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Will the ‘Future of Europe’ Group Save the EU?

“The European Union has reached a decisive juncture. The ongoing sovereign debt crisis and the ever accelerating process of globalization pose an unprecedented dual challenge for Europe. We will have to master it if we want our continent to enjoy a bright future and effectively promote our interests and values in a more polycentric world.”

Thus begins the Final Report issued by the ‘Future of Europe’ Group on September 17.  The report is the culmination of months of discussion on the future of Europe between the foreign ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain. It report places a particular emphasis on two issues: overcoming the debt crisis and long-term proposals for reforming the EU.

“At several key junctures in the past, Europeans were brought closer by—and were able to pursue integration because of— a crisis.”

Proposed reforms include:

  • The swift strengthening of the Economic and Monetary Union (via reinforced economic governance, increased economic policy co-ordination and the establishment of a single Eurozone banking supervisory mechanism).
  • Improving democratic legitimacy in Europe and ensuring a more efficient and transparent functioning of the European institutions (to be achieved through a greater role of the European Parliament and stronger co-operation between the EU institutions and national parliaments; and direct elections to select the President of the European Commission are also suggested).
  • Further steps towards a Common Security and Defense Policy (seeking more majority decisions in the CFSP sphere, joint representation in international organizations and a European defence policy).
  • Strengthening integration in other central fields (for instance in the sphere of justice and home affairs there should be a “European Border Police”, and a European visa in the medium term).

Interestingly, the report does not claim to represent the views of the 11 governments, much less the views of all EU member states. Rather, the ideas included in this document are “the personal thoughts” of the 11 foreign ministers. Furthermore, the report was not even unanimously agreed-on line by line. Instead, the ministers declared at the outset that “not all participating ministers agree with all proposals that have been put forward.” One consequence of this recognition of diversity is that the report’s authors felt free to express ideas significantly more ambitious than the proposals found in most EU documents.

It is laudable that the foreign ministers of some of the most powerful member states have acknowledged the problems faced by the EU and put forward an ambitious vision of a Europe that can transcend these problems. In particular, these ministers should be applauded for their remarks on the visibility and legitimacy of the European Union. In concluding their report, they note that in the longer term “[w]e need a streamlined and efficient system for the separation of powers in Europe which has full democratic legitimacy.”

This is potentially an important statement. If the report translates into a systematic effort to not only strengthen the economic and monetary union but also to democratize the EU (particularly by enhancing the role of the European Parliament, and promoting stronger co-operation between the EU institutions and national parliaments), then we could witness an impressive revival of the process of European integration.

But we are not there yet. The Final Report outlines a vision of the future of Europe, but does not provide any concrete maps for reaching that future. It is not yet clear what those maps might look like—but what is clear is that the road towards the implementation of these ideas is bound to be convoluted. The fact that the views expressed in this report are not unanimously supported by the governments of EU member states is an indication of the opposition that the report generates in many quarters. Significant institutional reform aimed at increasing the democratic accountability of the EU, increasing foreign policy competences and altering voting procedures on key issues would probably require treaty changes that would test member states’ governments’ willingness to transfer more sovereignty to EU institutions.

So far, there is no evidence that such willingness is present in the European capitals. In part, the hesitation that persists in several European capitals is a reflection of the attitude of EU citizens themselves. The kind of changes outlined in the report would probably need to be put to referenda in several member states. With Eurosceptic political movements enjoying increased support in several EU member states, it is far from clear that such referenda would yield a resounding ‘yes’ to the prospect of greater European integration. Indeed, in some countries—most notably the UK—any public referendum on the future of European integration would probably reveal significant hostility vis-à-vis the EU. In turn, this could lead some European governments to pursue policies of partial if not complete detachment from the EU. At best, this could mean a ‘multi-speed’ Europe in which only a handful of states achieve the level of integration proposed in the Final Report. At worst, it could mean a dysfunctional Europe marked by internal disagreements and the member states’ inability to agree on any substantial reform.

None of this is to say that the ideas contained in the Final Report are doomed. They are a significant step in the right direction, even though steps towards the implementation of this vision of Europe are likely to be challenging. At several key junctures in the past, Europeans were brought closer by—and were able to pursue integration because of— a crisis. It remains to be seen if the current crisis, so clearly depicted in the Final Report, will also serve as a powerful catalyst for ambitious change in Europe.

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