Later in March leaders of EU countries will celebrate the 60th anniversary of signing of the Treaty of Rome, from which the integration process had begun. Through six decades the European project provided peace and fostered stability on the Continent, supported by NATO and the US when there was a need to protect Western Europe from USSR. The project evolved from coal and steel industry to a full-fledged political union with lots of power wielded traditionally by national governments being transferred to European institutions. That has become a problem recently, with Brexit as the best example, and thus the European Commission presented a White Paper containing 5 scenarios for the near future. Is there anything that could be described as a game-changing idea?
The document is well written and not too long, which is a rarity in the EU, where long and hard to understand papers are produced like iPhones in Chinese factories. The abovementioned 5 scenarios are as follows:
- carrying on – business as usual. Hard to imagine with Brexit and all challenges ahead, with populism on the rise in a number of EU members;
- nothing but the single market. Few countries would happily settle for it, but it is totally impossible as for too many countries European integration means much more and they are happy with that;
- those who want more do more. The most probable scenario presented in the document. It needs just political will and can be fully based on existing treaties. Few countries long for closer integration within 'coalitions of the willing’ as they are fed up with the laggards;
- doing less more efficiently. If only the areas of closer cooperation could be agreed on. But it is not simple, so don’t expect much from this scenario;
- doing much more together. It is carrying on scenario on steroids, but it is hard to imagine to succeed either. The institutions of the EU needs serious changes for such a scenario to move forward, but can the EU afford another years of wrangling over a new treaty?
What the EU has to do – and do it soon – is to start showing the benefits of staying together. Much is being done to ease daily life of European citizenry, but Brussels has major problems with communication. Second thing is that old EU members, mostly Germany, France, Italy and Benelux, has to stop forcing their national agendas under the banner of 'single market’. The unfairness of laws and regulations that are forced by them on the new members and its workers and companies create very bad publicity for the EU. It seems that 4 freedoms upon which the EU is built may only work when they favor old EU members. If this doesn’t stop, support for populist parties in countries in Eastern and Southern Europe would continue to grow.
Last but not least, the faith in integration and cooperation has to prevail. But it must not be mistaken with opposition to reform. The Union’s institutions needs to change and the change has to be deep in few areas, mainly in the Parliament. Current fiction of representing the whole European society doesn’t work. The argument of lack of representation raised by many political parties in member states is valid and has not been properly addressed. Apart from deciding on one HQ for this institution, it needs to share its powers with national parliaments. Moreover, opinions of national parliaments cannot be thrown in the bin, like in the case of changes to the directive concerning delegation of workers. Dozen countries opposed it, but the regulation is still being processed without any changes. Brussels doesn’t know best and it cannot be the instrument of a few powerful countries used to impose their will on the others. It may have worked that way until now, but the rules of the game changed.
Commission’s White Paper is only one of many voices in the discussion that would follow in the next few years. But it carries its weight and cannot be dismissed. Instead of a game-changing vision it contains a long list of warnings and 'what ifs’ that address many claims raised by EU-skeptics as well as advocates of an ever-stronger Union. A major rethink of the Union is in order and it has to be done with a clear picture of an alternative. That alternative is a disintegrated Continent with dozens of squabbling states who may cherish their sovereignty, but have to pay steep price for it. Instead of a one strong player, outside powers would face few majors and dozens of minors and impose their will easier. Price of this may be so steep that many countries could have second thoughts. Though it would be too late.