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In 2017 | The EU at a crossroads, paying the price for its speedy enlargement

At a time of economic and social turbulence, the EU is paying the price for having enlarged and deepened its structures too fast, too soon

alfred_sant
Alfred Sant
3 January 2017, 8:01am
Is this the end of the EU as we know it? Jean Claude Juncker will oversee one of the most testing years for the bloc
Is this the end of the EU as we know it? Jean Claude Juncker will oversee one of the most testing years for the bloc
At the start of 2017, Europe finds itself as never before at a crossroads. This time though, it’s not going to be a straightforward choice between two or more directions forward. In effect, the year will be dominated by the quest for a new coherence as the EU faces up to, or retreats from, the various dilemmas and crises that have been building up. 

Brexit, the confrontation with Russia, terrorism, immigration, Greece, an economic performance that at best remains lacklustre, the populist challenge – these are well known. Less mentioned but just as relevant are other issues such as the EU’s future finances, relations with Turkey, the adoption of a “correct” stance towards globalisation and a growing divide between “north” and “south”. All this against the background of uncertainties about how US policies will develop under the incoming Trump administration. 

It has been claimed that coherence will be established when a final decision is taken as to whether what is needed is more or less “Europe”. Perhaps. It is likely though that this question will remain pending through 2017 and indeed, that divergences will grow, not decrease. 

Up to now, the focus has been on the apparent hesitations and stumbles of the UK government as it prepares its negotiating position over Brexit. When talks really start, expect disagreements between member states regarding how to proceed, as they seek to assert national interests.

Finding common positions between 27 states which have diverging interests is already a very complex and difficult task. So when problems remain intractable, as with immigration, solutions remain pending. One could argue, as a majority of members in the European Parliament do, that what is therefore needed is more Europe, to ensure that decisions are taken on a “federal” basis.

This however ignores the political reality that there is little to no appetite for greater centralisation in many capitals, especially those where governments are subject to populist pressures that openly contest the European project. Their number is increasing.

More significantly perhaps, 2016 saw a rollback of the competences of the European institutions. When it came to the ratification of an investment and trade agreement with Canada, it was decided that this should be made subject to the scrutiny of national parliaments. And it was the two most important countries of the Union, France and Germany, who insisted on this.  The move led to a confrontation with, of all Parliaments, a regional one in Belgium.

Partly to compensate for their  “mistake” and to counter the centrifugal forces that Brexit could unleash, France and Germany have been pushing for the EU to take up a reinforced military posture. For a while this dangerous gambit might get some momentum, but in the end it is likely to come to a standstill.

The likelihood is that 2017 will be a year of continuing drift for Europe. Right wing populists and “extremists” are likely to be defeated in the French elections but will reaffirm themselves as a “second” force in the country. Their presence and that of their allies in other member states will continue to put a brake on any radical developments on the European project, even if Chancellor Merkel and her allies are returned to power in Berlin. As the Brexit talks start to roll, inevitably the focus of the central EU institutions will be to run a tight negotiating operation (which is not the same thing as maintaining coherence).

At a time of economic and social turbulence, the EU is paying the price for having enlarged and deepened its structures too fast, too soon, in the nineties of the previous century. We probably will have to wait till 2018/2019 to see how it will all play out.

alfred_sant
Alfred Sant is a Labour MEP and former prime minister