Troubled EU plots its future course

Troubled EU plots its future course

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis arrives for the informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania. (Reuters)

European presidents and prime ministers met on Thursday for a landmark summit aimed at helping to set the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years. The session, which came just days before the May 23-26 European Parliament elections, looked not only at the challenges and opportunities ahead, but was also a stocktake on the past.

The EU’s current agenda was agreed in 2014 by the European Council and has focused on five priority areas: Jobs, growth and competitiveness; empowering and protecting citizens; energy and climate policies; freedom, security and justice; and the EU as a strong global actor.

There has been important progress in these areas in the last five years, but there is also a widespread recognition that there is much more to do, especially in the context of growing Euroskepticism across the continent. The last five years have seen not just the Brexit referendum, but also a growing backlash against Brussels across the continent, with openly skeptical governments being formed from Italy to Poland.

The rise of anti-integration sentiment could reach a new high-water mark in this month’s elections, which will set the political weather in the continent for months to come. Here, Euroskeptic parties across the continent are hoping for big gains, building on the 2014 elections that saw significant swings to anti-integration parties from the extreme right to the far left.

Thursday’s summit in Romania, the first time that the country has hosted an EU leaders’ meeting since it joined the bloc in 2007, was also one of the last big meetings before European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker bows out of office in November. For some time, Juncker has led a debate across the EU-27 about its future into the 2020s.

The last five years have seen not just the Brexit referendum, but also a growing backlash against Brussels across the continent.

Andrew Hammond

The summit was one of his last opportunities to push his vision for the future of the union. While he has a clear personal preference for greater integration among member states, including the creation of a European Defence Union, there are still a multitude of views across the continent. 
The Romanian summit was therefore a major opportunity to steer and shape debate about the continent’s future with a view to finalizing a vision that could potentially see Europe emerge stronger from the current challenges and opportunities it faces. To help facilitate this, Juncker has outlined a number of key 2025 scenarios to try to crystalize a consensus before he leaves office.

The scenarios range from the EU retreating, post-Brexit, to no more than the current economic single market that seeks to guarantee the freedom of movement of goods, capital, services and people. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is a quite different future for the continent, where the 27 post-Brexit member states decide to do much more together, reigniting European integration, which is favored not just by Juncker but also French President Emmanuel Macron.

Yet, of the five scenarios, “carrying on” is probably the most likely to be realized. This would see the EU muddling through from where it is today and seeking to deliver on the 2016 Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap, which were agreed just weeks after the Brexit referendum.

This manifesto includes improved policies regarding migration and border security, plus beefing up external security and defense. It also stresses enhanced economic and social development, especially for the young people across the continent who have been badly impacted by the fallout from the 2008-09 international financial crisis; not least in countries like Spain and Greece.

However, further setbacks — which are likely in the next few years — could instead see either a “nothing but the single market” or “doing less more efficiently” scenario come to pass. In either of these futures, the current scale of EU functions would be rolled back, with attention and limited resources focused instead on a smaller number of policy areas, including the single market.

In the months after the Brexit referendum, perhaps the least likely scenario to be realized by 2025 was “doing much more together.” However, some in Brussels are now more bullish on this, not least with last month’s Spanish election result, which saw the strongly pro-Brussels socialist government easily emerge as the biggest party, underlining the significant support for the EU across much of the continent. This “doing more” option would see all 27 remaining states sharing more power and resources, with decisions agreed faster and enforced much more quickly. 

Perhaps more likely, however, is the “those who want to do more” scenario, which would see more coalitions of the willing emerge in select policy areas to take forward the integration agenda on a flexible, rather than across-the-board, basis. A model here could be the euro zone, where 19 of the current 28 EU members have entered into a monetary union with the euro as the single currency. 

One scenario that is, inevitably, left out is the worst case of the bloc imploding. Nonetheless, given the build-up of challenges now facing it — which go well beyond Brexit — this outcome cannot be completely dismissed in the 2020s.

Taken overall, Thursday’s summit kicked off the final phase of the EU’s debate over its future. Decisions taken this summer and autumn, including over the future of the euro zone, will define the economic and political character of the bloc well into the 2020s and potentially beyond.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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