on the national level, that is willing to take action for international solutions.”

Equally, on the same topic of European divisions, Frans Timmermans was also questioned on the concept of Europe of two speeds, which he definitively claims already exists. “We have coalitions of the winning, and the UK and Denmark already have theirs opt-outs.” And in order to advance in Europe, it is most important, according to the Commissioner, to ponder that “we are in a Europe that is diverse, a Europe that is pluralistic. We need to accept that as a fact of life.” Besides, this pluralism does not detract at all from the normative striking force of the EU, or from its capacity “to take decision collectively and to enforce these decisions.” There are multiple sources of criticism, but in any case, collective action must pass by Brussels. Unilateral action eventually always imperils the Member State that chose it - a tendency we already discern given the “tough test” of the refugee crisis. There also seems to be popular support for collective action across Europe, except the EU hardly ever reaches consensus, thus leaving nations to decide and act in isolation.

“It’s in your hands”

The resounding conclusion - to act together and to act now. The Vice-President of the European Commission followed the thread that lead from his ode to youth and brotherhood - and remained consistent to these ideals - throughout the conference. Before departing from the stage, even, he made a last appeal to the audience: “It’s in your hands!”




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