"The EU needs strong leaders"

UM experts about what or who threatens the EU


The European Union has existed for almost 75 years. It started with a handful of member states, but the union now has 28 members, still including the United Kingdom. What threats does the EU face? Do they come from within, what about Brexit, Polish and Hungarian nationalism, or do they come from outside the EU? From China, the US or Russia? Observant consulted UM experts in the field of Europe and fake news.

Professor Sophie Vanhoonacker: external threats

“If Europe wants to have any influence, the member states will have to stand as one”

Sophie Vanhoonacker, Professor of Administrative Governance in the EU and dean of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences starts off by saying “We find ourselves at a pivoting point in history.” “The twentieth century was an American century. The US governed, even after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which marked the end of the Cold War. But in the 21st century, we see multiple players on the world stage. I mention China and the US, but perhaps also Russia. World order is changing and the question is: where does Europe fit in? What is our role?”

Along with the changing positions of power, Western values that have been dominant since the end of the Second World War are being challenged: “The free-market economy, human rights, good governance, the constitutional state. The Western model is under pressure, partly from the US. The Trump administration is not taking the free market seriously, while China is defending that principle, rather ironically, even though China, of course, cannot throw stones.”

In addition, the “extreme liberalism is the cause of our welfare state no longer being self-evident”. And last but not least, there is big brother America, who for decades served as a “safety net” and is now no longer prepared to pay the bill for the defence of the Europeans. Indeed, the EU will have to look after itself.

This is a handful of threats that Europe needs to deal with. Although there are not just threats, Vanhoonacker emphasises, “there are also opportunities, but we do need to take steps.” Steps towards mutual co-operation, because for her one thing is crystal clear: “If Europe wants to have any influence in this new world order, then the member states will have to stand as one: speak with one voice.” If that doesn't happen, the individual countries will be played off against each other (“China, and also the Russians are already hard at it”) and mangled between the superpowers.

Take security. “Which we have largely left to the US since 1945. The question is: will the member states develop a joint defence policy? Various EU countries now invest more in military equipment, systems and hardware, but this is done by the individual countries themselves, rather than in consultation with the other countries. By working together, they would achieve more and at the same time become less dependent on the US.”

It is not just about investing in the army or the air force. Vanhoonacker points out that the chances of a ‘classic’ confrontation between armies are smaller than, for example, a cyber war. “Russian tanks no longer need to go to Berlin, now that Russian trolls can influence public opinion and manipulate elections.” This also requires joint action, having said that, not every problem requires the 28 countries to take action together, Vanhoonacker says. Flexibility - working together in different compositions - is a good thing. As is the intensification of the wide range of instruments that can be used to protect the EU in the new world order: “I'm thinking of economic sanctions, which we can apply as a trading nation. But also development aid, security missions, crisis management, cyber security, collaboration of secret services, et cetera.”

A lot has been done since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; she feels that the institutional structure in Brussels, for example, is well developed. But by constantly looking for compromises, whether it is about foreign policies, the migration crisis or defence, it is very much the question whether we are moving fast enough.

One last point: “The EU is the answer to the Second World War, it stands for no more wars ever. For a long time, Europe - partly because the US took care of security - presented itself as a normative power. We stood for democracy, human rights, we exported our values to Asia and Africa and rapped the knuckles of China and numerous other countries. As the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte recently said in a speech in New York, we must not only defend our normative values, but also international interests, especially now that the US is fading into the background. We need to become tougher, more pragmatic. This means that you strike deals with China, anyway, despite the human rights situation.”

Riki Janssen


Jaro Pichel, education specialist about fake news

“They are playing with our emotions, hinting at fear”

“Fake news is a huge threat for the stability in Europe and faith in authorities, such as journalists, scientists and the political powers,” starts Jaro Pichel, education specialist and working for EdLab and the university library. “We are losing faith in their words. Our emotions are being played with, hinting at fear, we are starting to doubt our standards and values, our ideas.” Pichel sees these developments as “a downward spiral in which populism and racism are given the opportunity to grow”.

Let's first talk about the term fake news. “I prefer to talk about misinformation,” says Pichel. “That is a broader concept. A ‘news item’ can be deliberately sent out into the world with the intention to damage someone, for example, to bring down the political campaign of an opponent, or to disrupt society, but information can also be ‘subconsciously’ misleading.” He mentions as an example the Google big data failure. Google predicted the course of a flu epidemic on the basis of entered search terms. They thought by doing so they could map out the new flu season, but the analysis of the data was not as good as they thought. “Google had subconsciously made a slip.”

Anyone who thinks that fake news is a new phenomenon is wrong. It has existed for “two thousand years. From the moment we started to communicate, we have used information to reach a particular objective. What is new, is the way in which we do so. Every man and his dog can digitally send all kinds of nonsense out into the world.”

The European elections have prompted the European Commission into intensifying the battle against fake news. They introduced a detailed plan of action last year. Large Internet companies such as Google and Facebook signed a code of conduct. In doing so they ‘promised’ to do their best to keep political advertisements as transparent as possible and to take action against fake accounts.
Pichel is sceptical: “Google, Twitter, and Facebook have become very powerful platforms, a ‘playground’ for distributors of fake news. That these companies are held accountable, I think is good, even necessary. At the same time, I wonder how effective such codes of conduct are.” Pichel reckons that the EU should have taken action sooner. “When Facebook started to get bigger, both Zuckerberg and the EU should have thought about the consequences. Now it has become too big. You see what happens when people are given the room to show their ‘worst side’. It becomes a monster that is difficult to slay.” At the same time, Pichel sees freedom of speech as “the greatest democratic good”, something that must never be tampered with. “That is why it is so difficult to attach legal consequences to it.”

Pichel refers to a blog by Maja Brkan, lecturer at the Maastricht Faculty of Law, in which she writes about the struggle of people against fake news in terms of David and Goliath. “No matter how difficult it is, it is mainly down to people themselves to be critical", says Pichel. “As an individual, you take the decision to believe something or not.” Pichel applauds the fact that the EU promotes media literacy, also in education. He reckons that you don't see enough of that in the curricula of study programmes at Maastricht University. "Knowledge of the media and how information comes about, knowing how algorithms work, knowing what is hidden behind Facebook and Google: these must all become key skills.”
And not unimportantly: be aware of your biases, he emphasises. “We have a certain view of the world and will automatically feel attracted to news items that can support or confirm such views. We must also learn to look at other perspectives, read something that absolutely does not support your view.”
In the next academic year, the UM is going to start with the pilot project Information Wise. Six faculties will work together on this project. “We want to know how students get their information at the moment, where do they start their searches and how do they know if the information is ‘correct’? Also, what do you do when you come across an article that expresses a completely different view? The ultimate goal of the project is to create an evidence-based information literacy programme for bachelor students. It is very important that this trajectory has learning lines from novice to expert. Meaning that students gradually learn how to be self-reflective and deal critically with information.”

According to Pichel, prevention is “the best measure. It actually starts in primary schools. I see it as our joint responsibility, just like sustainability.”

Wendy Degens


Professor Christine Neuhold on the internal threats within the EU

"Another challenge is the democratic regression of Hungary and Poland"

“Be careful with the term threat, because it sounds like something that can happen to us very quickly, like something negative. I would rather speak of challenges. They are often national issues, matters that apply on a member state level, but that subsequently have repercussions for the European Union.” Observant speaks with Christine Neuhold, professor of EU Democratic Governance at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and director of the Maastricht University Campus in Brussels. She is Austrian, lives in Belgium and works in the Netherlands. “Truly a product of the European Union,” she grins.  

The EU has plenty of challenges; she touches on three: Brexit, the regression of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Poland, and the European elections, or to be more precise the creation of a coalition after the votes have been counted.  

“Europe could have landed in a major crisis because of Brexit, but this didn't happen. I don't see any other countries seriously thinking about leaving the EU. I think that Brexit is first and foremost linked to British politics. The fact that they haven't left yet, that it has turned into a disaster, has a lot to do with the British political system. On the other hand, it also has to do with European politics. Many people find it difficult to understand, it is far away, which makes the EU an easy prey for fake news. It reminds me of the well-known Brexit buses covered in slogans about the exorbitant amounts that the British had to contribute every week; they were based on completely incorrect figures. But people believed it. The problem was that there were no buses advertising the advantages: that the EU makes it easier to travel, work and study abroad and that there is free trade.”

Another challenge is the democratic regression of member states such as Hungary and Poland. They are not very particular about the rule of law; they censor the media, remove independent judges. “It took a while, but the European Commission has finally started the Article 7 process (suspending the rights of member states in case of a breach of civil rights, ed.) against Poland and now the European Parliament has started one against Hungary. One could say that it should have happened sooner, but they have reacted and in doing so sent a signal to others.” Neuhold points out that the arrival of extreme right parties is for a large part a national matter, but it does have its repercussions for Europe and that is why it is “important that the EU says: we will not tolerate democratic regression”.

As far as the European elections this week are concerned, it is expected that extreme left and extreme right will gain ground at the expense of the established parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. Even still, the pro-European politicians will most likely maintain a majority. “It will be interesting to see how things turn out. Five years ago, the extreme right also won too, but ultimately their impact turned out to be small. That has everything to do with how European politics work. Coalitions are very important. The question is whether the extreme parties can form a larger group. If they manage to do so - and that is very likely this time - the dynamics will change. But in the past they did not manage to form - but more importantly to maintain - a coalition. You need to have a political programme, you need a number of member states and you must be willing to make compromises. Those extreme parties often have too little in common when it comes to policy formulation.”

Exactly what the EU will look like after the elections, also depends on who will become the president of the European Commission. “It is not an easy time. We need strong ‘leaders’ with a clear vision, who are not afraid to enter into debate. With whomever. The new man or woman must love the debate and as far as that is concerned, Frans Timmermans would be a good one.”

Riki Janssen

This article is part of a special about Europe with Martin Paul, President of Maastricht University as guest editor-in-chief.