The Future of the EU27: What to expect from this summer’s period of reflection

As the UK’s brutal political fallout of Brexit continues to astound the world, leaders in the other member states are wrestling with the EU’s new reality. They deemed it too early to draw conclusions at the June European Council. Instead, the heads of state and government declared a period of political reflection on the future of an EU with 27 member states. They will meet again informally on September 16th in Bratislava. The question is: What impetus can they give to reforms to remain united and deal with the challenges of the 21st century?

The answer is given, in part, in the statement released after their informal meeting on June 29th: the EU27 will need to address the fact that too many people in Europe are unhappy with the current state of affairs and expect their leaders to do better on providing security, jobs and growth, especially for the young. Any action to be undertaken in this respect should be in line with the EU’s ‘Strategic Agenda’.

Contrary to the expectations of many, the reference here is not to the new EU Global Strategy presented to the European Council one day earlier, or to the different Single Market strategies, including on energy, or to action plans proposed by the Commission to be completed and implemented by 2018. While these strategies and plans may provide helpful frameworks to consider, in their statement the EU27 referred to the “Strategic Agenda for the EU in Times of Change”, adopted by the European Council in reaction to the (in hindsight: mild) shock of the June 2014 European Parliamentary elections.

Back then, the EU28 agreed on five overarching priorities to guide the work of the EU during the legislative cycle until 2019: stronger economies with more jobs; societies able to empower and protect citizens through education; fighting tax fraud and providing social safety nets; a secure energy and climate future; effective joint action in the world; and a trusted area of freedom, security and justice, with the emphasis on better management of migration, combating crime and terrorism, and judicial cooperation between states.

While action in all of these fields remains critical for the EU, the institutions and member states have travelled some distance since, as the earlier references to the Global and Single Market strategies confirm. Why then, did the EU27 revisit a long-forgotten document from 2014? Perhaps leaders felt the need to get back to basics, to equip their societies for the future and to foster confidence? Perhaps they wanted to anchor their plans for the future in a document that does not deal with the thorny issue of respect for democratic principles and the rule of law? Perhaps they also felt that only this document provided enough common ground to work towards a ‘better’ European Union, i.e. one not defined by the debate over ‘more or less’ Europe?

Indeed, if the declarations issued by various groupings of leaders in the days between the UK referendum and the June European Council are anything to go by, then huge differences of opinion exist over how to create a more legitimate EU. Some member states advocate more direct involvement of citizens in ‘their’ European Union, for instance, while the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia), in particular, are pushing for the repatriation of powers to governments. The need for further integration is perceived differently too, with ‘old’ member states like France, Germany and Italy wishing to proceed on issues such as youth unemployment, security and defence, while some of the ‘newer’ member states resist the idea of more supranationalism. Likewise, there is no consensus on whether or not treaty change is needed to reform the EU. The European Parliament and the Visegrad countries argue for treaty change, while the Council and Commission plead for reform on the basis of the existing treaties.

The genie let out of the Brexit bottle has now alighted in ‘Brussels’. Competing interests have emerged over the question of how to refit the EU for purpose. The raft of tricky national referenda (in Hungary and Italy) and major elections (in France, Germany and others) scheduled for the coming months will keep that burning question alive until the end of 2017.Will the members of the EU27 will be outward- and forward-looking? Will they want to have a say in how an open and fair international economic system is crafted, with sustainable access to Global Commons? Will they rally round the European flag to save the integration project, or will they follow the example of the UK and become a gravedigger of the EU?

The onus now is on all those who wish Brexit to become a positive turning point in the post-Cold War order to offer concrete proposals during this summer period of reflection. Status quo will mean decline. If ever there was a time for bold ideas to regenerate political momentum for European integration, it is now. The Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, entitled “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe”, comes at a particularly auspicious time. Indeed, to quote the Strategy, “[w]e will [need to] equip ourselves to respond more rapidly and flexibly to the unknown lying ahead. A more responsive Union requires change” (p. 46). More engagement is called for now, not estrangement. The leaders of the EU27 would do well to translate that message into action when they meet in Bratislava in September.

Senior Research Fellow and Head of EU Foreign Policy Unit