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EU leaders insist 'Europe works' despite huge fears for its future

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Socialist protesters outside the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos. Photo: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

European politicians at Davos today made impassioned pleas for young people to stand up for the EU, despite the huge challenges and divisions now faced by the continent.

A bleak mood about the future of Europe and globalisation has pervaded many events at the summit in Switzerland, where global business and political leaders are meeting this week.

Several senior figures were damning in their admissions of the political establishment’s failures in recent years, with “no real European vision” and a mishandling of the economic crisis, immigration and globalisation itself.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malstrom admitted she was “frightened” by the rise of the yellow-vest demonstrators, nationalist politicians and anti-migration sentiment in Europe.

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With some analysts expecting insurgent, populist parties to make gains in elections for the European Parliament in May, Malstrom said at one event on Euroscepticism: “This might be the last European Commission made up of people who believe in Europe. I’m very worried about that.”

She said it was vital to mobilise young people because there were “a lot of things at stake”, citing disproportionately high support for the EU among younger voters.

European leaders at Davos. Photo: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar also made a powerful case for the EU itself when asked for his message to younger people at an earlier event also on Europe’s future.

He said: “Europe works. It’s not perfect, but it does work. As a result of it, we’ve had 70 years of peace, prosperity, security and human rights.

“The problems young people care about – whether its tackling climate change, managing migration or how we manage trans-global corporations – no nation state is big enough. They can only be dealt with at a multilateral level.

“Europe’s influence is diminishing in the world. By the time young people are old, Europe might make up 7% of world’s population and maybe 15% of its economy.

“If we’ve any chance of preserving our values, our way  of life and the way we believe things should happen, we should stick together.”

Malstrom said European governments had failed to protect those who had lost out from globalisation, fuelling support for new political movements.

“In the economic crisis, lots of people lost their houses, jobs and even their hopes.

“A lot of politicians have used that fear to say they have easy solutions, but there are no easy solutions.”

But she said the notion “all of Europe is against the EU is wrong,” saying polls showed support at a 10-year high in all countries bar Italy.

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Italy’s foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi agreed that the financial crisis and migration crisis had not been handled properly, with both the EU and nation-states failing to fix its border issues.

Milanesi said: “There is no real  Eu ropean vision at the moment, such as the vision which moved the founders. “We need to find things that mobilise people, that make the heart beat faster, not just the wallet.”

Divisions were also on show as Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said there was a “total lack of solidarity” between EU members in handling refugees.

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Rutte said Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden were shouldering the burden, and demanded a solution across the 27 EU nations.

The summit comes amid bleak forecasts on the economic front, with new figures showing business growth slowing in the Eurozone.

Reuters reports that a survey found new work in both manufacturing and services dropping for the first time in four years across Europe.

For all the widespread soul-searching over globalisation’s failures at this year’s Davos event, it is likely to be viewed with some scepticism by critics of the annual gathering.

The conference itself has become associated with the perceived failures of globalisation, as well as the vast wealth and power of a global elite.

The sight of the rich and powerful rubbing shoulders and sipping champagne at a Swiss ski resort has made it an easy target for public anger and occasional protests.