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A general view shows the informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania, May 9, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

European presidents and prime ministers met on Thursday for a landmark summit that will help set the European Union’s strategic agenda for the next five years. The session also saw jockeying for position by leading candidates, including German Manfred Weber and Frenchman Michel Barnier, to succeed outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Juncker, widely seen as the most powerful person in Brussels, bows out of office in November after a tumultuous five years. And his successor faces a formidable range of challenges and opportunities ahead into the 2020s with Weber, the Netherlands’ Frans Timmermans, and the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Barnier among leading contenders.

Thursday’s summit, which came just days before the May 23 European Parliament election, was also a stock-take 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, but a widespread recognition that there is much more to do, especially in a context of growing Euroscepticism across the continent. For the last five years has seen not just the Brexit referendum, but also a growing backlash to Brussels across the continent with openly sceptical governments from Italy to Poland. And the rise of anti-integration sentiment could reach a new high watermark in the March 23 elections that will set the political weather in the continent for months to come.

Thursday’s summit was one of the last big meetings for Juncker who has led a debate across the EU-27 about its future into the 2020s. He pushed his vision for the future of the union with his clear personal preference for greater integration among member states, including the creation of a European Defence Union.

However, there are still a multitude of views across the continent, and the summit was therefore a major opportunity for him to steer and shape debate about the continent’s future with a view to finalising a vision that can potentially see Europe emerge stronger from the current challenges and opportunities facing it. And to help facilitate this, Juncker has previously outlined a number of key 2025 scenarios to try to crystallise a consensus before he leaves office.

The scenarios range from the EU retreating, post-Brexit, to no more than the current economic Single Market which seeks to guarantee 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 non-UK 27 member states decide to do much more together, reigniting European integration which is favoured not just by Juncker, but also French President Emmanuel Macron.

Yet, of the 5 scenarios, “Carrying on” is probably the most likely to be realised. This would see the EU muddling through from where it is today and seeking to deliver on the 2016 Bratislava Declaration agreed just weeks after the Brexit referendum.

This manifesto includes better tackling migration and border security, plus 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 from 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 more on a smaller number of policy areas, including the Single Market.

‘Doing more’

In the months after the Brexit referendum, perhaps the least likely scenario to be realised by 2025 was the “Doing much more together”. However, some in Brussels are now more bullish on this, not least with last month’s Spanish election which saw the strongly pro-Brussels Socialist Government easily emerging 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, 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 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 itself where some 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 current EU debate over its future. Decisions taken this Spring and Autumn, including over the future of the Eurozone, will define the longer-term 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.