High-level meeting: dialogue with Mr Frans Timmermans

Published on 19/06/2017


Our Past President of AEPL, Claude Wachtelaer, visits the European Commission.


Above all, it is essential that citizens are reassured by policies that visibly improve their living conditions. Adopt democratic, efficient and comprehensible institutions. Set an objective based on simple principles and values shared by the majority of citizens. Put people back at the centre of all public action.

These are the conditions that will make it possible to restore the sense of European integration that is lacking today, and to regain the confidence of our citizens. Citizens to whom we must show that Europe cares about them, protects their way of life and guarantees them security, peace and prosperity while remaining open to the world. Diversity is not a handicap, but an opportunity if the European Union is to continue to hold its own, to influence the course of the world and to represent a unique example of shared sovereignty for the good of all.

Our thoughts on the EU 27 to 2025.

The Association Européenne de la Pensée Libre (AEPL) wishes first of all to point out that its corporate purpose and its founding charter clearly indicate our desire to support the European project. It goes without saying that this support can only be seen as constructive criticism. Everyone knows that complacency is not a factor for progress.

We have read the Commission's White Paper with interest, and we approve of the approach which consists of submitting five scenarios for consultation, without favouring any of them and having the clarity to list the advantages and disadvantages of each. This avoids a pitfall denounced by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman when he said they constructed a very complicated scenario and insisted on calling it highly probable. It is not - it is only a plausible story".[1].

Two scenarios seem to be more in line with our aspirations. Scenario 5 (doing more together) corresponds to our organisation's ideal. However, from a governance point of view, scenario 3 (Those who want more do more) has a number of advantages, because it combines pragmatism with the will to move forward. In a way, this scenario is reminiscent of concentric circles.

The reflections of our working groups and the reactions of our members to our newsletters have already enabled us to define a number of fundamental concerns, and will enable us to propose possible solutions at the conference at the end of the year.

A number of key issues stand out:

  • Social Europe
  • Respect for fundamental rights
  • The fight against populism
  • Security and defence
  • The future governance of Europe

To each of them we apply the reading and evaluation keys we developed in 2015, which are worth repeating.

  • To free the whole of the European public sphere and that of the Member States from any hold exercised in the name of a particular religion or ideology.
  • Promoting the full recognition and extension of fundamental rights.
  • Developing social solidarity and citizenship mechanisms 
  • Promoting a new Social Contract within the EU.
  • Developing an ethical culture of caring as European public policy.


Social Europe.

AEPL welcomes the recent Rome Declaration, which makes social Europe a priority, while regretting that responsibility for the majority of legislation in this area remains the exclusive competence of the Member States. It is therefore unrealistic to hope for a general and rapid harmonisation of social rights in Europe. However, a number of discrepancies, which encourage unhealthy competition between European workers, play an important role in the public's disaffection with the EU and in the rise of populism. Progress must therefore be made in three areas in particular:

Freedom of movement for people

There can be no real union unless the obstacles to freedom of establishment and freedom of movement are removed. But this freedom comes with responsibilities, and the Member States cannot claim this freedom without including in their considerations the issue of equal social rights and equal pay for posted workers and nationals. There is an urgent need to resolve this issue, the current perception of which is very damaging to the EU's image.

Freedom of movement must also be strengthened by extending programmes such as Erasmus, which make a significant contribution to the emergence of a European identity, to other categories of beneficiaries.

Converging social rights

We recognise the progress made by the Commission's proposal for a European set of social rights', while regretting that it is not binding. We therefore hope that the introduction of financial incentives will encourage Member States to sign up to these schemes, which are designed to improve social policies.

Social investment.

We hope that the EU will increase its investment in housing, health, culture and education through the European Social Fund and the Strategic Investment Fund. We believe that these sectors are of strategic importance in the fight against the rise of populism by demonstrating that the EU cares about its citizens. In this respect, a fallow area that needs urgent attention is that of rural areas and suburbs in many Member States.

Respect for fundamental rights.

AEPL is concerned about the rise in criticism of the European institutions responsible for ensuring respect for fundamental rights. While the Commission's reactions to the Polish and Hungarian situations are to be welcomed, their effectiveness is questionable.

It is with concern that we see speeches developing here and there that call into question the very notion of fundamental rights and, even more seriously, that question the relevance of the role of the institutions whose task it is to apply them. Whether in the name of national independence, the necessary fight against terrorism, or more or less imaginary conspiracies, we are seeing the development in certain Member States or candidate countries of a temptation to return to strong regimes, which we obviously cannot support. We therefore call on the European institutions to combat these excesses with the utmost vigour.

The fight against populism.

At the symposium planned for the end of this year, we will have the opportunity to develop our current thinking on this theme. We can already say that these reflections are organised into four themes:

  • A reflection on European identity. Who are we as Europeans (a humanism for humanity)?
  • A reflection on the values we defend (freedom, security, solidarity).
  • A reflection on the way Europeans live (responsible and humane democratic system).
  • A reflection on what we are fighting (divisions, selfishness and inward-looking attitudes, anti-democratic and freedom-destroying measures).

Security and defence.

The image of the EU as a shield guaranteeing peace, if it continues to correspond to reality, has largely ceased to arouse enthusiasm or, more modestly, support among Europeans.

On the other hand, there is a growing sense of insecurity among Europe's populations, particularly under the influence of terrorism. To this end, it is time to make the Union's external borders more secure by providing for their control by European border guards and coastguards, while preserving the Schengen zone.

The peace that has reigned in Europe for the last seventy years, but also the conflicts that have existed or still exist on the periphery of the EU, obviously blur the line between the notion of 'defence' (usually entrusted to the army) and that of 'security' (normally entrusted to the police). The presence of the army in public places, while raising real questions of cost and efficiency, nevertheless seems to be well accepted by the public. But this phenomenon should not blind us to the fact that the role of an army is different from that of the police, especially when so-called 'peacekeeping' operations involve EU countries intervening outside their own borders and even outside the borders of the Union.

As far as security is concerned, we are in favour - especially if we want to preserve the free movement of people - of closer cooperation between the forces of law and order and the judiciary in the various Member States.

We are aware that a genuine European defence cannot be developed without strengthening political union, and that this is not a simple project to implement.

But if the years of peace we have been enjoying for the past 70 years are to be more than an interval between the conflicts of the past and those of the future, we encourage the EU authorities to reflect on the concept of 'positive peace' by the Norwegian sociologist Johan GALTUNG. Unlike 'negative peace', which is simply the absence of conflict, 'positive peace' requires a society that promotes it to eliminate as many contradictions and uncertainties as possible and to create a sustainable space in which freedoms, equity, fundamental rights and social justice can flourish.

This ambition takes us from questions of security and defence to a more global project, one that could turn the 'old continent', stagnant and in decline, into a 'good old continent' where people can live in peace, security and collective fulfilment.

Governance with appropriate institutions.

If the relaunch of the EU is to be a success, we need institutions that are efficient, democratic and understandable to citizens. This means clarifying the European institutional triangle, which has become far too complex. We need to move towards European sovereignty and federalisation of the institutions, which is the only form of governance capable of fostering the emergence of a genuine European political society. This presupposes a European Parliament, the lower house, with the power to initiate legislation, and a Commission with real executive power. The European Council would become the Senate. Such governance would put an end to the current intergovernmental policy as conducted by the European Council.

A re-evaluated budget.

In order to carry out the measures mentioned above, as well as all the common European policies - which we will mention at the end-of-year conference - the EU must have an appropriate budget, which must be considerably increased to ensure the credibility and visibility of the actions carried out by the Union. We also need to look again at the question of the budgetary resources that will feed such a budget.

The need for tactical acumen.

In the current context, with elections scheduled in several countries, notably Germany and Italy, it is very important that the Commission continues to act with a keen tactical sense (e.g. the White Paper) while ensuring that the positive perception once again held by many European citizens is preserved. Let's not forget that the perception of things is more important than their reality. To this end, it must ensure that there are no new accessions in the next five years. It must also and above all exploit the very many possibilities still potentially offered by the Lisbon Treaty to move forward, as suggested in the report by Elmar Brok MEP. So this is not the time for referendums. However, if this were to become unavoidable, it would be appropriate to introduce the rule, as in the United States, that any question submitted to a referendum is adopted when 4/5 of the states have approved it. This would rule out any veto.


The above is an initial contribution from AEPL on a complex subject. It intends to develop some of the aspects raised here further at the symposium scheduled for autumn this year.

[1] Daniel KAHNEMAN, Thinking fast and slow, Penguin books, London, 2011.



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AEPL report "An impartial state

Published on 21/10/2017

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