Since the Brexit vote, EU leaders have been divided over which direction the EU should take. Between a push for further integration, conservatively keeping the status quo and the temptation of sovereignty, the coming months are pivotal for the European Union.
Following the referendum, EU leaders reacted by laying out several options for Europe going forward. The outline of the different blueprints is not as binary as a simple “more versus less Europe”. However, the paradigm that has determined EU affairs over the past decades subsists.
The lines behind this soul-searching can be drawn along five main emerging currents, and the arguments underpinning each are being sharpened and defined ahead of a September gathering of heads of states and EU officials in Bratislava.
First and second are the two currents that intend to use the Brexit momentum to push for more integration, either using the EU in its current form, or through a re-shaping of the bloc. Third, the conservative call for more sovereignty, which is leaning towards the fourth eurosceptic option with claims for the end of the EU. And finally, the cautious, wait-and-see approach of German Chancellor and EU powerbroker, Angela Merkel.
Re-thinking European integration
First, a social-reformist squad, including German Socialist Foreign Minister Steinmeier, French President Hollande and Italian PM Renzi, whose vision involves more EU integration. The idea here is to use Brexit as an opportunity to boost the EU project, considering the resented British weariness to the principle of an “ever closer union”.
What exactly that would mean remains murky, however. Several policies would probably be enhanced, including the development of an EU army — a prospect the UK exit would clearly boost – or a more integrated energy market. However, pushing for more EU should go beyond the development of assorted policies, in order to be successful in countering the rising eurosceptic sentiment throughout the continent.
This prospect is obviously welcomed in Brussels, where the federalist view has been brought back to the fore once again. But even among high tenants of the Brussels bubble, some do not think endorsing federalist ideas is a sustainable strategy for the EU in the short term, mostly because of the current political climate, and because many European capitals would likely oppose.
Other ideas for re-thinking the shape of the union are more revolutionary, including the case for a two-speed-Europe (with core, active members and a periphery), or a separation between a fully integrated Eurozone and its peripheral European Union. But such fundamental changes would open a profound debate as for the new balance of power it would produce, and tensions between the different factions within the EU would likely be exacerbated.
Push for sovereignty
On the other end of the traditional debate, some – mostly conservatives including former French president and presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy – argue for unilaterally renegotiating their country’s membership in the EU, and putting the consequent deal to a referendum (a process inspired by Cameron’s election pledge).
The driving idea of such a sovereign push would be to seek for “national solutions where possible and European solutions where necessary”, as Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte described in a speech shortly after the Brexit vote.
The main risk of reviving the sovereign argument is that it would probably initiate a wave of national popular votes that could result in a fragmented EU. However, a heftier risk is that such claims are giving food to the Eurosceptic argument, which advocates for a return to the era of nation states and thereby the end of the European Union.
The fallout of a set-back of such magnitude on European states’ economies and relations would undoubtedly initiate a new phase of uncertainty. But the current has been gaining momentum in leading member states (notably with the AfD in Germany and Front National in France), and was joined by anti-establishment forces since the emergence of the poly-crisis period the EU has experienced, by banking on citizen’s rejection of the EU’s emphasis on free trade and liberal economics.
Buying some time
For the time being, though, the fourth group of leaders has a clear edge over the others. This crew is led by Merkel and backed by a number of politicians, who are wary of taking drastic moves that could backfire. It promotes a conservative, cautious approach, traditionally defined as “l’Europe des petits pas” (or step-by-step Europe), which would theoretically ensure the survival of Europe in the short term by perpetrating the status-quo.
Being cautious and patiently waiting for the current climate to appease could indeed be the EU’s way out of the soul-searching that comes with increasing influence bestowed upon “sovereignists”. Elections in Germany and France in 2017 will determine the future of the EU, and avoiding a push for further integration or complete revamping until then is a way to provide voters with a sense that politicians have the situation under control.
However, this is not a long-term solution, and as the Brexit vote demonstrated, the wait-and-see approach to EU affairs is a strategy that can also backfire. The division currently observed among EU leaders, though, seems to favour this short-term approach, as individual nations try to reach a consensus on the future of the EU.
Whether they will all be involved in the final decision remains doubtful considering the recent meetings of core EU leaders (namely the founding members). Meanwhile, it is reasonable to think that at such an existential time, all members should be included in the conversation.