On 1 March 2017, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker delivered a White Paper on the future of Europe, which is meant to be discussed by governments and to encourage reflection on the role of the European Union. Later this month the Treaty of Rome’s will turn 60, but timing and context already indicate that the Commission does not believe any decisions on next steps will be taken until that anniversary is long past. More likely, they will wait for the dust to settle after national elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, and discuss the proposals towards the end of 2017.
The paper reads like a run-of-the-mill think-tank report from ten years ago, featuring a hefty dose of disillusionment with EU reform and failed referendums. In fact, the White Paper falls short of laying out any specific plan or recommendations for what to do next. Instead, it provides scenarios that seem to scare the reader about what could happen to the EU over the coming years, while failing to state what might actually trigger the alternative futures it sketches.
To be fair to the Commission, each scenario does point out areas of constructive action for the future, including for the first scenario, in which the EU simply continues to muddle through, achieving some of its goals, underperforming on others, and failing to anywhere close to achieving others due to lack of ambition or will. The extremes are covered by two other scenarios. In the first, the EU winds back down into a single market, rolling-back some of its follow-on policies, such as employment and social policy, and stops pushing ahead on internal and external security, or better governance of the euro zone. The other extreme scenario describes a major leap forward, with more Europe for all the 27 member states in 2025, which is the ideal scenario from an integrationist point of view. When presenting the paper, President Juncker made clear that he was firmly opposed to the idea of the EU regressing into a Union bound together by the single market alone. He could also have added that he didn’t think it could ever become a reality.
The more challenging scenarios appear to be those between the extremes. The Commission has developed two middling alternatives. The first, “doing less more efficiently”, envisages an EU that engages in much deeper integration on areas such as border management, foreign policy and defence, where it can add most value, while reducing its ambitions in other areas where it is perceived to add less value, such as securing the core functions of the single market and the common currency. These issues would be left to individual member states. Its second middle-ground scenario is that member states that want more Europe go ahead and seize it. This scheme suggests the emergence of more flexible coalitions, featuring a new group on internal security and justice, and one on defence. According to the White Paper, these integrated groupings would also establish separate common budgets.
The paper is remarkable in the sense that it does not follow the usual binary logic of progress versus decay. It actually assumes that the future could be a continuation of the present, but it also predicts scenarios in which the level of European integration achieved to date is unraveled, leaving a bare market place or a constellation of flexible coalitions. More than anything, the White Paper encourages governments, thinkers, and ordinary citizens, to prepare for change. The best case scenario describes what we already expect from EU institutions, so the real message lies in the other options.
Many governments in the south and east of Europe will be uncomfortable with the alternatives presented by Juncker, preferring to stick to the status quo. They might be happy to repatriate some powers, but generally want the EU to step-up its delivery of financial support, political stability, and economic growth. But they also want to be able to use Brussels as a scapegoat for bad news and for the EU to desist from interfering in their domestic affairs. The prospect of regression or the emergence of an inner circle of member states may scare them enough to stop obstructing political processes in the EU, and may actually encourage sector-specific deepening of integration. This might just be what the Commission had in mind when drafting the White Paper.
Governments in the economic and demographic centre will also be wary of the alternatives presented by the Commission, preferring a better functioning status quo over any overhaul of the system. This would require less commitment and avoid the political risk implicit in change. In the political centre of the EU, thinking about a multi-speed Europe or one driven by flexible coalitions has been fast-tracked amid the current crises. But Juncker’s scenarios appear to restrict any ambitions towards those ends. The European Commission plays the decisive role in terms of evaluating and approving new and avant-garde projects, but those projects have to have unanimous support from member states. Therefore, any flexibility, as defined by the treaties, has to pass through the regular processes of the EU. These conditions may prevent actual flexibility. After all, flexible initiatives, such as enhanced cooperation, have seen little use since first being introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam 20 years ago, what’s to say they would be more successful now.
If and when initiatives for sectoral deepening of integration in the EU are launched, they will most likely be modeled on the original Schengen Agreement of 1985, which was concluded by the five founding members − France, Germany, and the three Benelux countries − as a treaty that was separate from European treaties but aimed to realise a goal stipulated by them. The European Commission will have borne this example in mind when drafting the White Paper.
Juncker’s political sense may tell him that the Schengen example is the more inspiring and workable option, but can he afford to recommend it at the expense of undermining European unity? Probably not, and he will seek to block that particular road towards deeper but more selective integration, even if he thinks it is the way forward.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.