JEF Malta’s final event before the closing of this year’s Generation Europe campaign saw a panel of politicians and experts who, although with different backgrounds and issues in mind, all shared optimism for the future of the European Union, despite being aware of its shortcomings. MEPs Dr Roberta Metsola from the EPP, and Dr Alfred Sant from S&D, along with Director of European Studies at the University of Malta Dr Mark Harwood and Director of EU Policy and Legislation Mr Neil Camilleri fleshed out a number of issues in a debate on Our European Identity.
Apart from a number of questions from the audience about issues such as the relevance of allocation of money to agriculture and the interim effects of Brexit, the main talking points were threefold. JEF’s Daniel Cassar asked about whether it is laws and treaties that gives us our European identity; how will Europe look in 60 years; and finally the achievements and downfalls of the EU. This was part of JEF’s annual Europe Day celebration which includes a full day of activities from a European food market with a number of organisations, to a workshop and Vino e Vino in the evening.
Dr Sant started off strongly by stating that he doesn’t believe in treaties and laws to define human identity. Instead, in order to find our common European identity, we need to look at the arts. Culture and artistic production, with a specific focus on literature, give off the idea of living in a common European living space. “The way in which we experience life on the European Continent is an inherited tradition … when it is communicated through the artistic medium, it shows a common identity.”
When it comes to the next 60 years, the S&D MEP pointed out that there needs to be more focus on the balance of power within the EU. One of the main growing issues currently is the increasing tendency for lobbies between states who don’t believe that burdens are being shared justly between member states. There is also a need to develop better relations with Eastern Europe, as Dr Sant explained, the EU underestimated the Russian presence in ex-soviet states resulting in large geo-strategic stress which, as of yet, the EU hasn’t been able to figure out how to solve.
Dr Metsola agreed with Dr Sant that it isn’t the laws and treaties that give us our identity, but she stressed the importance of them reminding us where we came from. “This University fought hard for decades for Malta to join the EU, thanks to a desire to sit around a table proudly sharing our values, cultural heritage, and history which is part of an intricate number of countries ensuring that Europe does not descend into what it once was.” In reaction to the push to denounce right-leaning governments as one of the main causes for concern, the MEP stressed that it was also leftist governments who cause problems when they do not believe that the fundamental values of the EU are to be respected.
This being said, the largest threat to the EU as of late has been populism and politicians who literally lie and hide behind scaremongering tactics to get quick votes to the detriment of the EU. Although Dr Metsola insisted that she is more optimistic now than she was two years ago about the strength of the EU. The biggest breakthrough, according to the EPP MEP, was freedom of movement although member states need to remember that temporary closure of borders due to security risks are actually temporary. “We can’t allow small numbers of fundamentalists to break us.” When it comes to ensuring a positive future, Dr Metsola implored that negotiation is key, and alliances are crucial.
Dr Harwood explained the issue of European Identity by stating that there has always been a European cultural identity, but the EU itself has also been trying to form a more concrete identity since the 80’s with the flag and the anthem. That being said, the message is sometimes skewed by local media houses in member states, purely because there isn’t enough investment being made to help citizens better understand what it is the EU actually does. This conveying of its relevance to the general public was something the Professor specifically stressed throughout his interventions. While the greatest achievement of the EU is the fostering of a collective mindset when it comes to policy, it’s greatest failing is a direct consequence of attempting to represent 500 million citizens, the entire system being perceived as some form of elite-driven process.
Mr Neil Portelli echoed the sentiments that our identity is not dependent on any laws or treaties, but raised his own question of whether we want an “I” identity, or a “we” identity, denoting national vs European identity respectively. There is a certain ideal to identity, and currently there has been a wave of severe questioning which has led to situations like Brexit and the Hungarian right-wing government. The only way for the EU to last and progress over the next 60 years is by informed citizens engaging and being part of the EU process. Unfortunately there is a vicious cycle of uninformed citizens who don’t understand the EU because it is an inherently complicated structure which hasn’t been able to properly tackle the fact that there are so many people who are still uninformed.