The 60th birthday of any person is a unique milestone. It marks the end of middle age and is a time of reflection on what the future will bring with it.
Many try to reinvent themselves in a new role different from that they performed in the previous four decades of their life. Multinational organisations pass through the same soul-searching phenomenon when they hit 60. The EU is just about to enter this critical existential stage of its history.
On March 25, the 27 EU leaders (excluding Theresa May) will meet in Rome to celebrate the Union’s 60th birthday. It will be a time for reflection rather than celebration. In preparation for this event, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker issued a discussion paper outlining five strategic options that could define the future of the EU.
Those who believe that the EU can continue to muddle through must indeed be insensitive to the frustration that many EU citizens feel for the way their politicians are affecting their lives. As a shrewd politician, Juncker first urged governments to stop blaming the EU for problems it was not equipped to solve, like youth unemployment. He stated: “It would do us all good if we simply stopped Brussels-bashing, EU-bashing.”
But he went on to acknowledge that the EU cannot realistically keep kicking the can “with poisonous fights over how to deal with migration crisis likely to continue and incremental progress on fixing the single currency”. With the political tide of populism engulfing most western economies, believing that the EU can survive by doing more of the same is little better than day dreaming.
Juncker’s preferred option seems to be one in which the remaining 27 member states could “do less more efficiently”. The strategic thrust behind this option is the devolvement of certain functions from Brussels to individual member states.
Post-summit happy talk by EU leaders needs to be substituted by sensible hard talk
On the other hand, this option could also mean that in some issues like defence, Brussels would have even more power: “Sometimes less is more. The EU could focus on areas where we make a real difference,” Juncker said. This could well be the abandonment of pan-European policies and the strategy of an even closer union between member states that has been the moving force of the EU in the last six decades.
Regional development, public health and parts of employment and social policy could once again become the sphere of power of member states. Current state aid controls, consumer protection, and health and safety directives could also be diluted with member states deciding on these issues at a national level.
Another option favoured by Angela Merkel is that of a two-speed Europe, whereby different groups of countries deepen cooperation on particular issues such as defence, security and taxation. Juncker calls this a “coalition of the willing” which in reality already exists to some extent in the present EU set up. Border-free travel and the adoption of the euro are examples of this concept of a coalition of the willing.
Many fear that a two-speed Union will mean that the richer countries will become even richer and more powerful, while the slower lane countries will have to settle for just access to the single market. This option could easily lead to the evolvement of the EU from a political union to a common market. Juncker says he opposes this idea because it would reduce the Commission to being a trade administrator. “Europe has to be about more than market, goods and money,” he added.
Few EU leaders still harbour the illusion that the Union could indeed become a federalist super-state. Political elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Italy will soon put an end to the dream of a federal Europe.
When the EU leaders meet in Rome at the end of March the big challenge will be setting the priorities for reforms to stop the tide of anti-EU feeling among many Europeans. Even if no anti-EU party takes power in countries holding elections this year, the seismic changes in the way politics is practised in the EU, as indeed in the US, are irreversible.
One question that many are asking is whether the EU has the right quality of leaders to bring about the reforms needed. Brexit has served as a reality check for the soporific indifference of most EU leaders to the way many people feel abandoned by their politicians.
Post-summit happy talk by EU leaders needs to be substituted by sensible hard talk.
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