Jean-Claude Juncker presented on Wednesday to the European Parliament the Commission’s “Avenues for Unity” White Paper on the future of the EU. The paper will be discussed at the 60th anniversary of the Union’s founding on 25 March in Rome, when EU leaders will celebrate with – wait for it – a Summit.

In a time of crisis and faced with a rising tide of populism which has little time for the EU, the Commission is providing the member states with a number of options for continuity or change. This demand for accountability for the member states is aimed at tackling one fundamental challenge faced by the EU, whereby national governments too often hide behind “Brussels” in hard times but are quick to claim credit for the EU’s achievements. By passing control back to the member states, however, the EU is taking the risk of sinking into a growing political quagmire. Given Brexit and the many other challenges ahead, there is little choice but to reform, but what are the risks of such a move in a year such as 2017, full as it is with highly contentious elections?

The White Paper identifies the challenges ahead, packaged as ‘opportunities’: Demographic ageing and the rise of other global/regional powers; socio-economic distress and the need for to make Europe’s social economy work for all, especially youth; increased pressure on borders and instability prompting the need for more security; and questions of political trust and legitimacy caused by increasing ‘noise’ that the EU fails to cut through. More difficult is coming up with solutions. For this, recognising one’s role in the success or failure of policies is critical. The paper has an unfortunate tendency to blame the EU’s shortcomings on lack of funds or political will from member states, as if all existing criticism of the Union were populist delirium. Though some may well be, it would be wise to listen more carefully to those who feel the EU has failed them, especially in the current political environment.

The five scenarios presented for the future of Europe are meant to be “illustrative in nature to provoke thinking”. They are, in other words, rather vague. The aim is to get agreement from the EU member states on the direction for change. In doing so, the scenarios try to go beyond the more/less Europe dichotomy – but ultimately offer degrees of a federal/intergovernmental balance rather than grand alternative visions for Europe. The options are:

  • “Carrying-on”, hoping that ongoing incremental improvements will bring concrete results that will be appreciated by EU citizens. Realists may deem it the most likely; few think it is sustainable – though the EU has proved once and again that it can wait when the time is right.
  • “Nothing but the Single Market”, a kind of ‘back-to-the-coal-and-steel-basics’ surrender, shying away from all political issues. Not Juncker’s favourite – but perhaps some (Eastern) member states’ pick?
  • “Those who want more do more”, which starts invoking “coalitions of the willing”, both using Bush’s infamous expression for the 2003 Iraq war and assuming that there will, indeed, be some willing member states. This scenario disregards the elephant in the room – national diversity becoming ubiquitous in the EU – but is the EU’s favourite, it has received support by key member states as well as by strong arguments by civil society, so it seems a balanced option.
  • “Doing less more efficiently”, focusing on agreed priorities such as trade, security and borders, and clarifying that member states deal with the rest – becoming a classic goal-driven intergovernmental organisation. This scenario abandons some EU aspirations but rightly focuses on what the EU seems to be doing better. It is unclear how detrimental this could be to holistic EU-wide approaches needed to deal with key issues like public health, employment and social policies, or regional development.
  • “Doing much more together”, the federalist vision of sharing more competences, undertaking more shared actions and delivering better results – with the underlying hope the EU member states can actually do so in solidarity without leaving those who disagree behind. The EU institutions and intelligentsia seem ready, but some outside the Brussels bubble may jump the ship.

The scenarios look to strike a delicate balance between bold vision and care not to raise expectations to then fail to live up to them. Promises will need to be backed with action, and accountability – first of all from the member states who are called on to decide the path to take. For the Commission it is clearly risky, but arguably necessary, to pass the mandate to the member states to decide the future of the Union. They can now choose to pull back powers from the EU and transform it into a truly intergovernmental organisation. If they choose another path, they must take political responsibility for the EU that is their creation. The Commission clearly hopes that by entrusting the member states with this choice, it can strengthen its mandate henceforth. The strategic thinking is clear. The Commission may however find that its power once ceded is never returned.

The EU member states have been vacillating rather a lot of late. The latest attempt to set out a new broad vision for the EU (at the Bratislava Summit in September 2016) was a disaster. However, the EU27 have pulled together to offer (so far) a remarkably coherent voice around Brexit and major advances are underway in certain fields, including in the previously out-of-bounds realm of defence.

So what option – if any – are they likely to agree on? So far, so good for the Commission. Germany and France have quickly come out in favour of the two-speed Europe option. This will not be without challenges of centrifugalism, especially in Eastern Europe, but offers what most commentators see as a realistic path between variable demands for unity and national sovereignty. Many also point out that this path reflects a reality already being implemented – with the Schengen area and the Eurozone the most prominent examples.

Ultimately, to succeed, the EU may need a return to its radical roots which before the European Communities created union and institutions from a grand bargain between very different currencies (France’s political stature and Germany’s economic strength) for a shared goal of peace. It may need to remember, as Juncker rightly said, that economic goals are at the service of people. This political vision will need to be reinforced as the discussion moves forward (with “reflection papers” on a variety of topics to be published over the coming months). It is striking that the paper in its current form speaks more of security and defence than of freedom, peace, solidarity, or even political rights and economic growth. As the President of the European Council said, the Rome Summit declaration should “offer an ambitious vision on how to preserve unity and achieve political consolidation”. This may be an important start, but we are not there yet.


Written in collaboration with Leanda Barrington-Leach