Divergent trends: one of the big challenges for Europe

aut3 2015 Europeans need to start thinking together again if the European Union is going to thrive – or even survive – over the next half century, said former Prime Minister of Ireland John Bruton in a September conference of Friends of Europe, European Young Leaders in Dublin. There, about 40 delegates gathered from science, media, technology and other fields to hear Bruton’s views. He pointed to four major problems for Europe today: aging populations; a reliance on mature technologies; the continent’s reduced relative size in the world; and risk aversion.

“The European Union is a habit of thought,” said Bruton, who is also a Trustee of Friends of Europe. “The institutions are only the instruments for our habit of thinking like a European, and the habit of mind that could easily be lost. The EU will not be here in 40 years unless there is a European patriotism.”

The prestigious 2015-2016 programme that was initially launched in 2011, brings together the continent’s most promising talents to contribute to Europe’s leadership through their ability to bring together and inspire people. Each year, a group of some 40 carefully selected European Young Leaders participate in two seminars organised in symbolic cities of EU member countries where they meet and discuss the current challenges the EU faces today, both for society as a whole, as well as for its citizens.

Earlier in the year, the Friends of Europe were also centre stage in Brussels when Frank Vandenbroucke was the key note speaker at the British Chamber of Commerce. He explained some of the findings of the recent report by Friends of Europe: Unequal Europe – Recommendations for a more caring EU.

Historically, the European project was created by the Founding Fathers with the ultimate goal to increase prosperity and cohesion, both across member states (through ‘upward convergence’) and within member states. This is what happened in the early days. However, today’s reality is different and worrying. Since 2008 we have been witnessing growing inequalities within many member states, but also divergence instead of convergence, particularly between the northern and southern countries of the Eurozone: increasing gaps in GDP per capita and in employment performance, with record-high unemployment rates in southern countries, social unrest and disillusionment in the European project as a consequence. This is extremely alarming, not only because it can cause a negative spiral of economic diversion, but because it undermines the legitimacy of the European integration project.

Increasingly, we are seeing governments and electorates in the north of Europe blaming the South and vice versa. However a high-level group organized by Friends of Europe studied this situation and as a result is convinced that we can be confident about the future of our welfare states.

One of its findings is that we need to reconnect with upward convergence, and we need to be able to convince EU citizens that it is possible to reconcile openness integration on the one hand, with social cohesion within the member states on the other hand.

Europe is already confronted by three long term and inter-related challenges: ageing, its shrinking population, and a shortage of skilled labor. We have to continue to invest in people and human capital. If you look at human capital across Europe, the disparities are huge and what is worrying is that most of the countries in the south, who lag already behind are cutting spending in education, which will worsen the situation. In at least seven member states, real spending is now lower on average than in the years before the crisis. In some countries the decrease is between 15% and 20%.

The bottom-line of the report by Friends of Europe, is that the Union needs a sense of common purpose; with regard to education. Educational budgets must become a priority on the political agenda. A basic consensus on the European Social Model is that Europe has to play an important role in the domain of social policy and that this is not a luxury though an existential necessity.

For more information on the Friends of Europe, please see www.friendsofeurope.org.