EUrope – The Challenges

David Martin, President of the European Movement in Scotland, gave this speech when he was the opening speaker at Scotland’s first Festival of Europe at Summerhall Arts Centre, Edinburgh on 11th May 2024.

We are just under 4 weeks until the European elections kick-off and whether you live in Glasgow or Gdansk, London or Lisbon, Aberdeen or Athens these elections matter to you. How successfully the EU masters the many challenges it faces matters to those in and out of the EU.

After the European Elections the new Parliament, the Commission it endorses, and the new President of the Council will have a challenging in tray.

They will be being closely watched to see if they can find a method to ensure that all Member States comply with the rule of law. Citizens will be watching to see if they can they make the recent agreement for handling immigration work and can they build on it. Can the EU continue to be a leader in tackling climate change in the face of protests from farmers and some industries?

Externally does it have the unity and resources to deal with the war in Ukraine, face up to the threat of Donald Trump’s potential reincarnation or tackle the many economic problems thrown up by the rise of China.

Let me be blunt none of this is going to be easy.

The Threats

On Ukraine and China the EU has fifth columnists in its ranks.

On defence meeting Trump’s demand to increase spending is only part of the battle. Its true that the US dwarfs EU nations in military spending. In 2023, the US defence budget was around $801 billion. The combined budgets of EU countries, while substantial, lag behind. But it’s not just about spending The US gets more bangs for its bucks. In the US a handful of large defence contractors dominate. While in the EU procurement is fragmented among national industries, making standardisation challenging and interoperability sometimes impossible. While some progress has been made on increasing collaboration on major projects there is still duplication and wasteful competition.

The EU needs a common defence policy to deal with Russia, particularly if that is to be without the US. It needs a more efficient set of trade defence measures to deal with China. It needs to be able to enforce its rule of law principles against countries like Hungary and Slovakia with their limitations on media freedom and judicial independence. It needs political consensus on immigration and measures to tackle climate change.

I repeat none of this is going to be easy. It will require a bigger budget, institutional reform and political guile.


And all of this is to be done in the context of an impending enlargement with unanimity and agreement becoming more difficult.

Montenegro and Serbia opened negotiations in 2012 and 2014 respectively. North Macedonia and Albania in 2022. Bosnia&Herzogovina, and Kosovo have not yet opened negotiation and meanwhile Ukraine, Moldova and Georgie have requested to join.

Turkey’s long-standing application has been on ice for what feels like forever.

All bring serious challenges needing to be overcome. It is difficult to image the EU admitting a country at war into membership. Georgia (we have to hope not) could easily be on the brink of civil war. Not all EU states recognise Kosovo’s independence. Serbia is very close to Russia and might add to the fifth columnists in the EU ranks. Turkey actively opposes much of EU foreign policy.

Can these problems be overcome? Can the EU structures be reformed in readiness for a difficult enlargement.

This of course raises once again the perennial EU debate between widening and deepening. It is my view that the two must go together and it is worth noting that up to now through various treaty reforms the EU has managed to do both in tandem.

The Way Forward

I want to suggest some measures the EU should take in the coming years to make progress on these issues.

Lets start with the European Parliament elections.

Two groups have always dominated Parliament the centre right EPP and the centre left S&D. All the opinion polls suggest they will once again be the biggest groups but crucially with a smaller combined overall share of the Parliament. Probably just over 40% whereas in the past it has been closer to 50% and sometimes above that. To their left and right they will have an assortment of far right members, anti-Europeans, pro Russians, climate change deniers and so on. Despite the need for climate change to be high on the agenda the Greens are likely to come close to seeing their numbers halved and going from the 4th biggest group to the sixth. The third biggest group according to the latest poles is likely to be the ECR which includes the Brothers of Italy and the Polish Law and Justice party who when in power in Poland were widely accused of breaches of the rule of law.

This will throw up two challenges; firstly, the next (and probably the same) President of the European Commission needs absolute majority of members to be elected. The majority can be found in a combination of EPP, S&D, and Renew (the former Liberal Group). But each will want concessions in return for their votes. It’s important these negotiations are held on a friendly and co-operative basis. If they collapse, there is a threat of grid lock with no candidate able to obtain a majority or worse the EPP which has always prided itself on being the most pro-European group doing a deal with the hard right.

There is a real threat that spooked by bad elections results the big groups might feel the need to work with or make undesirable concessions to the extreme wings.

The same sort of challenge applies when Parliament settles down to its work. There is unlikely to be a formal pact, but the mainstream groups must be prepared to cooperate, file by file, to get workable legislation through. The EPP might have to give a bit to the S&D on social policy and the environment while the S&D might have to be a bit flexible on internal market measures or trade deals. It’s worth recalling that after Dutch election, where farmers reputably switched to the far right in reaction to environmental policies, the EPP abandoned some aspects of the previously consensual Green Deal.

As I have said not easy, but it is vital for the mainstream parties to find a modus vivendi to avoid the tail wagging the dog.

The Budget

If enlargement happens during the life of the next Parliament and Commission a financial crisis is looming. A conservative estimate of 37 billion euros a year is what the current enlargement plans would cost. This either means cutting existing beneficiaries from the structural funds and consequent loss of solidarity or an enlarged budget. Member States seem reluctant to put their hands in their pockets to finance the EU budget. So once again an issue that has been around as long as me, raises it head. It is the need for the EU to have its own resources. This could be a percentage of VAT, excise duty or some new revenue resource. As I say this has been around a long time and it won’t be easy but is becoming urgent.

Constitutional Reform

Finally, let me turn to Constitutional reform. I was the European Parliament’s rapporteur on what became the Maastricht Treaty. I know what a three-dimensional game of chess institutional or constitutional reform is. Yet, while once again I say it won’t be easy, I’m more optimistic here. Partly because needs must and when needs must the EU (or more accurately its predecessors) have come up with the goods through the Single Act, The Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, and Lisbon Treaties. But partly also because we don’t necessarily need a new Treaty.

One of the useful innovations of the Lisbon Treaty was to introduce a so-called Passarelle clause which allows the European Council to move a matter from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV).

Article 31 TEU permits the Council to add to the list of foreign policy matters on which the Council might vote by QMV. This could speed up things in dealing with Ukraine and China issues.

Article 312 allows the Council to vote by QMV on the multi annual framework. Which might make it possible to tackle the potential budget crisis.

Article 192 allows for changes in voting on certain environmental matters and 153 does the same for certain issues on workers’ rights.

If the will is there these measures could be adopted quite speedily.

The European Parliament in a resolution passed last November understandably wants to go further.

It proposes to strengthen and reform the procedure in Article 7 TEU with regard to the protection of the rule of law by ending unanimity, introducing a clear timeframe, and by making the Court of Justice the arbiter of violations.

It wants the scope of the common commercial policy (trade policy) expanded to include issues like human rights, good governance, sustainability and investment protection, no doubt with a nod to dealing with unfair trade practices from China but not only China. The US protectionist IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) was the subject of a strong attack from MEPs.

MEPs are calling for the establishment of a defence union.

And for sanctions and other measures to be adopted by QMV.


I have tried to convey in this short presentation the challenges the EU faces, the impediments to solving them, and some potential mechanisms for dealing with them.

I believe it is imperative that democrats unite across political divides to thwart those who would undermine the achievements of the EU. The Union must be equipped with the tools it needs to succeed.

As I have said all the way through, this is no easy task but it matters to us in the UK as much as those in Brussels, Rome and Berlin.

Thank you.