Wheel-spinning EU leaves Juncker stuck in the mud

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By Cormac Lucey

It was once said that the Irish peace process was like a shark: it had to keep moving forward or it would die. EU treaty law assumes the same for the European Union when it commits its members to “ever closer union”.

But it is doubtful where such a basic metaphor conveys any lesson for the complex world of politics in either Northern Ireland or the EU. The movie Groundhog Day might be a more appropriate parallel, where not going backwards can sometimes represent a considerable achievement.

The EU currently faces several serious external threats. From the east, a rejuvenated Russia is meddling in the Balkans, the Baltics and even in France’s presidential election. From the south, the EU faces a stream of migrants who would happily swap hopeless lives in Africa and Asia for lives here. The problem is being turned on and off at will for negotiating purposes by the EU’s nominal and increasingly autocratic ally Turkey.

The union also faces significant internal threats. The eurozone crisis ticks mordantly away in the background as debt levels in Greece, Portugal and Italy gradually escalate and political support for the European project slowly declines. Britain is exiting and nobody really knows what its departure will look like — the risk of a serious economic accident is significant. Perhaps most dangerous of all, political support for the EU is ebbing fast among its citizens.

This is the background to a white paper on the Future of Europe presented last month by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission (EC). Straight away note the title. It’s not a white paper on the future of the EU. Instead, it presumptuously purports to delineate the future of the entire continent.

The real problem facing Juncker is that the member states of the EU are divided into different camps that have differing needs. Take Germany and France, the joint motors of the European project. While the policy elites of these countries both want greater European integration, their populations are drifting apart. More Germans regard the EU favourably than unfavourably — by 50% to 48% — while a majority of French people have turned against the EU, by a margin of 61% to 38%. Tagging closely along are the Benelux states.

Then we’ve got the eurozone debtor countries, ranging from Italy and Spain to Portugal and Greece. They have distinct and different needs from the creditor countries in northern Europe. The debtors want the European Central Bank’s quantitive easing programme and loose monetary policy to continue for longer; the creditors want them shut down.

To this motley crew must be added the states of eastern Europe. Many of them are in a slow-motion revolt against what they perceive as politically correct edicts coming from Brussels and elsewhere. Consider last week’s call from UN Human Rights Council adviser Jean Ziegler for harsh sanctions on EU states refusing to welcome migrants.

Ziegler, a Swiss Social Democrat and former professor of sociology, called on the EC to suspend payments to countries trying to minimise the migrant influx, targeting Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia as “delinquents”.

Finally, there are the Scandinavians. Like us, Sweden and Denmark are heavily dependent on free trade for economic prosperity. Unlike us, they didn’t adopt missionary zeal for the EU project or join the disastrous single currency project. Finland was the only Nordic country to have any agreement with Nazi Germany. It did join the euro but is now questioning the project’s merits.

In the light of the deep and multiple fissures that characterise the EU today, it is therefore hardly surprising that Juncker outlined five different scenarios — rather than aims designed to shoehorn the diverse members of the union into one uncomfortable fate together. For EU-watchers, though, this represents a considerable shift.

The notion that it might make sense for the EU to allow for “variable geometry”, a method of differentiated integration, was originally championed by Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the late summer of 1994 in a paper co-written by Wolfgang Schäuble, now the country’s finance minister. Juncker’s new plan can be viewed as innovative but could also be regarded as Schäuble for slow learners.

His first scenario would see the EU carry on and focus on jobs, growth and investment by strengthening the single market and stepping up digital, transport and energy infrastructure investment. This is the status quo option.

The second scenario would aim for nothing beyond the single market. The functioning of the single market would become the main raison d’être of the EU27. It is hard not to feel that this is the straw-man proposal of the five.

The third scenario would allow for the development of one or several “coalitions of the willing” to emerge to work together in specific policy areas. These might cover policies such as defence, internal security, taxation or social affairs. Listening to the rhetoric of Euro federalists, one might imagine that there is huge desire for such increased cooperation. But the reality is that very little use has actually been made of the EU’s existing procedures for enhanced co-operation.

The fourth scenario would see the EU focus its attention and limited resources on a reduced number of areas. According to Juncker, this would allow the EU27 to act “much faster and more decisively” in its chosen priority areas. But is there any evidence that reducing the size of the EU’s agenda will accelerate the pace of circumnavigating the political obstacles that will still exist?

The fifth scenario is the old “ever closer union” option where states would decide to share more power, resources and decision-making across the board. We can forget about this option. If there isn’t the political will to address a pressing matter such as the eurozone crisis, how can anyone imagine it’s there to solve more theoretical concerns?

The reality is that the EU is stuck. It hasn’t reached the federal destination desired by its intellectual fathers. And yet, in the minds of increasing numbers of its citizens, it has already gone too far.

Juncker’s white paper is prefaced by a quote from one of those fathers, Robert Schuman. He stated: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

The problem for the EU is that its more recent concrete developments — the common currency, a common migration policy, a common foreign policy — haven’t engendered collective solidarity among EU member states and their citizens. They have boosted mutual antagonisms.

Published in The Sunday Times, April 2017

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