‘At the dawn of the 21st Century, a geopolitical revolution is underway…. the unification of Europe. Europe is a more integrated place today than any time since the Roman Empire…. Like those heavy powerful SUVs that Detroit turns out, the US has been cruising along at comfortable speed, completely unaware of the powerful well engineered European Sedan coming up fast in the passing lane’
These words come from ‘The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of US Supremacy’, by the American journalist T.R. Reid, published in 2004. Oh, for those sunny days of optimism! How things have changed. Now if you browse “future of Europe” on Google, you will see talk of “shrinking population”, “migration crisis”, “sclerotic economy” or “doomed single currency”. And to top it all, euroscepticism, once the preserve of the departing Brits, is now all too apparent from Berlin to Budapest to Bratislava. Powerful Sedan? More like a clapped-out Vespa.
There is of course much exaggeration in this – often from those whose political agenda on EU matters is anything but neutral. But still, one cannot avoid a sense of unease in the EU. And it is in this context that in 2019 we hit the 5-yearly series of institutional changes. In May, we will have elections for the European Parliament, and later in the year a new European Commission, with a new President, and a new President of the European Council. Many anticipate that eurosceptic parties will build on recent gains and strengthen their voice in the Parliament. And with the probable addition of more small parties, the traditional voting blocs will be less effective. If so, we can predict with reasonable certainty that aspects of what some refer to as the European project will be less easily implemented, if not outright undermined.
Participation in European elections is low. Last time, in 2014, it was just over 42% on average, and seems to be steadily diminishing with each election. This is despite the fact that the power and influence of the Parliament (notably as a result of the Lisbon Treaty) has been increasing. Even if hard euroscepticism still remains a minority taste, there is clearly a lack of overall engagement from citizens with the EU and its works. The proportion of EU citizens with a positive image of the EU is roughly the same as that for election participation (43%)*. But without more positive engagement, the task of advancing common goals and addressing the EU’s weaknesses becomes still more difficult. The optimism of the early 2000s seems like a faded old photograph.
What does this mean for business? A more fragmented and eurosceptic Parliament, perhaps with a strengthened anti-business and/or anti–science contingent, is unlikely to be positive. Neither will a scenario which makes single market measures more difficult to get through.
Does business have a role in addressing euroscepticism and disengagement?
There are three reasons to think not. Take the single market, one of the EU’s great achievements. It has benefited business, there is no doubt, reducing costs and increasing productivity through efficiency and flexibility. But business cost reductions never caused one person to hug another**. What business gets from the single market is perhaps not enough in itself to inspire citizens.
Second, in our post Trump world of anti-elitism, business is often, rightly or wrongly, perceived as part of the elite. I once discussed the issue of EU engagement with some fellow industry association heads, whose well intentioned proposal to advocate for Europe was to write a letter to the Financial Times. That is not going to work.
Third, as witnessed in the Brexit debate in the UK, business is understandably wary of alienating customers by being perceived as ‘political’.
But I wonder if ultimately, we can go on as we are. An EU survey from 2013 found that EU citizens perceive business more negatively than in other major economies, and only half of EU citizens believe business has a positive influence on society. This should worry Boardrooms across the continent. One needn’t be a business advocate (like me) to realise that there is no way forward for Europe without a recognition that growth and innovation – where business makes its mark – have an essential role, and also that the EU can contribute to facilitating both.
Perhaps as we survey the challenging political and moral landscape that is Europe in 2019, it's time to reflect more generally on how business can better make the case that it has much to give in securing our common well-being.
By the way, for those interested in ‘The United States of Europe’, it's available on Amazon UK for one penny.
John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe
*Eurobarometer November 2018.
**Although this cannot be completely ruled out