Europe at a crossroads: what will guarantee a future?

The European Commission’s new boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, has presented five possible exits he hopes will shape a major debate about the EU’s future

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

The year was 1957, on 25 March, when the leaders of six countries gathered in Rome to lay the foundations of a European Economic Community, in what would later become known as the European Union.

The agreement ushered in the longest period of peace in Europe’s history by establishing a common market where people, goods, services and capital could move freely.

The underlying values and principles were those of peace and stability, borne of the desires to never repeat the horrors of World War II, but also to bind the affairs of warring nations – France and Germany as an example – through the interdependence of economic trade. Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the EEC’s forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community, its name representative of the raw material of war itself.

Fast-forward 60 years and the European project of integration spawned by visionaries like Paul-Henri Spaak, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet appears to be at a crossroads. Brexit, the turn in the United States’ consensus with Europe, the rise of far-right populism and nationalism, the aspiration of strongmen leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban to create “an illiberal state”, and the ascendance of Marine le Pen in France.

The European Commission’s new boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, has presented five possible exits he hopes will shape a major debate about the EU’s future. The white paper was published ahead of the Rome Summit to be held this month, during which the remaining 27 EU leaders will present a declaration on their vision of Europe.

The five scenarios presented in the white paper are, Option 1: carrying on, Option 2: nothing but the single market, Option 3: those who want more do more, Option 4: doing less more efficiently, and Option 5: doing much more together.

The scenarios are viewed as a positive signal that the European Union is not going to give up on itself – the mass hysteria that preceded the Brexit referendum believed that a UK exit would signal the end of the union.

However, opposing positions are already emerging: while Paris and Berlin are among those who support a multi-speed Europe, the Visegrád Group – the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – do not want federalisation, nor a return to only the single market and argue that a multi-speed Europe would leave countries behind.

Come 25 March, the EU leaders will be keen on sending out a message of unity: on Friday, during preparatory work for the Rome summit, they agreed to slow down talks on a multi-speed Europe, and will instead voice unity as Europe faces “unprecedented challenges”.

They agreed that a situation should not be created where member states are left behind.

But what do the representatives of Maltese citizens at the European parliament think? 

“The European Commission’s approach feels too much of an experiment. Frankly, I would have expected a historical analysis of what led us to where we are today, in a critical analysis of the decisions and events, which took place… including whose fault it was,” Labour MEP Alfred Sant, a former prime minister, said.

Alfred Sant
Alfred Sant

Describing herself as “a committed European”, Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola is in favour of further integration: doing much more (Option 5).

“We need those elements to pull us back to how the union started and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to focusing on securing borders or having a common market. The EU is about the freedom of movement… and the free movement of people is the cornerstone of the union we have always dreamt of.

“I’m not advocating a federal super state but integration on what unites us most.”

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli was less impressed with the five scenarios, describing them as “too general”. She favoured a mix of Option 3 and Option 4.

“The ultimate aim of the EU should be to act together, and do more together. But realistically speaking, it would be better for the EU to work on what more it can achieve. With 28 members, the EU has 28 different realities and whilst the EU needs to work towards harmonization, this has to be done at different levels.”

Therese Comodini Cachia
Therese Comodini Cachia

The different social and economic development processes of the Union members was also brought up by PN MEP Therese Comodini Cachia, who insisted that the different paces at which member states moved has not put into question whether the Union should continue to exist.

“What is happening now is something between scenarios 1 and 2. Of course it may be frustrating for some Member States to see that they are willing to move forward but are kept back by others. As long as we continue to believe that the EU has brought peace and kept us away from conflicts and wars for decades, then the Union needs to continue to exist.”

Europe is currently facing multiple challenges: it is not only still recovering from the global financial crisis but parts of its neighbourhood are destabilized – resulting in the largest refugee crisis since World War II – whilst the rise of populism is threatening its core values.

“What we need is consolidation rather than something new,” Sant argued, as he described the white paper as “too technocratic”. 

Roberta Metsola
Roberta Metsola

He said that while the EU had moved towards its enlargement, its structures were not deepened in a way that would support such enlargement. By way of example, he said that in operating the Schengen zone, the EU should have developed a centralized security system – a system which is only now being developed.

Metsola agreed that national campaigns based on populist rhetoric do nothing to help in preserving Europe’s core values of cooperation, equality and solidarity.

“It’s my responsibility as an MEP from a centre-right party to keep that populism in check by offering arguments that convince voters that bashing Europe is not the right way to go.”

Far-right candidates have indeed gained ground: the possibility that Front National candidate Marine le Pen actually wins the French presidential election is not be rubbished. The Front National wants France to leave the EU. Would this spell the end of the European Union?

“Likewise, we used to say that a Brexit would be the end of the EU… Brexit should have been the wake up call but it looks like it wasn’t! Really and truly, when you squeeze hard, there isn’t a true willingness [by leaders] to get our act together,” Dalli said.

“No one person’s election will alone spell the end of the European Union, but it could influence the chosen way forward for the Union,” Comodini Cachia added.

Sant, a former prime minister, has argued that the EU’s survival hinges on a new political deal.

Miriam Dalli
Miriam Dalli

“There are currently a number of pending issues which member states feel like they’re getting a bad deal with because the rules are stacked against them or because they cannot keep up with the rules,” he said. 

“The biggest problem is the growing divergence between different parts of the Union. These cannot be healed by twitching the market rules of operation that drive the Union today; nor simply by referring to the existing instruments to achieve some corrections. They have to be faced politically and non-market solutions must be agreed to and implemented politically, to correct in good faith what has been going out of skew.”

If the EU hopes to send a message to its citizens that it is serious in tackling what really matters to the people – migration, jobs, growth and the environment to mention a few – then it must move from words to action. 

Does this white paper risk becoming another glossy document on a shelf inside the Berlaymont?

“We need to see action,” Dalli concedes. “I’m not in an enough comfortable position to say that the EU will act… or that it won’t. One hopes that there is the political will.”

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