The state of the European Union is a state of mistrust. Can Europe reinvent itself? Seven ideas by Naomi Pereira and Andreas Mullerleile

This week EC president Juncker will give his much anticipated “State of the European Union” speech in which he will explain how the Commission is planning to deal with Europe’s multiple crisis. He will talk about the ‘refugee crisis’, possibly about the wars in Syria and Ukraine, he will mention the future of the euro and how Europe has dealt with the economic crisis. Surely, a few new interesting initiatives will be announced and we will hear some of the well-known bonmots about 'European values', a ‘more political’ Commission, 'jobs and growth' and that Europe is now at a ‘make or break’ point.

But instead of listening to a speech to learn about the 'state of the EU' one could simply look into a recent Eurobarometer survey. And the reality looks grim: European citizens feel disconnected from what the EU does and what it represents. 60% of Europeans don’t trust the EU. But that is not the whole story. 69% don’t even trust their respective national governments.

The state of the Union is a state of mistrust. Citizens mistrust politics and politicians, they don’t believe in Europe’s ability to solve problems. This however goes well beyond institutions and policies – this is a European problem and we are only starting to get a sense of what this means for the future of Europe. The big question is what to do about it.

Europe’s peace agenda revisited

We live in an interconnected world. This may not be a revolutionary insight but European citizens have now become aware of what it means in real life. The refugee crisis is a product of Europe's foreign policy failures. For years Europe's politicians have ignored the tragedies in the Mediterranean and too many have turned a blind eye to the situation in the Middle East. We can no longer pretend that inaction is no action. It should not take dead bodies on our shores, or refugees in our towns to engage in foreign policy.

However, an interconnected world also means that we need to rethink EU politics at a more fundamental level. Our role in the world is increasingly defined by how we deal with our problems at home. The EU likes to portray itself as a peace actor, it wants to set a good example for the world. But is Europe really leading by example?

The world is watching how we deal with Greece. People around the world are appalled when they see how we manage our borders, how we let people die in the Mediterranean or how we let them camp in Calais. Europe's 'crisis of values' is not only about foreign policy; a similar story can be told about the European economy: Europe wants to teach the world about transparency, fair tax systems and fair salaries but politicians in Europe fail to deal with tax dodgers and youth unemployment. Europe is saving banks - not its people. Is this really the story we want to tell the world?

Improving ‘the state of the union’ requires us to reinvent politics – both inside the EU and how we deal with the rest of the world. Rebuilding trust, managing dialogue and creative thinking should be at the heart of any political reinvention.

A simple to-do list for Europe's politicians

1. Admit mistakes and debate alternatives

A first step to rebuild trust between politicians and citizens would be for politicians to admit mistakes and develop real policy alternatives. Why not admit that the Dublin regulations are out of date and that Europe needs a common asylum policy? Maybe even a common immigration policy? Why not admit that European policy makers made mistakes during the eurocrisis? If politicians were more open about their mistakes they would appear more human.

2. Listen to the people

Politicians need to re-learn how to listen to citizens. While politicians ‘think about the next steps’, Europeans welcome refugees into their homes. It’s a similar story when it comes to foreign policy. Instead of talking to diplomats, Europe’s foreign policy community needs to make the effort to involve citizens in these processes – both within Europe and around the world. This could transform European diplomacy and may offer new ways to engage with the world.

3. Talk to your opponents

Worried about eurosceptics or populists? Politicians would be well advised to learn how to talk to their opponents (again). Trying to understand the thinking of populists and eurosceptics would be a first step in learning how to deal with them. Europe needs to facilitate dialogue with those that are considered the most ‘radical’. This is how to overcome internal divisions – and become a role model for the rest of the world.

4. European problems require European solutions

This is an easy point but easily forgotten. The EU has a common external border but no common immigration/asylum policy. The EU has a common currency but operates with an incomplete toolbox to manage it. A European solution for the current 'refugee crisis' is nowhere to be seen. Everyone wants to tackle the “root causes in the Middle East” but nobody seems to be interested in developing a real 'European' foreign policy.

5. The European way of life

How do we want to live in the future? Is there a European way of life? Europe is often described as a community of values, the EU “is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” (Treaty of the EU, Article 2) But we struggle to offer this 'European way of life' to people who live in Europe: Youth unemployment remains high, Muslim communities feel excluded, equality between men and women is not yet a reality, integration of refugees is not taken seriously and we have not even begun to think about how to reinvent our democracies. Are Europe’s values still part of Europe’s political DNA?

6. End the crisis mode

Greece, climate change, refugees. Politicians only act when a crisis hits. But why not think about prevention and solutions that actually work? Rebuilding trust within Europe requires politicians to be honest about the risks of inaction. To end the crisis mode we also need to make an effort to better explain policy alternatives and be ready to make bold decisions.

7. Engage in creative diplomacy

Creative diplomacy is about doing things differently. Europe has an opportunity to reinvent how it conducts its diplomacy. The Iran deal is a useful lesson in this respect: invest in a long term diplomatic process, get everyone around a table and think outside the box. EU foreign policy should be about preventive diplomacy and innovative conflict resolution strategies. But Europe also needs to increase its forward thinking capacity: not all security threats are linked to classic security problems. Developing a comprehensive answer to climate change is equally important as environmental issues are likely be at the heart of future conflicts. Other conflicts may happen in cyberspace or involve access to resources. Is Europe equipped to address these issues?

Europe is not “the other”

Rebuilding Europe will take time. Overcoming mistrust within Europe will be a challenge for years to come. “Europe” is not “the other”. We are all Europe. The state of the EU is also a reflection about ourselves. We have to rebuild the trust, if we are to overcome the divisions within Europe. We are judged by our actions not by our words. Citizens have taken matters into their own hands and shown what European spirit really is. It is time for politicians to do the same.