Rebooting the EU: European Parliament Secretary-General discusses changing role of European Union

Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies, and Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament

February 27, 2017
by Margaux Fontaine

The Walsh School of Foreign Service, in conjunction with the BMW Center for German and European Studies and the Master of Science in Foreign Service program, hosted a discussion with European Parliament Secretary-General Klaus Welle about the future of the EU given the ever-changing global context.

Welle began his remarks by highlighting the achievements that the EU has made over the past few decades, including the spread of democracy and human rights, the end of totalitarianism, and the implementation of the Euro.

“My argument is that since 1991 – which was a kind of turning point of European and global history, the collapse of the Soviet Union – the European Union has really achieved some remarkable things,” he said.

Despite these achievements, there is a sense that EU has reached a new turning point.

Looking at the external environment, change is occurring across the globe; the EU faces new and continuing issues such as Russia and the Middle East. Internally, the EU is still dealing with the aftershock of the financial crisis, having limited options for fiscal and monetary policy. As in the U.S., globalization has not impacted all Europeans equally, with some benefitting from increased prosperity and opportunities and others seeing their jobs lost overseas. Migration, including dealing with refugees from war-torn Syria, remains a hotly contested issue within the EU as well.

One of the consequences of these challenges is the rise of nationalism throughout Europe. Welle explained that while political power in European countries has tended to shift between the centre-right and centre-left, more extreme parties are now emerging. Many within these parties are Eurosceptics, opponents to the institution of the EU. The effects of such viewpoints have clear repercussions, as evidenced with last year’s “Brexit” vote. Fundamentally, Welle explained, the question facing the European Union is a question of openness – with trade, with immigration, or with European integration.

“The system in the European Union means our system of problem-solving, which means we sit together, we negotiate, we try to find compromise, we integrate, we share sovereignty,” he said. “I would argue that the underlying question of what is happening is: ‘open or closed?’”

Welle identified two contrasting issues that people have with the EU: that it does too much, or that it does too little. People expect the EU to manage large-scale issues like migration, while also complaining that the EU is too involved or bureaucratic.

Moving forward, Welle thinks the EU should act less as a legislative machine and in more of a complementary executive capacity, providing assistance with infrastructure, security, transportation, and even health professionals.

Following Welle’s remarks, Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies Dr. Jeffrey Anderson joined him onstage for a discussion and question-and-answer session. Hitting close to home, many students in the audience were from European countries and asked questions concerning the ongoing role of the European Union and the need to work together.