Global power and influence. Part 3: An evolving European Union

Essay by Jean-Jacques Subrenat.

The European Union (EU) has been criticized for its complex procedures and opaqueness. Is this a valid judgment, and if so, what needs to be changed? Is Brexit the beginning of the end of the EU, as predicted by Donald Trump, or does this ambitious project of enhanced cooperation among nations, set up for the reconstruction of Europe after World War Two, still have relevance?

Before the June 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, those in favor of leaving the European Union claimed that Great Britain had been deprived of its political and economic freedoms and was paying too high a price for its membership. Some of those promoting Brexit mainly in financial terms glossed over more strategic preoccupations that had led to the creation of the EU.

An essay published in WikiTribune underlined that “the EU is more than a trade deal, it’s a set of ideals,” and described the subsequent evolution of the EU. When the UK, without pressure from its European partners, decided to leave the EU by 2019, it reversed a major national policy, much to its own detriment (the BBC gives a thorough evaluation of probable consequences).

Unity to dispersal. In 1962, four countries applied for membership in the EEC: Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the UK In early 1972, Norway completed its negotiations for membership, but decided to submit the final decision to a national referendum in September that year, which resulted in a majority (53.5 percent) voting against. Oslo immediately cancelled its request for membership, and in 1994 Norway became a member of the European Economic Area. The only previous case of actual withdrawal occurred when Greenland, after acquiring autonomy from Denmark, decided to leave in 1985. The British decision to leave the EU after well over four decades of membership, carries far weightier consequences than the Greenland withdrawal or the Norwegian suspension of entry proceedings.

Indeed, when Oslo suspended its candidacy, there were no contractual obligations between Norway and the EEC. But the UK, on the other hand, has a vast number of issues which will need to be implemented even after it leaves the EU in 2019: financial commitments, transposition into UK law of all the European directives it has subscribed to, for the benefit of British citizens; the status of some territories (e.g. the border between Gibraltar and Spain); border controls and travel documents between the UK and the EU; pensions due to British citizens employed in the European institutions, etc. In reverse, from the standpoint of international affairs, the departure of the UK will deprive the EU of one of its two voices in the UN Security Council (the other being France).

On the European continent, the general feeling about the UK’s departure is one of regret, but there are also suggestions that this may allow the EU to carry out some of the reforms or improvements which London did not favor, such as closer coordination in financial and fiscal matters, or military planning with or without NATO.

EU membership enlargements. The EU welcomed new members in 1973 (Denmark, Ireland, UK), in 1981 (Greece), in 1986 (Portugal, Spain), in 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden), in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia), in 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania), and in 2013 (Croatia). Because they affect so many areas of policy, all enlargements are consequential events. But those of 2004 proved a huge challenge, and set back the long overdue improvement of the institutions, processes and working methods of the EU.

The EU was also shaped by major events across the European continent. The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed countries formerly under Soviet rule, such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, to retrieve their independence. Nations which had long suffered under Soviet occupation were keen to experiment with modern democracy, rather than pursue an authoritarian model. The reunification of Germany in 1990 created a strategic opportunity. In Brussels, speedy enlargement was called for by Germany and supported by other member states, and vigorously implemented by the European Commission (Commissioner Günter Verheugen, a German national, played a leading role in the 2004 enlargement).

The other side of the debate suggested that consolidating the EU was a necessary first step before any enlargement, especially as the new candidates arrived with widely divergent levels of institutional stability, judiciary independence, monetary stability, or corruption. In short, the overall preparedness of each candidate country’s economy, society and government ranged from good (e.g. Estonia) to weak (e.g. Bulgaria, Romania).

The level of engagement of any member state in the EU has always depended on a wide range of economic and security considerations, as well as local politics. In the UK, there has been a widely held view that the EU was all about money and trade. London never engaged wholeheartedly in the consolidation of European institutions or policies, e.g. stronger mechanisms for economic convergence, or freedom of movement, or harmonized labor laws. And although Great Britain and France have been partners in bilateral military projects, London has always played down a full-fledged European defense and security posture, on the grounds that its special relationship with Washington was more important than anything it could do with Europeans.

When President Trump, shortly after his inauguration, demeaned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), declaring it was obsolete and questioning its relevance, he also predicted that Brexit would bring about the demise of the EU. With these two statements, he sent waves of anxiety rippling through Europe’s democracies, not least in London. President Trump’s positions are impacting the way European capitals now think about defense and security, with or without the USA; they are also having the unexpected effect of casting the EU in a more favorable light.

The attraction of nationalistic parties in Europe has been quite uneven. While their electoral appeal recently dwindled in the Netherlands and in France, they have made significant gains in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. All these right- or extreme-right movements view the EU with suspicion, some demanding that their country abandon the Euro currency, others going so far as to call for a withdrawal from the EU. In several regions formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, emerging nationalistic parties have garnered support by claiming that their country had ‘’tumbled out of the Soviet Union to fall into the European Union’’, thus propagating the notion that the EU is no different from the former USSR.

The nationalistic agenda also claims to defend “conservative values’’, usually in line with religious and political authority. In Poland, for example, the far right wants to make the interruption of pregnancy a criminal offence (the word abortion tends to ignore women’s rights to their physical and moral integrity, while the term voluntary interruption of pregnancy is non-judgmental and carries no stigma).

Other prominent themes exploited by nationalistic parties include immigration, public security, and social benefits. In the Czech Republic, the President has limited powers, but the outcome of the presidential election (14 & 28 January 2018) will likely influence the debate on democratic versus authoritarian rule. In Poland too, the nationalistic surge is not only jeopardizing that country’s involvement in the EU, but also risks setting back some basic rights.

Opting out, a simple but misleading solution. When the EEC was launched in 1957, unity of purpose and full engagement were quite natural among its founding members (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands). But since the enlargement of 1973, exceptions to the common rule were granted, in the form of opting out. Thus Denmark, Ireland and the UK opted out of the Schengen Agreement which abolished passport and border controls between EU member states. The Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro currency are developing without Denmark and Great Britain. Denmark has also opted out of European joint defense projects. Regarding the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Poland and the UK have opted out, and the Czech Republic has lined up to do the same. Denmark, Ireland and the UK have also opted out of the joint Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.

A new approach – opting in. At least over the past three decades, a number of reports have suggested new mechanisms to allow willing and able member states to further consolidate the unity, efficiency, and therefore the relevance and influence of the EU. But the schedule of national elections, a lack of political will, and the onus of major disruptions (financial crisis in 2008, migration crisis over many years, terrorism for at least a decade) made it difficult to map out the future of the European Union.

Two member states are currently in a position to push for a long overdue modernization of the EU: Germany, thanks to its proven political and economic stability; and France, where President Macron has set forth his proposals for the coming decade. Berlin and Paris are engaged in consultations aimed at proposing that member states opt into what could be the most important renovation of the EU in decades, such as a consolidated economic and monetary union, including a European ministry of finance and a joint budget process. Such reforms would also include a strengthened European defense and security policy, joint command and control functions, common forces and equipment as required; a harmonized migration policy, with shared data and procedures; a joint social and employment policy, with compatible procedures and ‘’portable workers’ rights’’ among member states, e.g. for training, education, medical care and pensions.

The EU has deserved criticism for its procedural complexity, but also for not always abiding by the principle of subsidiarity which ‘’defines the circumstances in which it is preferable for action to be taken by the Union, rather than the Member States’’ and aims at avoiding abuse of power by the EU institutions. Over time, the EU has become disconnected with people outside of government and politics, and the ensuing fall in public opinion polls is being fully exploited by nationalistic parties in member countries.

At the same time, the growing number of opt-outs has become a real challenge for the unity of the EU, no longer the unified model it was in its early stages. While enlargement seemed an unstoppable trend from the 1980s onwards, now political leaders are aware that the EU cannot continue expanding. During his visit to Paris in January 2018, Turkish President Erdogan was told by his French counterpart, with greater clarity than ever before, that because of its current orientation Turkey cannot be considered a candidate for EU membership.

Power and influence?

The initial model (every member state involved in every policy in an equal way) has probably reached the limit of its efficiency. So too has the Opting-out model, of which Brexit is an extreme example. It is time for the European Union to do some vigorous housekeeping. It must streamline relations between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. It needs to simplify administrative procedures. It must reinstate subsidiarity for the benefit of Member states, their regions and their citizens.

But the EU must also replace the Opt-out mentality by offering Opt-in possibilities for all capable members in areas such as joint economic policy, fiscal harmonization, migration policy with data sharing and joint funding, further defense and security coordination, as well as common rules for the energy market. Because the member states of the EU present such a wide variety of situations, two basic rules should now be followed: the gradual upgrading of weaker nations, by providing structural and regional funds, but also support in good governance; and the engagement of willing and capable countries in reinforced cooperations, which would remain open to all members who reach the required level of capability.

This is the third in a series of essays on the shifting state of global power and influence by WikiTribune contributor Jean-Jacques Subrenat, a former French ambassador. His first in this series was on isolationism in the United States. His second essay examined the rise of China as a global power. 

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