Martin Schulz: Europe needs to change, let the debate begin

For some the idea of an  'ever closer union' is in freefall

It is not just former Eurosceptic Conservative ministers and Ukip supporters who are questioning the view that an 'ever closer union' is the answer to Europe's challenges.

For some, the idea is in freefall. Europe is living through rising eurosceptism, unacceptably high unemployment, especially among the young, and weak economic prospects.  This is worrying, for the moment people withdraw their support from an idea, the idea is finished. The more populist protest parties may see the European elections this time next year as an opportunity to score electoral successes. 

As a convinced European I welcome the debate, but I recognise first that Europe needs to change course, something many in Brussels seem not to acknowledge. We are living beyond our means. Budgetary consolidation is essential, if only because we cannot bequeath a mountain of debt to our children. 

Second, some structural reforms – to the labour market and on retirement ages - are essential. But the austerity policies currently being implemented in Europe are lopsided. It is taking too long for the structural measures and the necessary budgetary consolidation to take effect and, at long last, increase competitiveness. In the meantime, some EU Member States are sliding ever deeper into a recession. Austerity, supposedly the cure, is threatening to undermine the European project.

 Third (and this is surely a cause to warm a British Eurosceptic’s heart), the EU must tackle the vexed question of tax. Every year in the EU, €1 trillion is lost through tax evasion and tax avoidance – an enormous loss to the Union. This sum could be used to pay off debt, to set up youth guarantee schemes and to invest further in growth initiatives. European heads of state and government have a duty to agree on effective counter-measures at the EU summit in ten days’ time.

 And yet, and yet. Just six months ago, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was one of my proudest moments. Indeed, many of Europe's greatest successes are being taken for granted: Europe is the most prosperous continent on earth, Europeans can travel, work and live where they please. We enjoy a standard of living and a degree of protection of our fundamental rights which people in other parts of the world can only dream of.

Perhaps paradoxically, a new European awareness is emerging from the crisis. Europeans are recognising how interdependent they are. One country's failures can threaten the entire European economy, and can call into question the fruits of 60 years of integration. Peace, solidarity, and prosperity are not irreversible; only 27 countries, (28 when Croatia accedes to the EU on 1 July this year), working together can guarantee them. The peoples of Europe are taking a greater interest in what is happening on the other side of their countries' borders. People want to know what the retirement age is in other countries, what the top tax rate is, why young people are demonstrating in the streets of European capitals. 

However, some governments still refuse to accept that they are already working in a European context. They prefer to cling to national sovereignty, to the familiar trappings of carefully orchestrated Brussels Summits at which they mount a last-ditch defence of their national interests and then present the outcome at home as a victory. In so doing, they disregard the fact that it is in their countries' very best interests that Europe should function properly. This, surely, is little more than posturing. 

The European Parliament and the Council is currently discussing the EU's long-term budget 2014-2020. It’s an important issue, but sadly it best illustrates the short-termist lack of commitment of some Member States to the wider European interest.  It is clearly misguided of EU governments, including the UK government, not to shift investment towards research and development, education, training, foreign relations and development aid, areas where European added value are at their greatest.

The EU is about much more than its budget (capped at a meagre one percent of EU GDP since its inception).  The single market benefits the British economy hugely, and the EU remains by far the biggest destination for UK trade, accounting for almost 50 per cent of total exports The UK has played a leading role in forming many key EU policies (on the single market, overseas development, trade and climate change).  UK leadership in these areas has been highly appreciated and would be sorely missed should the British decide to exit.

The UK has also played a major role in shaping policy on Justice and Home Affairs. In little over a year from now, these policies, including most importantly the European Arrest Warrant, cross-border criminal justice and policing become fully-fledged EU policies, meaning that any Member State failing to apply them properly can be brought to court. Yet the UK is moving ever closer to opting out of scores of those measures - in essence re-erecting national borders in the fight against cross-border crime. The UK’s own House of Lords EU Committee has concluded damningly that "...the Government have not made a convincing case for exercising the opt-out and that opting out would have significant adverse negative repercussions for the internal security of the UK and the administration of criminal justice in the UK, as well as reducing its influence over this area of EU policy." Does the UK really want to puts its internal security at risk by exercising this opt-out?

Next year’s European elections are of paramount of importance. For the first time there will be candidates from the European political parties for the post of European Commission President, this should engender a greater interest in Europe's future. Those who say they want more democratic control can hardly complain at that. 

Europe is enduring its deepest post-war economic crisis and the European Union's very existence can no longer be taken as a given. A thorough, factually-based conversation on the virtues of deepening European integration needs to take place, starting in the UK. Britain would be sorely missed should it decide to leave. The stakes are high, so let the decision be taken with full access to the facts, rather than to narrow, outdated thinking. Let the debate begin!

Martin Schulz is a German social democrat and President of the European parliament