Sergiu Miscoiu: The EU will be social, or there will be no EU

Interview with the Romanian political scientist about a number of issues dealing with EU reform and the role of Central and Southeastern Europe in the EU.

Vladimir Mitev

Cross-border Talks interviewed the Romanian political scientist and expert on EU affairs Sergiu Mișcoiu in the context of the renewed discussions for EU reform, following the completion of the deliberations, called Conference on the Future of Europe. 

We discussed:

– how much of a success is the announced opening to the public for consultations, called Conference on the Future of Europe;

– why the EU continues to be elites-led and the conference mostly reaffirmed the already followed agenda;

– how should we see Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for concentric circles of integration or European political community, opened to non-member from the neighborhood – as encouragement for the non-member to engage the EU or as a discouragement for their efforts to become full members;

– how should we perceive the efforts of Western Europe to impose reforms on EU’s East in fields such as energy transition, anti-corruption and EU defense; 

– what can EU’s East learn from Western Europe on the issue of rising energy prices and EU as a market;

– what could be the future role for Romania and Bulgaria within the EU.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to a special edition of Cross-Border Talks, where we are going to have as a guest speaker, a friend of the podcast, Sergiu Miscoiu, a professor of political science and European studies at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj Napoca, Romania. And the topic is pretty much a topic in his field of knowledge – the European affairs. On the 9th of May 2022, there was a Conference on the future of Europe, and once again, a lot of talk about Europe’s redefinition and refoundation. And of course, there were some conclusions, around 50 proposals for changes were made in the report from this conference. Importantly, these changes which are requested by the conference should require redefinition of European agreements. So we would start from here. Mr. Miscoiu, what is your evaluation of the results of this one year of deliberation about Europe’s future, which was called the Conference on the Future of Europe? And what could be the result of renegotiations of EU treaties? Isn’t it a little bit of a Pandora’s Box?

Sergiu Mișcoiu: Hello! Good afternoon and thank you very much, first of all, for inviting me to join your Cross-Border Talks. A very interesting show online. So first of all, we have to stress the fact that this Conference on the future of Europe was conceived as a tool for strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. It’s not a secret for the people of Europe that one of the most important criticisms about the European Union is the democratic deficit. And we have been discussing the democratic deficit of the European Union for a very long time. So the Conference on the Future of Europe was meant to be a remedy in front of this democratic deficit and building on the already classical practices of participatory democracy, of deliberative democracy, to boost the creation of the European public opinion and a European public space, with citizens expressing, rather, on a spontaneous, voluntary basis, their opinions about how Europe should be reorganized, how the European Union should be amended as a project, and what would be the next directions of the European Union.

Up to this moment, everything seems to be quite in line with the need for more democracy and for more participation from the citizens. The problem with these deliberative democracy experiments, and we have experienced this throughout the time, and I was among those who have studied a little bit this phenomena is that those who generally have their opinion and they express them within these debates are those who anyway would participate to the European debates or to the national debates or to the processes of deliberation.

So, if you do not try to boost those parts of society who are not really able to express themselves, not really willing to express themselves, they believe about themselves as being forgotten, being put aside, then you will end up with the same good old citizens who anyway are concerned by the European Integration Project. Those who are participating in the European elections, are also participating to the national elections, national debates and are active citizens.

And I think that unfortunately this was what happened with the Conference on the Future of Europe, especially in the countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in those countries with the less pregnant European with the democratic tradition. Those parts of society who are already active, those citizens were already able to contribute to the agenda, express themselves and participate into these debates, and of course, brought into the debate some quite interesting issues. And their contribution is not to be at all neglected. This is not really the problem.

The problem is that if the objective of these debates was to strengthen the legitimacy by bringing those parts of society to participate in deliberation processes, this did not work. And what we see in the conclusions of these conferences is precisely what we expected to see from the very beginning of the debates. And that’s why we have an already expected result delivered, which is the proof of the fact that there was little innovation within the processes of deliberation and the discussion for the future of Europe. So the discussion itself was limited in its diversity and limited in its variety. And this was precisely because those parts of society who was were already involved into debates, already active, were again present and active, strengthening more or less the point of view of the proponents of the Conference for the Future of Europe, meaning that we need more Europe, we need the more social Europe, we need the extension, but also we need resilience. We need the stronger frontiers of Europe, we need more integration and so on. All these issues were already known before the deliberation processes, and from this point of view, I think that something, at least in this operation, was missed as a go.

So if I understand correctly, European democracies are elites-led, it is a democracy by the elites. And in fact, this confidence simply strengthened basically the already existing course, if I understand correctly or priorities of the elites.

Yeah, it was a self confirmation, more or less, of what these leaders of the European Union were thinking about the future of Europe. And this is consistent because the socialization of the peoples who were participating actively in the debates, with some small exceptions, was very much the mirror of the elite led European Union.

We see that, for instance, in countries such as Denmark or Sweden, we had a much more profound debate, especially because it involved people who were not actually meant to be there at the European level, or they were meant to be there on a theoretical level, but still they were not there on a based on a practical ground. And this was precisely because these parts of society were never taken into account. They had views about Europe, about the nation state, about the socioeconomic orientation of the EU that were quasi incompatible with the long lasting course of the European Union. And we saw that, for instance, in these two countries, Sweden and Denmark, we had more input from the average people who were not socialized in the elite led environment then in the most other in most other countries of the European Union, and especially in the Central and Eastern European countries where the tradition is quite top down, you involve only people who have already been socialized in some milieus that prepared themselves for having not necessarily 100% the same opinion of the proponents, but very close opinions to what is on the agenda already. And for that, I think a part of society was still outside this debate.

Okay. How should we refer then to the idea of renegotiations of the EU treaties, which has been something like a taboo for a certain period of time? What should we expect from such a process? Would it be even realistic to renegotiate or change these treaties?

I think that if this was presented as a conclusion of the conference for the future of Europe, there was another point that was quite missed in that, of course, lots of people who support already the European project, especially in the Western countries, believe that the treaties should be renegotiated. Because it is simply unacceptable to have situation in which countries, led by governments who, just for a particular reason, block the major projects of the European Union. But at the same time, if we were to have quite wider and much more inclusive debate and deliberation, and if those who were somehow excluded from the discussions, rather on a voluntary basis, I didn’t say that they were excluded per se, but rather self excluding themselves from these processes were there. Then we would have had another kind of line and in this according to this line that is hypothetically there somewhere behind the scene, the renegotiation of the treaties should be allowed only if a majority of the people of Europe was in favor of that. So this is a plea for a much more direct and participatory democracy at the European level, conditioning changes within the treaties as in a constitutional national framework.

A revision of the Constitution is conditioned by a vote of the majority of the people. But these elements were really not present there. And we are still in a framework where the government’s in charge of the nation states are able to decide about the future of Europe. And this, of course, blocks from the outset any possibility to review the treaties we still have. And presumably we will have governments who are not on the same side as most of the Brussels-led elites, France, Germany and other countries in Western Europe.

Importantly, on the very same day, there was a speech by Emmanuel Macron, the freshly re-elected French president, who came out with an idea: a new kind of Europe of concentrated circles or Europe of different levels of integration. So he proposed a European political community where countries of the Eastern Partnership can be admitted politically, but not fully enjoying the membership status. And as well, the UK could be also reengaged in this format. What do you think about such an idea and what are in fact the concretics behind it because as I understand, Macron was vague in his proposal. He launched an idea for discussion.

It was an interesting starting point, in my opinion. And why is that? Well, precisely because we have a long lasting experience of one country Turkey, who was lured throughout time to become a member of the European communities and then of the European Union, kept in the backstage of the show for a very long period and then accumulating frustration for not being integrated. It dropped the project and went on a very different path on a national populist path. And now nobody thinks that Turkey is integral to the European Union. And in order to avoid the similar scenario as we have now, a wave of states from Central and Eastern Europe and from the Caucasus who are willing to join the European Union, who wanted and express the ratify their will to join it, but who have territorial difference with other countries and who are at least partially occupied. And it is unfortunate for them that they are occupied by the same Eastern neighbor, Russia – I refer to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The problem is what to do with these countries.

According to the European Treaties as they are and according to common sense, these countries cannot become directly members of the European Union because this would bring in the midst of the European Union problems of territorial kind. And even worse, if we take the case of Ukraine, the war will last for some time.

So are we willing to leave these countries the impression that they will join in a touchable future European Union as it is now? Or are we rather willing to leave them at the mercy of the fate, maybe as a prey for other attempts of Russia or of other countries to destabilize them and to set them on a course that is really in the gray zone with regimes that are pro-Moscow, with regimes that are hostile to the European Union? And the answer is that we should avoid these two alternatives that are the first not realistic, the second really defeating.

And we should rather invent a status that is a special kind of status for countries that are in the closed neighborhood of the European Union, who work with the European Union and are for long time partners of the European Union, but because of different reasons, because of their unwillingness, as in the case of the UK or because of the impossibility in the case of the other countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will not join on a medium term.

By creating this concentric zone, a close concentric zone, then you could really put these countries on the Western like track with lots of benefits and lots of guarantees, including economic investments and the common space of, for instance, free circulation of individuals and even merchandises without making them proper members of the European Union. And I think this is the bet in the proposal of Macron. And to some extent, it is something that makes sense given the actual geopolitical configuration.

I understand the point and I have the feeling you see it more as an encouragement for the neighborhood to be open to Europe. But is it the same status that will be applied to Western Balkan countries? And wouldn’t it be a little bit disappointing for them because they might have expected to to join in any case and not have a “membership alike”.

Your point is very good. And I think this is why president Macron was ambiguous, as you said, about the issue, because I really believe that president Macron had in the background of his thinking the very idea of integrating these Western Balkan countries within rather the European Union per se.

Then in this wider concentric second circle of the European Union, this doesn’t mean that it would be tomorrow, but I think that this was a differentiation between the Western Balkans countries that were quite much more integral on the medium term in the EU and the other countries claiming the status of member of the European Union that were rather on a medium and even longer term integral bill in the second wider circle of neighbors and the friends of the EU.

Let us return to the EU affairs issue and the idea of reform, which however is not only related to the constitution. Even now there is change in Europe which is going on and it has been advanced by the European Commission and various governments in fields such as energy transition. We have had previously and even now anti-corruption. And the rule of law is a big issue of contention between Western Europe and some countries of Central Europe. And also there is the dimension of Europe, of defense with again, these are all kinds of subjects with different approaches in different ways from western eastern part of the EU. And they might be seen as initiatives coming from the Western part of the EU and treating the Eastern part as a little bit like a territory. And so basically I want to ask you, if you look at the big picture with these efforts of modernization and transition, etc.. What is coming out of that with regard to our region, because we are in Central and Southeastern Europe?

It’s a very, very interesting question. It’s also a very complex issue. Why is that? Well, because on the first glance, things could be very well presented as such, meaning that the Western Europeans, who are the founding members of the EU, who have to some extent some sort of a tutorship on the European project, advance in a condescending way. Topics on the agenda that are specific to their countries, that are specific to the concerns of the Western Europeans and which are in the end to be implemented by the southern Eastern Europeans who are at most second degree citizens of the EU. And this is a story that could, of course, hold together in the public discourse.

But there is another story that could explain these initiatives in that we can also depict the situation as follows. The Western European countries have a longer lasting democratic experience, and they pass through different phases of democratization, of development, of reform. And if they are now trying to impose to the whole continent a series of reforms that belong to third or a fourth wave, the age of human rights, of democratization, of agenda issues on the public agenda is because they would like that the Eastern European countries jump over the stages. But by not repeating the mistakes that were done by Western Europe, for instance, in terms of having industrialization, in terms of the first or second ages of digitalisation, Eastern Europe has now the unique historical chance to jump over the stages and to get the latest technologies in the same way.

Eastern Europe now has the chance of having a quasi-dysfunctional or even completely dismantled industrial package. And with this absence of heavy industry in Central and Eastern Europe, that was dismantled after 1989. We do not have to repeat the errors of Western Europe to go back to good old re-industrialization, as some of them did.

It is much more desirable to jump over the stages and to go directly into an environmentally friendly age where we directly implement the last generation of technologies , create jobs and we build cities that are eco-friendly and cope also with lots of the requirements concerning climate change. Why is that? Because anyway, the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe in a couple of years will arrive to the point where they will demand ecological cities.

So the idea is that we should go faster over some stages that already showed the limits in Western Europe. And if we are to implement these requirements and if our reforms of the treaties will go in this direction, this will mean that we will benefit of the experience of Western Europe without going through the traumatic history of it.

Okay. That’s great, of course. But let me remind you that the introduction of a market for the prices of energy, for example, electricity in Romania and Bulgaria led to some kind of shock or even trauma for a number of users. In the case of Romania, not only firms, but also households. In the case of Romania and Bulgaria, so far only companies and public entities.

It will come soon, also in Bulgaria for households.

But the price for households is still regulated in our case. So here, let me say that it looks a little bit like shock therapy. And what should be the answer or which authorities should answer to this shock?

In my opinion, this is precisely the error that the Central and Eastern European countries should not make. Now in Western Europe, the discussions are how to get rid of the free market in terms of energy.

Even some liberal politicians, such as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands or the freshly elected re-elected President Macron, take very seriously the issue of having freed partially or totally the market of energy, as have as being an error that was made by Western Europe.

Like it was the case before with savage capitalism in the 19th century, I think that this is one historical occasion not to repeat the fault of what was done in the West. So I think that the next European Union, as it is now projected, is much more ecological friendly and much less market oriented in terms of energy, in terms of freedom for the huge corporations and the volatility of the labor markets as it was the case with the prior European Union. And if we interpret like this the reform of the treaties and we put these ideas on the agenda, then it shows that we did not repeat the errors of the Western European countries.

So what can we do to encourage such a social Europe? You might be aware that in Romania, in other countries in our region, the EU seems to be often associated with business, with corporations and less with common people or workers.

That’s a difference of the image of the two. And I really believe that all the influencers in Central and Eastern Europe evolve from one generation to another. We are already almost at the second generation of influences in terms of what the European Union is. And the newest generation of influencers, academics, journalists, think tankers or other is much more aware of this need for a social Europe and also of this identity of Europe – being first social space, then market oriented space. And I think we did not do enough to promote this image of Europe and not promote the projects, embracing the social court of the European Union. And of course, you’re very right.

This reminds me of a Western professor who came ten years ago in Romania and Bulgaria, by the way, and witnessed the realities in these countries. And her conclusion was that the labor unions in Romania and Bulgaria are much more neoliberal than the owners unions in Western Europe. So this is something that changed, I think, during the last ten years. The image of Europe as being a market is less appealing than it was before. And I think that we are responsible. And when I say we, I really mean you and I or the others who are aware and interested about these issues to prompt this change through our representation and especially through our demands that we express publicly in broadcasts like this one.

I thank you for bringing up the issue that we are Bulgarian and Romanian discussing Europe and we are a specific zone of Europe, let’s say, because we are not admitted to the Schengen area. Well, there have been discussions about adoptions of euro, but that is still not happening in spite of all the discussions. And economically or socially, we usually think in the last place of the rankings in terms of social cohesion and other indicators, social indicators. So let us conclude with that. If Europe is undergoing reform, what will be the role which our two countries could proactively ask for and fight for, or what will be the role prescribed for our two countries, given that we are also in the vicinity of the Black Sea and the war in Ukraine?

I think I will not have exactly an Andre Malraux moment by saying that not the 21st century will be religious or will not be at all. But I would say that the next European Union will either be social and ecological or will not be at all. And the countries in the Balkans have at the same time a huge disadvantage and a huge advantage in that.

The huge disadvantage is that these countries are still seeking, as you said, for basic advancements in terms of social equity, in terms of way of living, in terms of normality, in the institutional framework, in terms of honesty, morality in the public space and so on. At the same time, there is the advantage of these countries, which is prompted by their geopolitical location. Now they are really the last ramparts, the most advanced posts of the European Union within a very gray area which seems to become unstable. And these two countries are oases of stability and of Europe-ness in the area. And this would normally prompt these countries to become much more active in defending not their egotistic views of the world, but the very altruistic views of their citizens who would basically try to become wealthier, to have a much more stable future, and who would also like to live in an institutional framework that is, to a higher extent, predictable. And in this way they can raise their children in Bulgaria and Romania and project the future of their lives and their countries.

So because of this unique geopolitical advantage that is under the current situation, much more advantage than it was before. I think that if the elites in these two countries would be a little bit more responsible and able to cope with the tasks of the historical momentum that they share, they would be much more able to defend the interests of their citizens who once again are not national, linguistic, but are very much compatible with the interests of the average citizens of the European Union itself.

I never expected to talk about the European Union or even Bulgaria. Romania could be so affirming, life affirming, let’s say. I’ve been accustomed to depressive discussions about the countries and even Europe. So thank you very much for this talk. Sergiu Miscolu. And I hope our listeners and readers will follow us on our multi media channels in YouTube, Telegram, Twitter and so on.

Photo: Sergiu Mișcoiu (source: YouTube)

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