By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – As EU leaders head into their 25 March summit in Rome to frame the EU’s post-Brexit future, it bears a re-look at European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s “White Paper on the Future of Europe”.
Unveiled on 1 March, Juncker proffered it as an attempt to bridge the gap between what Europe’s citizens expect from the Union, and what the Union can do to improve their daily lives. As he trenchantly observed: “We should stop communicating our intentions, and start focusing on where we can deliver the most tangible results instead.”
The paper comes at a critical time. With populists on the march, looming French and German elections and US distracted by internal controversies, the Union’s future has never seemed so uncertain. The basic problem, however, is trust in that the public’s confidence in the EU has fallen to a third of citizens today compared to half 10 years ago.
Juncker’s preface begins with a rousing tribute to Europe’s past that soon retreats into a recitation of future European ills. For example, the paper points out that the EU is the world’s biggest donor of development and humanitarian aid, and the funder of the world’s biggest multinational research programme, Horizon 2020. It includes the world’s most peaceful and equal societies.
But its share of global GDP and population is shrinking quickly, its unemployment rates remain high, and its median age – already the world’s oldest — will be older still by 2030, and by an un-healthy margin. In that year, the median European’s age will be 45. By contrast, the median African’s age will be 21.
Why has this trust declined? The report does not offer a specific answer, although it does imply that national authorities have used the EU as a scapegoat. It notes a national tendency of ‘blaming Brussels for problems while taking credit for success at home’. For example, citizens expect the EU to do more about persistent problems such as youth unemployment. But “in spite of many high-level summits and useful EU supporting measures, the tools and powers remain in the hands of national, regional and local authorities.”
All five of the paper’s scenarios for Europe by 2025 begin with the assumption that the Union will remain intact. The first, ‘Carrying On”, supposes that the status quo continues with incremental improvements. Present policies such as the Digital Single Market are implemented, and are broadly successful. The Union’s solidarity, however, is tested by disputes and crises.
In the second scenario, the Union re-orients itself towards deepening the single market, rather than working together in areas such as security or migration. More policies are agreed bilaterally. The Union reduces the regulatory burden “by withdrawing two existing pieces of legislation for every new initiative proposed.” The report notes that without deeper political integration, the Euro will remain at risk. “The euro facilities trade exchanges but growing divergence and limited cooperation are major sources of vulnerability,” it says.
The third scenario presents a unified but diverse future. Present levels of European unity remain, but some groups of nations — “coalitions of the willing” — take that unity farther. For example, some nations could strengthen cooperation between police, intelligence and military forces, while further harmonizing their tax rules and social standards. Others guard these areas of policy as sovereign rights.
In the fourth scenario, the Union concentrates on a few policy areas while doing less in others. For example, the European Border and Coast Guard could take over management of external borders, while the Union withdraws its involvement in public health, or social policy not directly related to the single market.
The fifth and final scenario, “Doing much more together”, shows member states sharing more power, resources and decision-making. Examples include the European Parliament having the final say on international trade agreements, the emergence of a European Defence Union, and the EU-fostered emergence of several “European Silicon Valleys”. Better coordination on fiscal, social and taxation matters consolidates and strengthens the euro.
MEP reactions to Juncker’s presentation were mostly positive, although prominent MEP Guy Verhofstadt railed against nations for not giving the Union the authority it needs to do its job properly.
“Why are we not capable of finding solutions to the migrant crisis, and the refugee crisis?” he exclaimed after the white paper’s presentation. “Because we have no capabilities to do so on the European level. Why do we have no big internet companies on the European level? They are all American. They are all Asian. Why? Because we don’t have a completed digital market in the European Union.”
At a European People’s Party press conference on 7 March, major figures supported the White Paper’s intent, if not all the conclusions.
Former EU Council President Herman van Rompuy commended the Commission’s “good initiative… to launch a debate without taboos.” He dismissed concerns that the Union itself was in danger, saying, “no Europe at all – that’s out of the question, of course.” MEP Elmar Brok rebuked the rising tide of populists, saying, “It’s not Europe or the nation, it’s the nation and Europe.”
Giles Merritt, founder and chairman of the NGO Friends of Europe, told SECURITY EUROPE that the White Paper is actually a Green Paper, “because rather than setting out the Commission’s own proposals, it calls for a wider discussion by EU governments and also by civil society across Europe.” But in any case, Merritt believes that the Paper is “very welcome indeed” because while the EU has watched the rise of populist parties, “until now there has been no examination of the EU’s own problems and the possible solutions.”
He added that “the Commission has backed into its decision to open the debate on Europe’s future. This White Paper was originally billed as a proposed EMU blueprint for improved Eurozone governance. When it became very clear that there was no chance of consensus amongst member governments, the Commission sought to avoid an embarrassing row in Rome at the 60th anniversary summit on March 25, and instead dug out its earlier report called ‘Global Europe 2050’ and re-jigged it into this ‘Green [White] Paper’.”
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that if it makes people focus on institutional streamlining it will serve a very useful purpose.”
Often the Union seems to believe in the inevitability of its own existence, disguised under well-meaning clichés about Europe’s role as a “beacon of peace and stability,” as the report’s introduction proclaims. But therein lies another problem. Many Europeans today don’t associate the Union with peace and stability, and certainly not with prosperity. Instead, they identify it – fairly or not – with tight-fisted austerity, overweening regulation, out-of-control migration, and discussions that are endless and sterile. All possibilities – including the political and economic break-up of the Union – should be discussed, if only so the disastrous consequences could be made clear. After all, if the upcoming French presidential elections go the wrong way, then ‘Europe’s future’ could become a relic of the past. It’s time to wake up.