Monday

25th Mar 2019

Opinion

Birthday wishes to the European Union

The 60th anniversary of the European Union this month comes at an explosive historical period in European and global politics.

2016 was an annus horribilis, a horrible year, for the European Union.

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Sapped of confidence and vigour by the Great Recession, growing turbulence in its neighbourhood, and further terrorist attacks - the European Union was confronted by the decision of one of its largest member states, the United Kingdom, to withdraw its membership.

Not to mention the election of an openly anti-EU president in the United States of America.

These events lend urgency to the discussion taking place in Florence, 4-6 May, at the European University Institute’s annual State of the Union Conference, with the title: Building a People’s Europe.

Transformation

The challenge for the EU is to transform the vicious cycle of its recent history into a virtuous cycle, whereby it finds the political capacity and will to ensure that the legacy of the last 60 years is not destroyed.

Right-wing populism, which combines being anti-EU and anti-migrant, is not a new phenomenon in European politics; but the strain of governing in tough times has made it more attractive to the disaffected, who feel left behind and who are uncomfortable with the pronounced cultural shifts they have experienced.

Across Europe, party systems are fragmenting, voting behaviour is volatile and the left in many countries is doing badly.

For some, Brexit and Trump are harbingers of what is to come across Europe, namely the triumph of disintegration. However, I am convinced that both these seismic political events will, in fact, provide Europe with the incentive to protect the union’s legacy and address its many challenges.

Europeans have been reminded that it is far easier to destroy institutions than to build them. And post-Brexit uncertainty in the UK is a reminder of how dangerous it is for any state and society to pull up its external anchors.

Politically, 2017 is a vital year with multiple national elections across Europe. The outcome of these elections will be vital for the future of the EU.

Already in December 2016 in the Austrian presidential election and again in the March 2017 Dutch elections, it was evident that pro-EU political forces can win and that talk of exiting the EU and being too overtly anti-EU does not have strong traction on the European continent.

In fact, the Brexit and Trump effect is more likely, rather than less likely, to bolster appreciation of the EU in most member states.

If Marine Le Pen does not win in France, as she most probably will not, then the EU has a window of opportunity to protect its undoubted legacy and to build a future for EU-27.

The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe is a reflection of what that future might be. Given the prevailing uncertainty, the commission rightly opted for several different scenarios.

White paper scenarios

Scenarios are a well-known device to think about future possibilities in a volatile and uncertain environment. The five scenarios ranged from (1) Carrying On, (2) Nothing but the Single Market, (3) Those Who Want More Do More, (4) Doing Less More Efficiently and (5) Doing Much More Together.

Scenario 5 is the federalist scenario and is unavailable at this juncture, given the cleavages across the member states. Scenario 1 is insufficient as the status quo in the EU is not sustainable and scenario 2, a retreat to the single market would imply too much disintegration.

This leaves scenario 3, a multi-speed EU and scenario 4, some re-nationalisation of competences, as the most likely evolution. These two scenarios are not in any way incompatible.

Scenario 3, the multi-speed EU option, is the one that has received the most political and media attention. Whenever the EU runs into the buffers, models of multi-speeds are dusted off and put on the table.

Multi-speed comes in two main varieties. One variety is the variable geometry and à la carte variety which implies considerable fragmentation and is neither sustainable nor desirable. The second version is a more virtuous one of concentric circles with an open core.

Two areas stand out for further integration of the willing. First, the Eurozone is not yet stable and must both complete the banking union and develop some fiscal capacity. The second is security, borders and management of migration.

The 2017 elections are critical in establishing which of these scenarios, in whatever combination, gains political traction. After the French and German elections, it is possible to envisage the re-emergence of a Franco-German motor of integration at the heart of the EU that has overcome the current divergence.

The Brexit negotiations will put pressure on the EU-27 to stick together, as the alternative is to fall apart. It could well be that following a time of disruption and misfortune, the EU will have an annus mirabilis, a wonderful year, as befits its 60th birthday.

Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and Director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

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