The EU's problem is its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens

2 Dec 2011

Europe is not well: on top of the economic and financial crisis it is undergoing an existential crisis. Why?

What we have bungled over time is Europe's contact with people. The European Economic and Social Committee is something of an itching powder for Europe. As the only institution whose members are not politicians or senior officials, but people like you and me, we sense that very strongly. In 2008, I wrote a book with Bruno Vever called 'We must save the European citizen'. The problem begins there.

Was this the problem from the start?

Yes and it has grown worse over the past 20 years. The European Union has moved away from everything that could have earned citizens' support. The EESC proposed a European statute for companies, another for associations and a third for mutual benefit associations. These proposals were forgotten. The symbols were removed from the Constitutional Treaty by the heads of state and government although they weren't bothering anyone. Mr Papandreou was forced to drop his plans for a referendum. Consult citizens? Don't even consider it! They are far too stupid to understand. As for the citizens' initiative, an innovation of the Lisbon Treaty adopted in 2009, there is still no procedure for putting it in place. Nothing is done to ensure that people can identify with European integration. We show them a complicated Europe that is not made for them. The result is necessarily a lack of comprehension.

Any referendum today, wherever it might be organised, would crystallise rejection of Europe and marginalise proponents of integration.

I don't agree. The Greeks would have rejected the austerity plan, but not Europe. In all my travels, people from all backgrounds tell me the same thing: "We support Europe". People have common sense and understand that Europe is the solution. I also hear: "We support Europe but not that Europe!" There is a rejection of policies implemented so far. And this is where I find that the EU institutions have a great responsibility. Their role is not that of the OCDE that makes recommendations to states and tells them to do this or do that. In my way of thinking, it is up to the EU institutions to move towards greater integration.

Do you really sense an enthusiasm for Europe?

Yes, everywhere I go. Recently we organised a seminar – something I'm proud of – for around 50 young entrepreneurs from all over the European Union, not just from the 'Europe of six'. On their 'wish list' they put a European company statute in first place and a European government in second place. Believe me, people on the ground want a eurozone with integrated management, with a central bank that plays its role to the full, with common management of the debt. So we have to go forward, which requires political acts. And this is where we have a leadership problem in Europe.

What can you do at the European Economic and Social Committee?

In my case, I'm going to be a candidate for the committee's presidency. I want to launch concrete projects that promote the European identity and involve numerous sectors: young entrepreneurs, tourism, humanitarian aid, health, culture and the media. The European Union's problem is not its governance but its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. I would like for the EESC to help get the machine rolling again and to ask the institutions to speak on behalf of citizens, in citizens' language, taking account of the general interest, not the interests of markets. The EESC is described as a small institution with around 1,000 officials and a budget of €138 million. Yes, but it is the only institution headed by people from 'real life'. It is a tremendous asset and an extremely useful tool. Our work, which is determined by the treaties, is to give opinions along with the European Parliament. That means 200 to 300 opinions a year. But we haven't changed working methods since 1958. I find that the EESC should strengthen two of its missions: on the one hand, it should have a role of initiative and be able to propose new actions that take European integration forward, and on the other it should evaluate the impact of EU policies on citizens, without having to go through the states, as the European Commission is obliged to do. We have our networks – employers' organisations, unions, associations – and we have better insight into realities on the ground. We can add our stone to the edifice of a European Union that is more a union of peoples than a union of states.

Media Europolitics
Interviewee Henri Malosse, President Employers Group