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COMMENTARY

EU plots ahead to 2020s amid troubled times

EUROPEAN presidents and prime ministers meet on Thursday for a landmark summit that will help set the European Union's strategic agenda for the next five years. The session, which comes just days before the May 23 European Parliament election, will not just look at the challenges and opportunities ahead, but would also do a stock take on the past.

The EU's current strategic direction was agreed in 2014 by the European Council and has focused on five priority areas. Namely: jobs, growth and competitiveness; empowering and protecting citizens; energy and climate policies; freedom, security and justice; and the EU as a strong global actor.

There has been important progress in these areas in the last five years, but a widespread recognition that there is much more to do, especially in a context of growing Euroscepticism across the continent. For the last five years has seen not just the Brexit referendum, but also a growing backlash to Brussels across the continent with openly sceptical governments from Italy to Poland.

And the rise of anti-integration sentiment could reach a new high watermark in the March 23 elections that will set the political weather in the continent for months to come. Here Eurosceptic parties across the continent are hoping for big gains, building on the 2014 elections which saw already significant swings to anti-integration parties from the extreme-right like the National Front in France to the far-left such as Syriza in Greece.

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Thursday's summit in Romania, the first time that the country has hosted an EU leaders summit since it joined the EU in 2007, will be one of the last big meetings before European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker bows out of office in November. For some time, Mr Juncker has led a debate across the EU-27 about its future into the 2020s.

The summit will be one of his last opportunities to push his vision for the future of the union. While he has a clear personal preference for greater integration among member states, including the creation of a European Defence Union, there are still a multitude of views across the continent.

These include on key issues like eurozone reform, where ideas on the table include a potential eurozone common budget, and a possible expanded role for the European Stability Mechanism, the bloc's bailout fund, through to the future of the Schengen Area in which the continent has officially abolished border controls.

FINALISING A VISION

The Romanian summit is therefore a major opportunity to steer and shape debate about the continent's future with a view to finalising a vision that can potentially see Europe emerge stronger from the current challenges and opportunities facing it. And to help facilitate this, Mr Juncker has outlined a number of key 2025 scenarios to try to crystallise a consensus before he leaves office.

The scenarios range from the EU retreating, post-Brexit, to no more than the current economic Single Market which seeks to guarantee freedom of movement of goods, capital, services and people. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is a quite different future for the continent where the non-UK 27 member states decide to do much more together, reigniting European integration which is favoured not just by Mr Juncker, but also French President Emmanuel Macron.

Yet, of the five scenarios, "carrying on" is probably the most likely to be realised. This would see the EU muddling through from where it is today and seeking to deliver on the 2016 Bratislava Declaration agreed by all 27 non-UK member states just weeks after the Brexit referendum.

This manifesto includes better tackling migration and border security, plus beefing up external security and defence. And greater stress on enhancing economic and social development, especially for young people across the continent who have been badly impacted by the fallout from the 2008-09 international financial crisis, not least in countries like Spain and Greece.

However, further setbacks - which are likely in the next few years - could instead see either a "Nothing but the Single Market" or "Doing less more efficiently" scenario come to pass. In either of these futures, the current scale of EU functions would be rolled back with attention and limited resources focused instead more on a smaller number of policy areas, including the Single Market.

In the months after the Brexit referendum, perhaps the least likely scenario to be realised by 2025 was the "Doing much more together". However, some in Brussels are now more bullish on this, not least with last month's Spanish election which saw the strongly pro-Brussels socialist government easily emerging as the biggest party underlining the significant support for the EU across much of the continent. This 'doing more' option would see all 27 remaining states sharing more power, resources, with decisions agreed faster and enforced much more quickly.

Perhaps more likely, however, is the "Those who want to do more" scenario which would see more coalitions of the willing emerging in select policy areas to take forward the integration agenda on a flexible, rather than across-the-board basis. A model here could be the eurozone itself where some 19 of the current 28 EU members have entered into a monetary union with the euro as the single currency.

One scenario that is, inevitably, left out is the worst-case of the bloc imploding. Nonetheless, given the build-up of challenges now facing it - which go well beyond Brexit - this outcome cannot be completely dismissed in the 2020s.

THREATS FACING EU

Indeed, just over six decades after the Treaty of Rome, which was one of the EU's founding treaties, European Council president Donald Tusk has said that the threats facing the EU are now "more dangerous than ever". This includes what he termed the new geopolitical reality for Europe that has witnessed an increasing assertive Russia and China, and instability in the Middle East and Africa which has driven a migration crisis. Intensifying this is the new uncertainty coming from Washington with Donald Trump questioning much of the post-war tenets of US foreign policy, including broad-based support for European integration.

Taken overall, Thursday's summit kicks off the final phase of the EU debate over its future. Decisions taken this Spring and Autumn, including over the future of the eurozone, will define the longer-term economic and political character of the bloc well into the 2020s and potentially beyond.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics