The European Union celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding Rome treaty with a summit of the continent’s leaders in Italy on Saturday. Some six decades after that landmark document of European unity was signed, the union is facing one of its worst-ever setbacks with the United Kingdom triggering Article 50 next Wednesday, commencing formal exit negotiations between London, Brussels and the governments of the remaining 27 states of the bloc.
Yet, damaging as Brexit will be, it will by no means solely define the future of the EU. Instead, the UK’s pending exit is just one of a series of potentially existential challenges now confronting the bloc in a time of troubles. These range from internal pressures such as the ongoing danger of Greece needing to leave the Eurozone, through to external threats like an emboldened Russia, which recently commemorated the third anniversary of its annexation of Crimea.
At this pivotal moment for the Brussels-based club, the pressures and stakes in play are therefore huge and historic, and the clock is ticking for big decisions to be made. This is especially over Brexit given that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, wants to conclude an overall deal with London, should this be possible, at a turbo-charged pace by October 2018.
Amidst the frenzy of day-to-day events, Brussels is facilitating a fundamental debate about the union’s future. Some long-standing EU members who signed the Rome Treaty in 1957, including France and Germany, would like to forge a consensus around a new integration agenda.
Yet, others, including many more recent accession states in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, are sceptical about this pathway. Moreover, the latter fear an increasingly multi-speed Europe will see them left behind and potentially lead to the EU’s further dismemberment, or even complete disintegration.
In this context, the ambition of the Rome event, in the words of European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, was to see “the remaining member states fall in love with each other again and renew their vows with the EU”.
While this was a big stretch, the summit came as a morale booster for the union. This was especially so following this month’s Dutch election — which saw the right-wing, populist, anti-EU Freedom Party fail in its bid to emerge as the largest single party in the nation’s Lower House.This outcome has boosted hopes in Brussels that the upcoming French and German elections will also see slowing momentum for conservative, anti-establishment, eurosceptic groups.
Given the multiple disagreements about the EU’s future direction amongst its member-states, Juncker has sponsored a white paper that outlines five main scenarios for how the bloc could evolve. The timeline for finalising decisions potentially extends from now until June 2019, when the United Kingdom would have left the EU, and the next slate of European parliament elections are scheduled. In between then and now, Brussels has devised a roadmap of initiatives and summitry.
This includes discussion on the future social dimension of EU integration; deepening of European monetary and economic union; continental security and defence; and the EU’s finances with one of its biggest financial contributors (the United Kingdom) set to leave.
Five main scenarios have been drawn up ranging from the EU retreating to no more than the current economic single market all the way through to the remaining 27 member-states deciding to do much more together, reigniting European integration. Of these futures, the status quo scenario of “carrying on” is probably the most likely to be realised.
This would see the EU continuing on a broadly similar trajectory while seeking to deliver on the Bratislava Declaration agreed by all 27 non-UK member-states last year. This manifesto includes better tackling of migration and border security, beefing up external security and defence and greater stress on enhancing economic and social development, especially for young people across the continent who have been badly impacted by the fallout of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, not least in countries like Spain and Greece.
However, that muddling through option is by no means certain in the current economic and political context. Further setbacks could instead see either a “Nothing but the single market” or “Doing less more efficiently” scenario come to a pass. In either of these, the current scale of EU functions will be rolled back with limited resources focused instead on a smaller number of policy areas, including the economic union.
Based on current trends, the least likely scenario to be realised is “doing much more together”. This would see all 27 remaining states sharing more power, resources, with decisions agreed faster and enforced much more quickly.
More plausible, however, is the “those who want to do more” scenario which would see more coalitions of the willing emerging 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 Eurozone where some 19 of the current 28 EU members have decided to enter into a monetary union with the euro as the single currency.
Perhaps inevitably, the worst-case scenario of the bloc imploding is not included in the five futures for the EU. Nonetheless, given the build-up of challenges now facing the union — both Brexit and beyond — this outcome is being reluctantly contemplated across the continent. As European Council President Donald Tusk said last month, the threats facing the bloc are now “more dangerous than ever” and could yet grow worse through either internal and/or external pressures intensifying in 2017 or beyond.
Taken overall, the Rome summit came as a welcome respite for the EU after months of turmoil.
The bloc’s forthcoming decisions over key questions such as deeper integration and an increasingly multi-speed union will define not just its internal and external character, but also its prospects for survival, potentially well into the 2020s.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.