DIY E.U.? The future of the 27-member bloc

The European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, has published a new white paper on the future of the bloc after the impending exit of the U.K., entitled ‘Avenues for Unity for the E.U. at 27’. It presents five scenarios for how the E.U. could evolve by 2025, and though the paper has been planned for several years, Brexit has changed the tone. Wary of being lambasted by Eurosceptic parties for ‘dictating’ the course of European co-operation, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his team of commissioners insist that national governments will decide on which path to take. The commissioners also took care to assure national leaders that the scenarios were not mutually exclusive. By December 2017, the E.U. will present its first conclusions, and will decide on a course before the European Parliament elections in June 2019.

Scenario 1: Carrying On

In the first scenario, the Commission envisions that the E.U. will continue on a gradual course towards deeper integration of the single market, closer defence co-operation including pooling some military capabilities, and towards a single foreign policy by 2025.

The problem with this scenario is that, in member states like the Netherlands, France and Germany, where enthusiasm for the E.U. project is dimming, simply ‘carrying on’ will only reinforce the perception that the political elite in Brussels has not taken any notice of the concerns of a growing constituency that feels left behind by globalisation. This, in turn, could sustain the growth of Eurosceptic parties and the exit of key member states. The Netherlands will hold elections on 15 March, and the Eurosceptic PVV, led by Geert Wilders, is likely to win – although other parties will refuse to enter into a PVV coalition and thus exclude it from power.

In addition, this scenario predicts that while ‘management of external borders is the primary responsibility of individual countries…co-operation is reinforced thanks to the operational support of the European Border and Coast Guard’. This means upholding the Schengen Agreement that allows for passport-free travel through 26 European countries. As it is unlikely that the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa will be completely solved by 2025, member states will almost certainly continue to prolong ‘temporary’ border controls at least until 2020. Many national governments, including Austria and Denmark, will be unwilling to continue with the status quo in respect of the borderless zone. A poll by the Austrian newspaper Kurier showed that, with 8 per cent of votes, this option was by far the least popular, and A2 assesses this scenario as improbable.

Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market

Juncker admitted he was sceptical about the second scenario, but it is likely to be popular with many people who supported the E.U.’s original aim to create a single market but fear integration has been too fast and too invasive.

An E.U. stripped back to its most basic component would be difficult to realise. It would mean rolling back many of the E.U.’s proudest achievements, including the Schengen area, and allowing member states to pursue their own foreign policy goals. This would mean, for example, that some E.U. member states would remove sanctions on Russia while others would take a hard line. For the movement of goods in particular, this would pose major problems: would goods imported from Russia into one E.U. country be blocked from entry into another E.U. country?

Divergence between economies would put further strain on the euro currency, to the point where the Eurozone would collapse

The Commission warned in the white paper that in this scenario, the E.U. could see a ‘race to the bottom’, as member states regain control over social and environmental standards as well as taxation. Divergence between economies would put further strain on the euro currency, to the point that A2 predicts the euro currency zone (Eurozone) would collapse, beginning with the exit of Greece between 2020 and 2022. Although this scenario will likely appeal to ‘eurotepid’ citizens who are ambivalent about European integration and who could find a stripped-back E.U. easier to understand, national governments are highly unlikely to opt for this scenario.

Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More

This scenario envisages ‘coalitions of the willing’ whereby groups of member states within the E.U. can co-operate much more closely, for example on defence, security or justice. Countries within the Eurozone could, for example, converge on tax and labour legislation.

It will be fiercely resisted by the Greens and the Liberals, two party groupings in the E.U. parliament, who believe the division between core and periphery will hinder solutions to the migration crisis and shared social problems. It would be difficult for Greece and Germany, both members of the Eurozone, to apply the same taxes, for example.

A mixture of this scenario and the fifth option is endorsed by Germany and France, the two most powerful member states: the foreign affairs ministers of both countries published a joint statement shortly after the publication of the white paper, saying that while the E.U. should maintain a uniform line on foreign policy and increase its role as an actor in international security, it should also ‘take into account the different levels of ambition of member states’. The Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, also supported this vision in a speech in February.

This model would likely be difficult to sell to Central and Eastern European member states who are afraid that it would block them from accessing E.U. funds

Although both Germany and France (and possibly Italy) will hold elections this year, it is likely that both countries will elect centrist governments that will hold the same beliefs. However, there is a small possibility that in France Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist party Front National, will be elected president; this would derail any negotiations on the future of the E.U. and possibly lead to France’s exit from the Eurozone. Some smaller member states also support this scenario. The prime minister of Malta, the country that currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency, has also said that ‘multi-speed Europe’ is the best option for the bloc’s future.

This model would likely be difficult to sell to Central and Eastern European member states who are afraid that it would block them from accessing E.U. funds. At a press conference two days after the launch of the white paper, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia said they rejected ‘division within the E.U., because that leads directly to disintegration’. On the other hand, they did call for a more ‘significant and definite’ role for national parliaments in decision-making, suggesting that they could be open to a watered-down version of this model.

This is the most likely pathway, perhaps in combination with either the fourth or fifth scenario to placate member states worried about being left behind…

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