March 2, 2017
By Elias Papadopoulos, Political Consultant
It was eagerly anticipated – as eagerly as any White Paper on the Future of Europe can be, that is. Some thought that Brexit rhetoric managed to seep into it, others thought it was vague and lacked substance. Well, perhaps it was no surprise that a paper intended as the start of a long discussion expected to lead to a strategy in 2019 and taking place under the shadow of Brexit was both those things.
The thinking mirrored almost every consultation document published by the European Commission in recent memory, listing scenarios ranging from “maintaining the status quo” to the most radical option in “doing much more together”, with a few options in-between. In a rarely clear and easy to understand document five rather self-explanatory options were presented: “carrying on”; “nothing but the Single Market”; “those who want more do more”; “doing less more efficiently”; and “doing much more together”.
The no starters
Off the cuff, the “Single Market” and “doing much more” options can be discounted. The former would essentially mean a backtracking on progress achieved so far, not to mention a possible weakening of the four freedoms (goods, services, capital, people), as it is expected that free movement of people might face de facto restrictions over time. It is also the one option Jean-Claude Juncker has hinted he is not behind, despite the Commission’s wishes to remain neutral on the subject. The latter option, attractive to the most ardent Europhiles and federalists, is, unfortunately, unrealistic at this junction. It would necessitate budgetary increases and is unlikely to play well with audiences in light of questions over legitimacy and accusations of detachment from EU citizens. It should be the aspirational goal for the EU, but best shelve it for the time being.
The “carrying on” scenario seems attractive and it would certainly mean a business as usual approach. Despite its benefits, it nevertheless leaves the EU adopting a firefighter approach, as decision-making in light of crises will remain fairly cumbersome.
The golden medium
All of which brings us to the “golden medium” of options, “those who want more, do more” and “doing less more efficiently”. Also known as multi-speed Europe, the first option would see countries choosing which policy areas they would seek more cooperation in and join “coalitions of the willing”. This of course has the added benefit that countries can choose to deepen their cooperation at their own pace, doing away with the feeling that rules are imposed on them. The key drawbacks are that this could lead to a divergence in citizens’ rights and bring added legal complexity in the interactions of Members belonging in different policy groups.
“Doing less more efficiently” is also an attractive option, meaning that the EU can focus on deepening cooperation and integration in certain policy areas, while leaving others to Member States. The benefits are manifold: a clear delineation of responsibilities between the EU national and local governments, resulting in clearer lines of accountability, a more targeted approach that does not try to do both integration and expansion at the same time. In the longer term, this approach can also re-introduce a sense of gradualism: as the EU completes its integration on selected policy areas and the benefits become apparent, further expansion is possible at a more sustainable pace.
Where do we go from here?
The White Paper is only the start of the process – hence it seeks to paint a picture with broad strokes only and leave the decisions to Member States. It also clearly seeks to reflect the tensions brought about by the Brexit vote and the surge in anti-EU feeling in some Member States.
Based on first reactions, it would appear that the most likely scenarios are a mix of the two “golden medium” options. Germany, France and the Czech Republic have already signalled that they back a multi-speed Europe. A decision by Member States on where to go from here will likely be taken by the end of the year and it is hoped that a more detailed, comprehensive strategy will be rolled out in time for the 2019 European Parliament elections and the subsequent new Commission.WhitehouseEU