The EU’s Ides of March

& Steven Blockmans, Head of EU Foreign Policy

March should have been a month of European-wide celebrations to commemorate the first step in Jean Monnet’s functional approach towards closer union, embodied in the two Treaties of Rome 60 years ago, which gave birth to the European Economic Community (EEC) and to European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Instead, it has become a marker for European disintegration, epitomised by the UK’s triggering of the withdrawal procedure and the frequent eruption of nasty spats between the other member states over the future character of the EU.

The rise of anti-EU parties makes the electoral year of 2017 even more decisive. Although it is unlikely to propel them into positions wielding the power of government, their advances may hamper the European integration process.

In the year before this decisive year for the future direction of the Union, the governments of the EU27 had resolved to remain united in diversity (to use the old motto of the EU). As stated in the Bratislava Roadmap of last September: “The EU is not perfect, but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing.”

Few dispute that European integration has brought European citizens enormous benefits, especially in the new member states in the East. But this does not seem to count today as deep divisions have emerged over the question of how the EU should respond to the challenge of improving the security and livelihoods of citizens across Europe.

Ahead of the last summit, Poland and Hungary had advocated a more intergovernmental union, one in which member states could take back control of the unwieldy supranationalist institutions. Conversely, Germany and other Western European member states argued for a further attribution of competences to these same institutions to complete the unfinished business of constructing a well-functioning eurozone and Schengen area.

The Commission has been so chastised that it no longer dares to articulate a clear way forward.  Instead, it chooses to present scenarios, implying only indirectly that maintaining the status quo or reverting to more intergovernmentalism will inevitably lead to regression.

What should and can be done in these circumstances? First of all, there is no need for ideological discussions about intergovernmentalism and multi-speed approaches. Instead, the EU must remain nimble and flexible. What is needed are concrete ideas on how to enhance the prosperity and security of European citizens – going beyond what the member states can offer on their own. If the EU institutions confine themselves to this aim, they will not be perceived as unnecessarily meddling in national affairs. By showing value added, they can steal the demagogues’ thunder.

How the EU responds to the current challenges in core areas such as migration, internal and external security, and public investment will define the next era of integration in Europe. There is a clear need for continued reform, à la méthode Monnet: step by step. If acceptance of a multi-speed Europe is needed to lift the EU out of its current downward spiral, then the idea deserves support – not just because it is inevitable in order to ensure that groups of the able and willing are not held back, but also because it will create a disciplining effect on those that wish to join core groups at a later stage. The future success of European integration will be determined by the great majority of member states lending their support to the effort, not by the arrières gardes holding or opting out.