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EU reform at last? The European election began with a simmer but now we're at boiling point

by Thomas Nemes, Treasurer of CIPR International

The build-up to the European election for the average European began with a simmer. In the UK, where the debate around the EU has in a large part been simplified into a wider issue of immigration, there were attempts to liven up the debate and focus attention on the actual importance of it all. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg laid down the gauntlet in challenging the UKIP leader Nigel Farage to a live television debate. While a useful exercise, it did not break new ground other than provide Mr Farage with an unprecedented platform to build his profile. Then the chatter closer to election day was all about the minutiae of whether Labour would be able to beat off the UKIP surge and how the Conservatives would fair.

The results are there for all to see, with UKIP winning the vote outright. In terms of domestic politics, there are different ways to spin what it means for us all and whether it will have any long-term impact in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. But the truth is: yes it will absolutely have an effect. A protest vote is a vote nonetheless. Let’s not forget that a protest vote vaulted the Liberal Democrats into government in coalition with the Conservatives (though granted the context this time around is rather different).

But putting the UK aside for a moment, let’s take a look across Europe. If the build-up to the election was a simmer, then the outcome has led us to boiling point. The election has sent shockwaves through the political establishment across Europe. The National Front won in France, the Danish People's party topped the polls in Denmark, Jobbik did well in Hungary and radical-left Syriza party succeeded in Greece. Despite the fact that these political parties come from across the political spectrum they represent a unified voice in the claim that the status quo in the EU, in their eyes, is no longer acceptable or sustainable.

In fact, it is an extreme expression of a view held even by moderates: the EU must be reformed so that it is fit for purpose in the 21st century and it must better represent what is now a larger club of 28 member-states.

With that in mind, how can we address the situation and begin to articulate a concrete vision for reform? Well, for starters whether we like it or not, the UK Conservative Party has provided the EU with a clear roadmap in its pledge for an In-Out referendum in 2017. What happens between now and then will have a hugely significant effect on what the EU looks like in the coming years.

So the first hurdle in the immediate future is the appointment of the next leader of the European Commission. In recent days serious tension has emerged about whether the frontrunner, Jean-Claude Juncker, is an appropriate candidate to lead from the front due to question marks over his propensity to be a reformist.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have a big say as to whether Mr Juncker will be the victor however it is a concern that Dr Merkel has not been consistent in her support, having only recently shifted from lukewarm approval to more hardened support. The transition to boiling point is further illustrated by the recent revelation that the British Prime Minister Dave Cameron has told Dr Merkel he cannot guarantee the UK’s place in the EU if Mr Juncker were to win the top job.

All the while Dr Merkel had previously given hints that she would be open to reform within the EU, most notably during her address to both Houses of Parliament in February. However she faces her own pressure within Germany, which serves to explain her shift and highlights the intense complexity of interlinked interests and disparate views that the European project is built upon. Not just at the EU level nor just within Germany, or the UK, but across the continent from the western extremities of Portugal and Ireland all the way to the east in Poland, Latvia and Bulgaria.

Despite this, there is one thing that is clear. The electorate has expressed a clear view and business has also begun to call out for reform, so now it is up to the politicians to pick up the reformist baton and rejuvenate the European project, which is far from dead.

The EU is simply at a crossroad. There is no better opportunity to overcome the deadlock. Otherwise they will ignore voters at their peril.


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