¨Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.˝ Jean Monnet
Perpetual crisis might be the best expression to describe the state of the EU in the last years. One after another, crises have been lining up, igniting passions and stirring up conflicts, and, somewhere on the road, the fundamental principle of solidarity was all but forgotten. In this rather apocalyptic atmosphere, the EU marked two big milestones in March: 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (and indeed the EU’s ‘birthday’) and the beginning of the first withdrawal from the organization. Needless to say, festivities were greatly overshadowed by ever louder prophetic forecasts of the ‘end’ of the EU.
The Rome summit, where the EU leaders gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc, did not succeed in restoring optimism or faith in the Union. Quite contrary, it has clearly demonstrated current disunion among members. Rome Declaration has undergone many revisions, indicating growing divisions within the bloc. Signing a statement, EU leaders proclaimed that “Europe is our common future”, but said nothing tangible about how they intend to proceed with the European project in the wake of the Brexit and other grave challenges, the Union is facing.
The EU has suffered a terrible blow in the last decade. The financial crisis in 2008 revealed structural and institutional weaknesses and put the integrity of the Eurozone into question. The crisis in Ukraine showed that an aggressive Russia represents a direct threat, especially in the Eastern Europe. The refugee crisis revealed the Union’s unpreparedness, naivety and alarming solidarity deficit, topped with an increased terrorist threat, which exposed serious security defects and failures. Lastly, the EU will have to deal with the unexpected shift in US foreign policy, as the new president has shown no sympathy for the bloc, calling it a ‘mess’, a ‘consortium’ and a ‘vehicle’ for Germany, expressing his support for Brexit and predicting, that many others will follow suit.
The current situation is not solely a result of the events of the past few years, but the culmination of wrong decisions that date back decades. For some, the Maastricht Treaty is one of the culprits. By creating the single currency, the EU fortified the single market and made a major step towards the greater political and economic integration. However, the design of the Euro was not very well thought through. Firstly, the selection of countries that could join the single currency was not strict enough; secondly, the financial crisis revealed the Euro’s flawed design, namely there were no rules established on how to proceed if national governments ever need help.
The second mistake can be linked to the enlargement policy: the EU became too big too fast, accepting 13 new members in a decade. This affected the Union’s ability to respond to the shocks of a crisis in two ways: firstly, the EU could not focus on the building institutions necessary to make the Euro work; and secondly, it meant that majority of the European countries were not in the Eurozone, which fundamentally affected the EU’s agenda.
Currently, the politics in the EU member states present the most imminent challenge. Populist, Eurosceptic parties are gaining momentum across the continent, waking old sentiments and rhetoric that seemed to be forgotten. Upcoming elections in France and Germany will determine the future development of the EU. The latter should in any case tackle the issue of its growing unpopularity with voters, which culminated in the notorious Brexit referendum and the beginning of the first withdrawal process. That does not need to be entirely bad for the EU, however. Britain is a powerful ally and trading partner, but it was always semidetached, seemingly impeding European policies with its exceptionalism. Cleared with this obstacle, the EU can now move forward with a new impetus and deepen the integration between the remaining members. For this to happen, however, the EU needs to grasp the causes of the Brexit and apply the lessons to the new chapter of the project.
In order to regain its popularity and trust among the voters, the EU needs to first and foremost restore the economic growth and tackle the issue of youth unemployment. The project started as an economic integration and it was its economic successes that made joining so appealing. An improved economic environment will restore the trust in the Union, along with a much needed institutional reform, which should focus on solving the democratic deficit and reducing the rigidness of the Union’s institutional system.
To achieve this, the EU needs to reinvent itself and create a new vision for the project. In the White Paper on the future of Europe, Commission recognized 5 possible scenarios for Europe by 2025: carrying on; nothing but the single market; those who want more do more; doing less more efficiently; doing much more together. Of the five, the third one is the most debated one. Multi-speed Europe would allow willing member states to do more together in specific policy areas, while other states could decide whether they want to join or stay out. In a way, the Union is already operating with ‘two speeds’: the first is composed of the states with the Euro and the second of the states without. German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a Europe of different speeds on a Malta summit earlier this year, the idea is also supported by Spain, Italy, France and Belgium, while Central and Eastern European states expressed growing concerns with the concept. The bloc members must recognize, that they are (too) many and very different at that; certainly too diverse to proceed with integration at the same pace. Simply muddling through is not an option anymore and deeper integration does not seem like a good answer any longer. To address the challenges of this century, the EU needs to become more flexible and responsive.
The EU is at a crossroads but it is neither the first nor the last time. There is much talk about disintegration, however that is implausible as it is simply not in the best interests of the states. Whatever the rhetoric of politicians might be, most of them are well aware, that the EU is by far the best possible option. It has successfully replaced conflicts with cooperation and dialogue, restored peace on the continent and created the biggest single market in the world. The bloc has become an economic powerhouse and an influential actor in international relations. Acting with one voice, members are a force to be reckoned with; should they choose to go their separate ways, their power and ability to impact the events on global stage would be drastically reduced.
Times are challenging for European integration, but they do not need to be devastating. This is the time to rethink, reinvent and rebuild – and to compromise. Should the EU not tackle its shortcomings and challenges, it might become an end in itself, a dead letter in the archives of European history.