BERLIN – Though Emmanuel Macron looked poised to win the French presidential election on a passionately pro-European agenda, he still felt compelled to criticize European Union “dysfunction” and call for “in-depth” reform of the bloc to prevent Marine Le Pen from making a comeback and breaking it up. That’s in line with what European voters throughout the bloc are thinking. The EU is already changing to accommodate them, but it’s moving too slowly and it’s bad at selling the change to the public. It needs to do a better job for Macron’s victory not to go to waste.
The results of a March poll of 28,000 Europeans, done by the Kantar Public research group, show that pro-EU sentiment is back at the 2007 level after a dip following the global financial crisis. Some 57 percent of respondents said their countries’ membership of the EU is “a good thing.” Just 14 percent believe it’s a bad thing. Positive sentiment is up 4 percentage points since last year.
Most of this effect can probably be written off as a reaction to Brexit, which has shown many in the remaining EU countries where they don’t want to go. Significantly, about half of Europeans still think the EU is going in the wrong direction (4 percentage points less than last September, but still a plurality; only 25 percent say the union is on the right track).
That attitude informs Macron’s comments and serves as a constant irritant for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In his speech at the EU’s State of the Union conference in Florence on Friday, he referred to “this valley of tears in which we are all criticized and torn to shreds.”
The EU is often accused of directing a fire hose of regulations at European citizens and companies. Le Pen’s National Front has said 80 percent of France’s laws are imposed by Brussels; the real proportion is closer to a third (though the EU’s own estimate is 20 percent). There are (in the United Kingdom estimates range from 13 percent to nearly 70 percent), but what’s clear is that a large share of national law flows from Brussels.
The Juncker Commission has been trying to reduce the flow. In 2013, the year before Juncker was elected, the EU produced 2,209 legal acts, roughly in line with a decade’s annual production rate. In 2016, that number was down to 2,049. That’s still a lot of regulations; the French parliament passed 108 laws and 4,109 amendments in the year-long legislative session of 2015-2016. Though the Juncker commission is proud of its “better regulation” initiative, it has only resulted in the repeal of 32 “outdated” laws so far and a slight unclogging of the regulatory pipeline.
Another major criticism of the EU is that it’s unable to protect its borders. In part thanks to joint European efforts, both in deal-making with Libya and Turkey and in patrolling the Mediterranean, this criticism has died down somewhat. After an enormous peak in 2015 and 2016, migrant arrivals by sea are below the 2014 level. But the EU is not in a position to sell this success to the public: Voters with a low tolerance for immigrants in general haven’t internalized the migrant population increase from a year and two years ago. It’s pointless to tell these voters that the crisis is over until the people who came in that wave have had a chance to integrate better than they’ve been able to do in this short time. Meanwhile, the squalid conditions of camps in Greece and Turkey suggest refugees are paying a high price for the EU’s arrangements.
Yet another criticism reflected in the Kantor survey is that many Europeans don’t feel their voice counts in the EU. Even though about 60 percent of respondents knew that the directly elected (and increasingly assertive) European Parliament votes for the European Commission president, only 43 percent said they believed their voice meant anything in Brussels, and 53 percent believed it didn’t. The balance is gradually shifting in favor of the EU, but Europeans still believe democracy works better in their home countries (63 percent say their voice counts there).
Again, the EU in its current shape cannot do much about that perception. There are about 55,000 EU civil servants for the bloc’s 500 million population, a far smaller proportion than members have. But given the EU’s limited functions and smaller responsibility even that is quite an army to feed and explain.
Juncker, who recently published a white paper on the future of the European Union, expects national leaders to tell him what to do next. But who will take up that baton?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t want to dictate general EU policies: Anti-German sentiment is already strong in the south and east of the continent. Macron will be hemmed in by a fractious French parliament that may render him incapable of action. Juncker has already served half of his term as president, and he’s proved a mediocre salesman for the reforms he’s undertaken. It will fall to his successor to propose a plan that would enable the bloc to intervene more in areas where voters want it to do so. According to the Kantar poll, these areas include, above all, unemployment, tax fraud, terrorism and migration issues. The French commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, recently wrote a column proposing the creation of a euro area finance ministry and budget by 2021 — an arrangement that would enable the EU to acquire a more visible role in fixing social problems.
But any such moves would need to be accompanied by major, not incremental, reductions in unnecessary regulatory activity and probably serious staff cuts in areas where voters don’t see a big EU role. The EU is getting a boost from Brexit, which has helped pro-European politicians from the Netherlands to Bulgaria win elections. These centrist victories — and especially Macron’s because of France’s importance to the bloc — will, in turn, amplify pro-European sentiment. Things will look rosy for some months. But the EU, too, needs to act to build on this support. Centrists may find it harder to win next time if they don’t get meaningful help from Brussels — something that’s not really forthcoming from Juncker.
Berlin-based Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.