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Sharpening the focus: the real significance of 2014

David Harley gives his view on the issues facing Europe in the months ahead:

Let us take a moment to peer through the Brussels autumn mist and try to see what awaits us in next year’s promised ‘European Spring’.

What are likely to be the dominant issues and major concerns facing the European Union and the European electorate in 2014, beyond the institutional aspects? Foremost in many people’s minds will be the simple question of survival, how to make do financially and make ends meet for themselves and their families.

Similarly, 2014 will be  about the EU’s own survival, at least in its present form, or – to put it more diplomatically – a period of careful consolidation, gradual recovery and adjustment after overcoming the worst of the multiple crises of the past five years (economic, financial, banking and social, with the threat of further political crises still to come).

Above all, voters will want to get a sense from political leaders that they, together with the EU institutions, will be capable once and for all of fixing the European economy, preserving living standards and providing decent job prospects, especially for young people.

Further failure to successfully deal with these issues could irreparably damage public trust in the European project. However unfair it might be, the fact that the EU was neither primarily responsible for these crises, nor has the means alone to solve them, will fail to impress European public opinion.

Secondly, most people across Europe would also like to see politicians and political parties standing up unequivocally to the emerging forces of darkness and intolerance, and countering the rise of parties which seek voters’ support by playing on prejudice and whipping up extremism, nationalism and xenophobia.

Thirdly, a healthy dose of vision and leadership from EU leaders would not be amiss, preferably backed by clear policies and sufficient political and moral courage to take the tough decisions needed to safeguard Europe’s future, and to ensure that the burden of sacrifice in hard times is distributed fairly between and within the member states.

Then comes the need to improve the overall governance of the EU – for example, by streamlining the Council secretariat in the interests of efficiency and transparency, and by making the European Commission suitably fit for purpose well into the 21st century as well as more democratically accountable, both to the European Parliament and to national parliaments.

The five-year parliamentary term and Commission mandate starting in 2014 should be a period not just of consolidation, but of open and radical innovation in the workings and work culture of the EU institutions.

Once again, and for the umpteenth time, communications activities need a thorough overhaul. How can it be that the European Union, which in so many policy areas is a potentially vital force for good in the world and in Europe, is so fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented, and its brand image so blurred, if not tarnished?

The proposal for candidates for the presidency of the Commission to stand in the European elections is an essential precondition for making the EU institutions more accountable and answers the call from many sides for a more democratic and transparent way to fill key EU posts. It is also hoped that this new process will generate increased interest and a higher turnout in the European elections.

No-one is claiming that Europe’s economic survival will hinge on this institutional advance, or that citizens will flock in droves to the polling stations just because of this innovation. It is more about significant incremental progress in what is undoubtedly the right direction, and will constitute a partial but important response to the charge that the EU institutions are perceived as remote and insufficiently answerable to the electorate.

As for the recent suggestion from a reputed think-tank – whose authors should have known better – that such a procedure would lead to the Commission President being “partisanâ€?… since when does being democratically elected to a post carrying great political responsibility and authority necessarily imply partisanship? The job is political; filling it requires a political process.

Despite recent misgivings allegedly expressed within the EPP and unattributed negative briefings by certain governments, the principle of this new procedure has now been established. (Frankly, it is a bit late, seven months before the elections, to wake up to the new reality and to start having second thoughts.)

It is now time to start working out the right procedure for the contacts  which, under the Treaty, must take place between the European Parliament and the European Council following next year’s elections and before the first post-elections meeting of the European Council.

Hopefully the candidates’ respective policy proposals will be the subject of debate, scrutiny and media coverage as election day approaches.

All the main European political parties should put forward strong candidates to raise public awareness of what is at stake in next year’s critically important European elections.