Brexit mooted as catalyst that makes or breaks EU alliance

For while attention has focused on the influence of June’s Brexit referendum for the UK, how the bloc itself changes will probably prove the more important outcome of the vote.

For while attention has focused on the influence of June’s Brexit referendum for the UK, how the bloc itself changes will probably prove the more important outcome of the vote.

European Union leaders meet on Thursday and Friday for their last summit before the United Kingdom is anticipated to trigger Article 50 later this month, setting off formal exit negotiations. The two-day session will include discussion on a new white paper, launched last week by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the future of Europe by 2025.

For while attention has focused on the influence of June’s Brexit referendum for the UK, how the bloc itself changes will probably prove the more important, but most overlooked, outcome of the vote.

To this end, Juncker’s paper outlines five main scenarios for how the EU could evolve, with a view to shaping debate and finalising a vision for the future — a vision that can potentially see the continent emerge from the current political and economic storm engulfing it.

The scenarios vary.
At one end of the spectrum is the possibility of the EU retreating to no more than the current economic single market, which seeks to guarantee freedom of movement of goods, capital, services and people. At the other end of the spectrum, however, lies a different future, in which the remaining 27 member states decide to do much more together, reigniting European integration.

Of the five scenarios, “carrying on” is perhaps the one most likely to be realised. This would see the EU muddle through from where it is today and seek to deliver on the Bratislava Declaration agreed upon by all 27 non-UK member states last year.

This manifesto includes better tackling of migration and border security, beefing up external security and defence, and placing greater emphasis on enhancing economic and social development, especially for young people across the continent who still suffer from the fallout resulting from the 2008 international financial crisis, not least in countries such as Spain and Greece.

Yet even that middle-range future is by no means certain in the current economic and political context. Further setbacks in coming years would instead see either a “nothing but the single market” scenario, or one akin to “doing less more efficiently” come to pass.

In either of these futures, the current scale of EU functions would be rolled back, with attention and limited resources focused more on a smaller number of policy areas, including the single market.

Based on current trends, perhaps the least likely scenario to be realised by 2025 is that of “doing much more together”. This would see all 27 remaining states share more power and resources, with decisions agreed upon faster and ensuring they’re enforced much more quickly.

More possible, however, is the scenario of “those who want to do more”, which would see more coalitions of groups having the political will emerge in select policy areas to take forward the integration agenda on a flexible, rather than across-the-board, basis. A model here could be the Eurozone, where 19 of the current 28 EU members have decided to enter into a monetary union with the euro as the single currency.

Despite the detail in the roughly 30-page white paper, the worst-case scenario of the bloc imploding is not included as a distinctive future for the EU. Nonetheless, given the build-up of challenges now facing the union — which go well beyond Brexit — this outcome cannot now be dismissed in the period before 2025.

Indeed, some 60 years after the Treaty of Rome, which was one of the EU’s founding treaties, European Council president Donald Tusk said last month that the threats facing the EU were now “more dangerous than ever”. He identified three key challenges “which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale” that the EU must tackle.

The first two dangers relate to the rise of anti-EU nationalist sentiment across the continent, along with the “state of mind of pro-European elites”, which Tusk fears are now too subservient to “populist arguments, as well as doubting the fundamental values of liberal democracy”.

The EU chief is conscious here that, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, it is continental Europe that will provide a lodestar in 2017 for whether right-wing populism will continue to find fertile electoral ground.

In elections to be held in various countries this year — beginning with the Netherlands next week, where polls indicate the far-right Freedom Party could emerge as the largest single party — left-wing and centrist parties are under pressure from insurgency parties championing Eurosceptical, anti-immigrant platforms.

It is France, however, that —alongside Germany — has traditionally been the “twin engine” of EU integration, which will be the key election to watch in the continent.

The reason is the far-right, National Front candidacy of Marine Le Pen, who has called for closer ties with Russia; questioned the need for the intergovernmental military alliance, Nato, in the 21st century; and called for a French referendum on the country’s EU membership.

Although she is not currently the favourite to win, she stands a realistic shot of getting to the second-round run-off election in May. Tusk and other EU leaders are well aware that if she pulls off an upset victory it would be an even more savage blow to the bloc than Brexit, not least given France’s membership of the Eurozone.

The third threat cited by Tusk, this time external to the EU, is what he calls “the new geopolitical reality” that has witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia and China as well as instability in the Middle East and Africa, which has driven the migration crisis affecting Europe.

Intensifying this is the new uncertainty coming from Washington, with Trump questioning much of the post-war tenets of US foreign policy, including broad-based support for European integration.

Taken overall, Juncker’s paper underlines that debate over Europe’s future will intensify as the formal Brexit talks between the EU and the UK commence. Many leaders are scrambling to come to terms with intensifying internal and external challenges, and their decisions in coming months will define the longer-term economic and political character of the bloc in the face of what could yet become, collectively, an existential threat to the union’s future.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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