Europe

The EU27 are divided over the future of the continent

BY Zoe Alipranti   /  10 May 2019

The Sibiu summit held yesterday in Romania was an informal meeting of the EU27. They had originally intended to discuss the agenda for the future of the EU after Brexit. The mission statement that emerged is full of flowery language on EU unity and the ambition of all member states to strongly defend the EU project in the future. But the tone of the EU27’s conclusions seems at odds with the depth and seriousness of divisions between member states on a wide array of issues at present.

Indeed, EU leaders even began talks on a second, more detailed, document that will not be finalised in Sibiu but it is difficult to see how consensus can be reached in any of the main policy areas.

The report’s mission statement to defend “one Europe – from East to West and North to South” is not in line with the current state of the EU, with countries and groups coalescing around smaller groups with specific views about the EU future. The Hanseatic League, a union of fiscally conservative Northern European states, aims at resisting Macron’s vision for Eurozone reform, while the Visegrad countries are united in rejecting further migration.

More broadly, the European vision articulated by Macron on the one hand and Eurosceptic parties that are in power in three European countries illustrates the extent of the challenge of finding European unity across national divides. It is a problem compounded by the power of a strongly pro-status quo group, arguably led by Germany.

Rhetorical pledges to “stay united” and show common solidarity are made in the face of outright hostility from several member-states to migration policy reform, while the commitment to “always look for joint solutions” rings hollow when you look at internal division over environmental reform.

Notably, one of the key stories of the Sibiu summit was the emergence of a new group pushing for the EU to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero “by 2050 at the latest”, while Macron’s concrete suggestion of a EU-wide digital tax has fallen on deaf ears.

Moreover, the EU27 commitment to “democracy and rule of law” is at odds with the current state of politics in Hungary and Poland. The Article 7 process, designed to preserve common legal norms across the continent, has proven unworkable in practice.

The EU says it seeks to become a “responsible global leader”, reflected in the intensification of EU engagement with China and trade deal with Japan. However, nation states are still divided on EU foreign policy decisions from Venezuela to sanctions against Russia. Moves o apply a qualified majority system in foreign policy decision making will be fiercely resisted by many smaller states.

Further disagreement was on open display over the Spitzenkandidat process for choosing the next European Commission President. It was first applied in 2014, despite David Cameron openly disagreeing with it, but has not been institutionalised. With Macron and many other leaders opposing it, the selection of the next European Commission President could produce more instability.

The symbolic pledges made in the mission statement are only a starting point for the discussion that lies ahead on the EU’s future. But spelling out measures for further integration seems myopic during a time of increasing division and rising Eurosceptic parties. Indeed, with consensus between main leaders limited to stronger protection of borders and the creation of new employment opportunities, a renewed impetus for integration seems like a far-off prospect. The Sibiu summit exemplifies how the EU project is being defined by stalled momentum, caused largely by a continued fracturing into smaller blocs.

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