The White Paper on the Future of the EU: Which Way Forward for EU-27?

On 1 March, the European Commission published its White Paper on the Future of the EU27 (i.e. post-Brexit), meant as food for thought for EU leaders in their discussions on how to relaunch the EU project. The publication of the Paper comes right before celebrations kick off for the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the founding treaty of the European Economic Community, from which today’s European Union grew.  It also precedes the UK’s triggering of Article 50 which will kick off Brexit negotiations – UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said this will happen by March this year.

The White Paper sets out five scenarios, respectively: “Carrying on”, “Nothing but the single market”, “Those who want more do more”, “Doing less more efficiently” and “Doing much more together”.

The first scenario is about continuing on the current path, which is not necessarily limiting from a legislative and political standpoint. However, it also means lacking a clear direction and strategy for the future vis-à-vis Brexit, the rise in populist movements around Europe and the inefficiencies of the EU’s construction and decision-making. Therefore, it is not the ideal way forward, especially if the plan is to see a strengthened EU emerging from the Brexit process.

The second scenario means unraveling the integration achieved in several areas and giving up on the possibility to act collectively in everything but the Single Market. The problem with this scenario is that an incomplete integration is a flawed integration and it may prove impossible to advance the Single Market without intervening in more pressing and ambitious policy areas.

The third scenario is a multi-speed Europe with several “coalitions of the willing” emerging to work together in specific policy areas. Under this scenario, despite the announced disparity in EU countries’ levels of cooperation, “the unity of EU at 27 is preserved”, says the White Paper.

The fourth scenario can be interpreted as a more ambitious application of the Better Regulation principle and would result in a revision of the decision-making procedures. Choosing this path might, however, mean also acknowledging that some objectives cannot be achieved because differences among Member States are too pronounced. Therefore, it remains to be seen what “doing less” means and which policy areas it includes.

The fifth scenario is the most ambitious and sees strengthened cooperation in all domains. It appears unrealistic at this point in time and the Commission itself assesses that, because of a strengthening in decision-making and enforcement, under this scenario “questions of accountability arise for some who feel that the EU has taken too much power away from the Member States”.

What will happen?

The most likely scenarios, according to first reactions, are options three and four “those who want more, do more” and “doing less more efficiently”. What this means in concrete terms will depend on how these two scenarios are articulated. In general, while they are not mutually exclusive, they go in opposite directions when it comes to decision-making: more complicated if coalitions emerge, much easier if, as a result of scenario four, a clear delineation of responsibilities is established between the EU and the Member States, resulting in wider political accountability.

Out of the two, the multi-speed Europe has emerged as the most favored option. It repeats German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s election mantra about a phased EU integration with Member States choosing the combination of EU policies that they are ready to commit to, and was already backed by France, Germany, Italy and Spain at a meeting held this week in the historically representative location of Versailles, France. It is, however, not a new concept but a  sort of “second best” integration scenario which has often been considered in the last two decades to respond to a political crisis (for instance, it popped up during the discussions on a European Constitution in the early 2000s and again in 2011 during the financial crisis). This may be the most favored option because it is the most realistic option, but there is not much that is visionary about it.

Overall, the European Commission’s attempt to present a vision for the future is only the start of a process that will continue in the months ahead. After all, at EU-level it is still the European Council (meaning the Member States) which is the institution responsible for giving high-level political guidelines, with the Commission executing what is agreed upon. The purpose of the White Paper is to stimulate the debate on how to recast the EU and leave the ultimate say on the way forward to Member States. We can therefore expect a more concrete plan by the Commission once this path has been set out.

A vision for a post-Brexit EU

The White Paper seeks to respond to the challenges the EU is facing because of Brexit and the rise of Euro-skepticism (both a cause and a consequence of Brexit) in some Member States.  It recognizes that, ahead of the official start of the Brexit process, Member States need first and foremost a common vision of what the future for the EU27 might look like and must also be guided by this common vision during the negotiations. Theresa May’s latest speeches and the UK government’s recently released White Paper also try to convey such a vision, reflecting on the UK’s place in the wider world.

This is a gamble, of course, because it could see conflicting positions emerge at a time when the EU needs to speak with one voice in the complicated departure talks and in the even more complicated new trade agreement negotiations. Moreover, with elections this year in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, the ambition of advancing the EU project might face the reality of governments having first and foremost to present a vision widely accepted by their electorate (and therefore milder on the idea of closer integration, at least in some countries).

Therefore, some argue that the debate might have been the ideal post-Brexit relaunch, something that the Commission could have presented with the start of its next mandate in 2019, rather than now, before the triggering of Article 50. Without the UK, many constraints on what can be achieved in terms of EU integration will fall away. On the other hand, elections in other Member States and the rise of populism could well block the ambition of further integration regardless of the departure of the UK.

If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that it’s difficult to make firm predictions, especially about the future.

Next steps

Member States are expected to express their view and possibly find an agreement on where to go from here in the next few months. The key dates so far are the following:

  • 9-10 March: European Council/Meeting of EU27
  • 25 March 2017: EU27 Summit/Rome Declaration/60th anniversary
  • End April 2017: Commission reflection paper on the social dimension of Europe
  • May 2017: Commission reflection paper on harnessing globalization
  • May 2017: Commission reflection paper on the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union
  • Early June 2017: Commission reflection paper on the future of European defense
  • 22-23 June 2017: European Council
  • Mid-September 2017: State of the Union speech
  • September 2017: Commission reflection paper on the future of EU finances
  • 19-20 October 2017: European Council
  • 14 December 2017: European Council/Meeting of EU27
  • December 2019: European Parliament’s elections