Here’s a conundrum – how can 27 different states with 27 different interests and 27 different worldviews agree a single way forward? This is the issue the EU currently faces, and its current impasse in response looks unlikely to be rectified anytime soon.
Nine months ago, leaders across Europe woke up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and reacted with defiance at any suggestions of potential disunity. Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed the suggestion that it could be the beginning of the end for the Union while the European Council President, Donald Tusk, was assertive in his statement that “we are determined to keep our unity as twenty seven.” Yet, almost nine months have passed since the vote that changed Europe as much as it changed Britain, and the way forward for the Union continues to look unclear.
Herein lies the paradox the Union faces – it needs to change in order to survive, yet needs the agreement of all 27 states to do so. In the past, we have seen defeated referendums in Denmark, Ireland, France and the Netherlands, and this was when perceptions of Europe were mostly positive. Now, as perceptions have declined in the wake of apparently constant crises, the idea of a common agreement on more integration verges on the impossible, while less integration is unfathomable to current leaders at the core of the project.
Does the Union recognize the extent of the problems it faces? Juncker’s recent 5-point plan suggests not. A range of options are put at the centre of the debate over the future of Europe, including the apparently innovative approach of ‘carrying on’ (as if the status quo is the solution to Europe’s issues). Other options presented by the Commission include ‘doing less more efficiently’ and ‘doing more together’ but the lack of specifics does little to alter the view that the Union has no coherent plan. Nor do any of the options respond to the central issues of sovereignty, democracy, and immigration that formed the basis of the Brexit vote. In this respect, Juncker resembles the captain of a ship that is more worried about what’s on the dinner menu tomorrow than the rapidly approaching iceberg.
Since the release of Juncker’s white paper, cracks have begun to emerge. The leaders of the four biggest countries left in the Union – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – appeared to throw their weight behind a multi-speed Europe, where those who want to move forward are able to do so. Again, however, the specifics of where and when this may take place are lacking. Nor does this approach align with the EU’s stated goals of maintaining unity in the face of Britain’s impending departure, as an inner core and outer periphery will exacerbate division rather than resolve it and runs the risk of sidelining those that fail to join in the race to ever closer union.
Europe doesn’t only face internal problems. The Union has never been as isolated as it is now; previous allies to the project in Turkey and the US are now openly disengaging from the principles the Union espouses, with the current spat between Turkey and the Netherlands a symptom of this. Unity is desirable, but hard to achieve when there are 27 different voices at the table – the Baltic states fear Russia while the Mediterranean states are more worried about the EU’s southern border. Meanwhile, Britain’s decision to leave the Union has opened a Pandora’s box for countries with close links to the UK, with Ireland the most vulnerable to a future without the British. Poland’s recent attempt to block Donald Tusk’s reelection as European Council President highlights how rhetoric of a united approach will struggle to be met with corresponding action. Plans for a one-speed, two-speed or no-speed Europe will need to be more innovative than those currently proposed to ensure the EU exits its recent melee.
Change or die. These are the two options open to the EU in the wake of Britain’s impending departure. Yet the top-down response currently being applied fails to take into account the views of its demos, particularly when figures of Juncker’s ilk are leading the charge. Jean Monnet once argued that the EU would be forged in crisis; a more imaginative and hopeful vision is needed to ensure that the right EU is forged out of this crisis.