Is democracy under fire? The European Union before the elections

the elections, democracy, European Union
© Sergey Tinyakov |

Günther H.Oettinger, Commissioner for Budget & Human Resources at the European Commission analyses why democracy is under fire in the European Union in the lead up to the elections in May 2019 – but also underlines the strengths of Europe including competitiveness

In this article, I cast an eye over what 2019 holds and even further over the coming decades. I want to look at how we can overcome the challenges ahead and what role Europe should play in this.

Political risks: Brexit and trade wars

If we look at the political agenda, nearly every point is prefaced with the words ‘we hope that’, for example:

• We hope that there won’t be a trade war between the European Union (EU) and the U.S.

• We are looking at worldwide developments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey – problems such as a democratic deficit, autocratic governments, inflation and recession.

Competing or clashing value systems

In essence, what we are experiencing right now is a competition between value systems. Our value system is based on parliamentary democracy, a social market economy, the separation of powers, the rule of law, independent courts – the third branch of government – and freedom of speech, the press, religion and belief. Now we are seeing that there are other forms of order – and disorder:

• The worst forms of the disorder include terrorism, forced displacement and add to that autocracies in places such as Ankara.

We must fight for our European value system

If we want to preserve this value system for ourselves, we must actively fight for it. We need to work as a team and to raise our profile and be more convincing.

Europe’s strengths:

Extending our Union for peace to the Western Balkans

Europe was, is and remains first and foremost a Union for peace. If we want to extend this peace to the Western Balkans, then we should logically envisage enlarging Europe by up to six Western Balkan countries. They are doing everything in their power to meet the requirements for joining the EU, step by step. But if we as citizens, voters and taxpayers aren’t willing to welcome these countries, then they will turn away from Brussels and towards Moscow or Ankara.

Our second strength: Europe must continue to export its values

Secondly, we have exported our values. The accession of 13 new countries over the last decade was perhaps too much too soon – maybe so. But the windows offered to us by history open and close so fast. If Slovakia, Czechia, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, and most recently Croatia, had not become part of the European Union, some of these countries would be vulnerable from aggressive wind from Russia, just like the unfortunate Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.

Our third strength: the benefits of a single market and external trade

Third, the greatest economic achievement of the European Union is the single market. With 550 million people, it is still the biggest single market in the world.

Added to this single market, is external trade. If you have a single market, you must negotiate trade agreements at the European level. At the moment, we are in negotiations with Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Mexico, Chile and Mercosur. This is a large part of the benefit we get from Europe. Our single market brings untold benefits within the EU and our collective trade negotiations bring added value in our dealings with the outside world.

Europe – the continent of freedom and free movement

Fourth, Europe is the continent of freedom and free movement. My favourite town in Europe is Görlitz on the River Neisse. After the Second World War, the river became a cold dividing line. The western half of Görlitz belonged to the district of Dresden in the GDR and the eastern half was part of Polish Silesia. There was no contact or movement whatsoever between these two parts of the town. Today, Poland and Germany are united in the European Union.

Competitiveness: Europe must not become an open-air museum

Fifth, European competitiveness. There are a few new areas where there is clear added value from European cooperation, such as robotics, sensors, photonics, micro and nanoelectronics, high-performance computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

No company (neither Philips and Schneider Electric nor Siemens and Bosch) has enough human resources, engineers, IT specialists or money to compete alone against Google, Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft in Silicon Valley. This is why in the next long-term EU Budget 2021-2027, we foresee more money for research which will allow us, for example, to co-finance public-private partnerships in areas, such as artificial intelligence (AI).

EU elections in May 2019

This year, we have also EU elections in May and we will have to see whether the European Parliament remains sufficiently stable and pro-European. At the moment, the ‘grand coalition’ between the European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left political group (S&D) has a majority, but the polls suggest it will not hold. We, therefore, need a third party to join forces with it, such as ALDE, the Macronists or the Greens. We should also expect an anti-European alliance for the first time.

That is why European elections should be as important as national elections to European citizens, me and everyone, no more and no less so. For our democracy, for our values, for our achievements.


Günther H.Oettinger

Commissioner for Budget & Human Resources

European Commission


  1. As WW2 disappears from living memory people will stop relating to its horrors and forget them…
    It’s like a huge drinking binge at a party. When suffering the hangover one swears never to go to such a party again. But as memories of the pain fade away one begins to toy with going to the party again.

    Sometimes I worry that many Europeans think it’s time for another party…


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