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    Happy New Year Ms Merkel, Happy New Year Mr Macron – the time has come to reform the EU

    January 2021

    The geopolitical grouping known as the “frugal four” – Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands – has emerged as a key power centre in last year’s negotiations on the size of the next EU budget and the shape of the bloc’s recovery fund. Last May the group grew from four to five when Finland became an informal member. Together they make up almost a sixth of the EU’s gross domestic product (GDP), roughly on a par with France and just behind Germany.

    The group’s leaders, including Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, are becoming power players in the EU. They have reclaimed many domestic voters inclined to the populist right, while limiting the influence in the EU of the “Club Med” southern European states and the Visegrád countries of central Europe.

    However, for all their success, the group’s embrace of the “frugal” banner now risks becoming a trap – both for members of the group and the rest of the EU. For public opinion in these countries is not very frugal, according to an October opinion poll of last year commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

    Almost 8 out of 10 respondents in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden did not agree that “the EU is spending too much money”, Indeed, if frugality is measured by support for this opinion, then it is strongest in Germany – but even there only 26% of respondents shared it.

    The poll also found that the vast majority of citizens in the frugal five think they benefit from being in the EU. They value the freedom to live and work in other countries; the benefits of the single market; co-operation on security, justice and terrorism; and peace.

    To be sure, respondents in the five states have some major concerns about Europe. Many see a risk of waste and corruption in how certain governments will use money from the EU recovery fund. Some 42% fear that their country is losing influence in the post-Brexit EU, against 27% who think it is on the rise. The feeling that European integration is something being done to them, rather than a project their governments can shape, is particularly strong in Finland (48%) and the Netherlands (43%).

    I believe that characterizing the five countries as frugal bean – counters is unnecessarily defensive and limits their ability to shape Europe’s future. Their leaders would in my opinion do better if they repositioned around a more optimistic vision. Rather than trying to keep the EU as small and cheap as possible, these five dynamic countries should argue for reinventing the bloc by focusing on digital innovation, green transformation and security.

    The polling in my opinion also suggests that their citizens would applaud efforts to develop a high-profile mechanism to fight corruption and uphold the rule of law. In other words, the “frugal four” should become the “transformative five”. Transformation and innovation in the EU is urgently needed, as the US tech sector today is worth more than all the stock markets of the EU member countries combined.

    If Paris and Berlin are serious about rebuilding the EU, they need to stop hatching plans in a closed Franco-German format that leaves other states feeling powerless. It is this sense of loss of control that leads to frugality and foot-dragging. French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel should pitch their recovery plans around Europe’s green and digital future, rather than allowing talk of “Hamiltonian moments” and claims that Covid-19 will force further financial integration on the bloc.

    More importantly in my opinion, they should develop and propose their ideas in ways that allow the “transformative five” to show their own citizens that they are actively helping to drive the train rather than being mere passengers. One example is the close Dutch-Germany defence cooperation, which leads the way towards more European integration in this field.

    Germany’s recent experience helps to validate this approach. In the years since the financial crisis, Berlin has said “nein” to a lot of ideas which would have cost German taxpayers lots of money. But in the pandemic, Germany played a lead role in developing the EU’s recovery plan. Its citizens so far seem to have responded positively: Germany is the only country polled where a majority feels their country’s influence in the EU is increasing.

    The welfare of the EU’s most vulnerable citizens depends on the self-confidence of its wealthiest member states. If citizens of prosperous states feel that they are being taken for a ride, they are obviously more likely to act as a brake on ambitious European projects.

    But if they feel in control and integrated, they could become a motor driving European solidarity, helping the EU build back better.