White Paper helps, but tough choices still needed to keep the show on the road

The EU is facing a multitude of new challenges. Its White Paper on the Future of Europe is a chance for reform. In the second in our series of articles by Burson-Marsteller’s senior advisors on the future of Europe, Jim Currie warns that the EU is shying away from the big questions that loom over the bloc.

The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March gave the European Union an opportunity to stand back and take a good, hard look at where it had been, and where it is going.

The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe, published to coincide with the birthday, was a reminder of both how successful the European project has been and how challenged it will be in a populous and competitive world over the next few decades. It is a timely warning, but does it provide the EU with the right mission statement for the next stage of its life?

The White Paper invites a united EU of 27 to shape a vision for its future, setting out five scenarios ranging from “carrying on” as now to “doing much more together”. Without being explicit, it effectively raises the question of whether the vision of “ever closer union” is sustainable.

The current assumption and the legal reality is that the club’s members all share the same obligations. They may sometimes be subject to temporary derogations, but it is their eventual duty to join the front runners. The unspoken question is whether it will have to give way to a new reality.

This is useful as we will see. Yet it falls short of what is immediately required as a template to engage with the European public in its current rebellious mood. It is not even a basis for realistic debate among member governments in the European Council.

Existential crisis still lingers

It is both right and necessary to sketch out a vision for the world which will confront us, and explain why difficult choices lie ahead. But the White Paper’s prescriptions are hardly enough for Europe to move forward if it ignores the elephant in the room: the EU is still facing an existential crisis.

The EU’s ongoing crunch stems in greater or lesser measure from the two events: the 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 Arab Spring. The EU and its member governments are seen to have failed to adequately respond to either.

The 2008 financial crisis is still with us and has triggered populist movements across the EU over the past few years. Brexit may be the most visible and tangible manifestation of the phenomenon, but who can be sure whether other member states would have not voted the same way given the opportunity of a referendum? Remember, voters in France and the Netherlands – both EU founder members –rejected the EU Constitutional Treaty in referendums in 2005. It would be a mistake to now assume that the successful rebuff of populism in the Dutch elections earlier this year, and the triumph of Emmanuel Macron in France will guide us out of the woods. Macron himself is the beneficiary of populism, even if it is pro-EU.

If the EU changes its ways, the first challenge will have to be reform of the Eurozone. The economic travails of the peoples of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal have been well documented. The imbalances within the Eurozone, where substantial German surpluses exist side-by-side with huge deficits in these countries, testify to a system needing structural readjustment. This is clearly high on Macron’s agenda, at least once the German federal elections are over, and he will be leading a much larger group with the same urgency in mind.

The second aspect is immigration in the wake of the upheavals in the Arab world. This has exposed the EU’s failure to balance free movement within the Schengen area with any control of the EU’s external border. In turn, this has provoked a political and judicial crisis within the EU, as certain central member states have resisted taking on their legally-required quota of mainly Muslim immigrants. The actions already taken to strengthen the external border are welcome but there is a long way to go before the EU can find the political consensus for a genuine immigration and security strategy.

So before serious and sensible discussion can begin on the White Paper’s five options for the future, some hard work is needed to resolve these issues that threaten the EU’s coherence and solidarity.

People have lost confidence in the EU

We should not pretend that the EU can avoid a rethink of its essential mission. It must do so. People have lost confidence in what the EU is for. They have turned to populist parties. In the case of Britain, they have voted to leave EU.

It is helpful that the White Paper is in the public domain. It reminds us that, like a rider on a bicycle, the EU must keep pedalling. It will falter if it does not renew its political and popular mandate.

But far too often the EU has only shown it can conduct long debates and paper resolutions, while failing to deliver solutions on the ground. Any further exercise in ‘the vision thing’ will this time have to be accompanied by hard decisions to solve the real problems on the ground.

The consequences of non-decisions are too serious for words. People who have suffered through the financial and immigration crises deserve solutions that relate to the here and now. Similarly, the countries that joined the euro too soon now need practical remedies to resolve the current fractures in the Eurozone. Only when they see the glimpse of a solution can leaders convince their people that a nasty dose of structural economic reform is worthwhile.

Assuming progress on the big immediate issues, can the White Paper shine a light for the EU’s path ahead? The first thing to say is that it is a serious attempt to be useful. It uses accessible language to lay out some plausible scenarios. And it takes account of the wide range of economic and security concerns confronting the EU as it heads into the 21st century.

But there is a sense that it is avoiding the debate about the immediate economic and security challenges. It fails to spell out the risks of EU inaction in the key areas of foreign and security policy. There is a feeling that it is shying away from tough decisions on the issues that really matter to most Europeans. Only when the EU takes action on the immediate challenges will it convince people to trust it with the bigger responsibilities that lie ahead.

Jim Currie is Chairman and Senior Advisor at Burson-Marsteller Brussels. He had a long career within the European Commission, including as Director General for Environment and Climate during the Kyoto Climate Summit. He was Director General for Customs and Taxation, and was Chef de Cabinet for Sir Leon Brittan when he was Commissioner for Competition Policy and Financial Services. He also served as acting EU Ambassador in Washington DC during the first Clinton Administration.

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