“How to Build a Strong Europe for Citizens”

Andreas Schwarzkopf
Responsible Leadership

Next May’s elections for the European Parliament are about more than a few seats in parliament; they are about the survival of the European Union itself. If the citizens of the EU will not have a significantly stronger say in the future of Europe soon, anti-Europeans will take over. Through its dialogue series “Refocusing Europe,” the BMW Foundation wants to offer an alternative to this dark scenario: Responsible Leadership for a Europe for Citizens.

The European Union is facing a crisis, probably the biggest in its history.

And this despite the fact that the worst effects of the financial and debt crisis that has shaken the continent in the last few years have been almost overcome.

Munich European ForumEurope

Munich European Forum

The Munich European Forum will take place on October 25-26, 2018. Entitled "Building a Strong Europe for Citizens," the Forum concludes and puts into a larger perspective the results and ideas of the first cycle of a dialogue process conducted over the last 18 months: Three BMW Foundation European Tables dealt with key issues related to Europe’s economy, security, and identity. Through the Munich European Forum, the BMW Foundation is taking a clear stance for the principles and goals of a united Europe.

In most EU countries, the economies are slowly regaining momentum, growth is picking up again, and the labor market is recovering.

In addition, European values such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law are no outdated, old-fashioned references but more topical than ever – and thus at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Still, many citizens are turning their backs on the EU and many of the things it symbolizes.

Often this happens for concrete reasons, such as people’s personal economic situation. In parts of southern and eastern Europe, unemployment is at more than 20 percent, with youth unemployment frequently even higher. And in light of the digital transformation that affects almost all sectors of the economy, many people who have jobs fear for their jobs.

The inequality between the rich and poor has grown – the gap is widening not only between but also within nations. The rising numbers of refugees and immigrants and the humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean, too, reveal the continent’s divisions. In more and more countries, we see the growth and rise to power of right-wing populist movements.

These movements propagate a return to the nation-state; the UK even voted for exiting from the EU.

Populist movements undermine the common European values, the liberal order, and the institutions that uphold rule of law. Social fragmentation and the increasing divergence of national interests threaten to destroy the bonds that hold Europe together.

The fear of an uncertain future, which is felt by large parts of the population, has resulted in the biggest threat to the European project: the crisis in trust. Many citizens no longer have faith that the EU is able to solve their problems.

According to the Eurobarometer, 40 percent of EU citizens are skeptical or undecided vis-à-vis the EU.

Seventy percent of the EU population feel only ‘fairly or not very attached’ to the Union.

If the European Union wants to survive, it needs to reform and refocus.

Europe, which has guaranteed its citizens peace, stability, prosperity, and opportunity for more than six decades, is facing its biggest challenge.

Politics alone is no longer capable of solving these complex problems. Business and civil society need to play an active role in defending the European value system. If the European Union wants to survive, it needs to reform and refocus. Most of all, it needs to more strongly involve the citizens of its 28 member states and win back those who have become alienated from Brussels and its institutions.

To contribute to this process of “Refocusing Europe,” the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt has created a new leadership format: the European Table.

European Table EstoniaDiscussion at BMW Foundation European Table Estonia.

BMW Foundation European Table

A series of dialogue events, the  BMW Foundation European Tables are part of a program cycle entitled “Refocusing Europe,” which the BMW Foundation launched in 2017. The series aims to present and discuss new concepts and initiatives addressing the enormous challenges that Europe is facing. It concludes with the Munich European Forum on October 25-26, 2018.

Since the fall of 2017, three European Tables – in Estonia, France, and Italy – each have brought together up to 25 leaders from politics, business, culture, media, and civil society to find ways of bringing Europe closer to its citizens.

Each European Table took place in an inspiring environment; and the mix of plenary sessions, introductory presentations, workshops, and breakout sessions encouraged the participants to interrogate traditional views and to be open for new solutions and approaches.

First European Table: Tallinn, Estonia

The first European Table, which took place in late September 2017 in Tallinn, Estonia, focused on the digital transformation of society:

How can we advance digitization and at the same time make it serve the people? How does the EU have to shape the digital transformation so that its citizens do not feel left behind? 

Strong Europe
In 2017, the first European Table took place in Tallinn, Estonia. Marc Beckmann

According to a much-cited Oxford University study, nearly half of U.S. jobs are at risk from automation, and Europe could be in for a similar development.

But Klaus Fuest, from the consulting firm Roland Berger, who has studied this topic for years, does not believe in such scenarios.

For him, like for most participants in Tallinn, digitization is first and foremost an opportunity: “That we will not have to work anymore in 2030 is not true, productivity does not rise so fast. Technology is not destroying jobs, it might create jobs,” he said.

The example of Estonia shows how the systematic digitization of a nation’s administration can make a country appreciably more attractive for both citizens and entrepreneurs: In the Baltic state, it is possible, for example, to found a company or to submit one’s tax return in a matter of minutes. It is debatable, however, to what extent the insights from little Estonia can be translated to larger nations.

The participants also agreed that the EU had to step up its efforts to counteract citizens’ fears of losing their jobs.

In this context, Ricardo Leite, a member of the Portuguese Parliament, brought up the idea of the universal basic income: “We have to find a safety net. At the European Table, we discussed the unconditional basic income. Something down that line has to appear.”

In order to find out whether such basic income or another kind of safety net makes sense, he made another suggestion: “The EU can promote and implement pilot projects in different countries, regions, or cities. As soon as we have the evidence and know the direction we want to go, the European Union can create evidence-based and data-driven policy frameworks for the whole of the Union.”

Ricardo Leite brought up the idea of the universal basic income at the European Table. Marc Beckmann
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The participants of the European Table explored the area around Tallinn. Marc Beckmann

Second European Table: Neuville-Bosc, France

The second European Table in Neuville-Bosc, France, in March 2018 dealt with migration and security, focusing on European citizens’ legitimate worries that their security was threatened by migration, which is set to increase as a result of war, climate change, inequality, overpopulation, and other causes.

It is a worry that polarizes European societies. The participants agreed that this problem needs to be addressed in the refugees’ countries of origins, at Europe’s borders, and by improving integration. Importantly, they called for developing a common European development strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa; a stabilization of these societies cannot be achieved by applying 28 different approaches from 28 EU countries that care mostly about their own national interests.

"The modernization push through the refugees will move the entire society forward."
Vincent Zimmer

Another important aspect is changing the negative narrative about immigration.

“The modernization push through the refugees will move the entire society forward,” says Vincent Zimmer, founder of the Berlin-based social startup Kiron Open Higher Education, which cuts through a lot of red tape to make it possible for refugees to gain access to higher education in Germany.

Amelie Silfverstolpe from Sweden, too, wants refugees to be perceived differently. “We want to break up prejudices,” says the founder of the venture “Yrkesdörren” (Working Door). As part of this unusual project, migrants and native-born Swedes who work in the same field or industry meet one on one, talk about their work, and thus make contacts. Because the “Working Door” initiative has been so successful in Sweden, participants of the European Table want to launch the idea also in other European countries. In the fall, Paris will be first.

Strong Europe
The second European Table dealt with questions around migration and security. Marc Beckmann
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Amelie Silfverstolpe was one of the participants of the second European Table. Marc Beckmann
Strong Europe
Marc Beckmann

Third European Table: Menaggio, Italy

The third European Table, held in Menaggio, Italy, in early May 2018, discussed the common values as the bedrock of the European project.

“There is a value crisis in Europe. Poland and Hungary don’t want to implement policies of the EU. The very rule-of-law basis is being watered down. That never happened before. It is such a crisis that many states don’t want to talk about it,” analyzed Heather Grabbe, the British director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

The political scientist Pawel Machcewicz witnessed in his native Poland what happens if these values are not defended in good time and if the populists are given free rein: “It’s about how fragile democracy is. There was no economic crisis in Poland. Polish democracy was hijacked by a minority. It was a failure of liberals who took our situation for granted.”

So how do we succeed in getting the citizens to identify again with Europe and its values?

"The biggest source of anti EU-feelings is the fear of the future."
Jan Techau

The group in Menaggio agreed that having a European identity did not contradict having a national or local identity. In breakout sessions, the participants developed concrete proposals on how to regain the citizens’ trust. One group suggested creating a value-focused, pro-European movement with the aim of getting the citizens to vote in the 2019 European elections. This way, they want to create a counterweight to populist, anti-European forces.

“The biggest source of anti EU-feelings is the fear of the future. The message has to be: We pro-Europeans care about the same stuff that you care about. And we work hard to address those fears,” says Jan Techau from the German Marshall Fund.

To support such movements, another group of participants proposed to launch a kind of European Super PAC – based on the American political action committees (PACs), which fund political projects and candidates.

“This is a new institutional tool, an institutional body that has financial, moral, and cross-partisan political support from business, universities, civil-society actors. It could allocate funding around a particular issue and rally around a particular issue,” explains the Hamburg-based Mayte Schomburg from Publixphere.

In addition, this Super PAC could connect and provide funding to existing pro-European initiatives to lend them more power and leverage. The overall aim is to provide an effective counterweight to anti-Europeans and to mobilize more pro-European citizens. In the meantime, both groups of participants have agreed to found an umbrella organization called “Alliance Europa” to coordinate and support a variety of pro-European initiatives.

“Alliance Europa” is supported by the BMW Foundation and will be launched at the Munich European Forum. The idea is to move Europe closer to its citizens and make it a living example of unity in diversity: a strong Europe for citizens.

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