Window of opportunity for EU reform might shrink soon, experts suggest

Alexandra Brzozowski, Euractiv, 06.06.2018

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As the European Union finds itself at a crossroads and Brussels looks forward to a decisive Council summit at the end of the month, a recent report entitled “Re-energise Europe” calls on EU leaders to overcome divisions and implement reforms.

Migration crisis, Britain’s departure from the EU, the controversy over EU finances, to name but a few of the big challenges – Brussels is on a continuous quest to search for antidotes to improve economic performance, provide more security and tackle some of the issues that matter to citizens.

But time and again, it is made aware of how small the scope of European policy has become, what again became evident after the election in Italy at the latest.

“The window of opportunity is closing or starting to close, the upcoming month therefore will be decisive,” Janis Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies at of the Brussels based European Policy Centre (EPC) and author of the “Re-energise Europe” report, told a high-level conference last week in Brussels.

Launched by a consortium of European foundations, over the past five years the New Pact for Europe (NPE) initiative has brought together EU citizens in more than 120 national and transnational debates in 17 European member states. The goal of the initiative was to spot concerns, frustrations and divisions that cause disconnection across and within member states.

“The aim was to restore trust between Europeans through dialogue and to identify the major reforms that would revive the European project,” explained Emmanouilidis. The discussions involved experts, citizens and representatives of civil society from all over Europe.

The now published final report, “Re-energising Europe – A package deal for the EU27”, puts forward suggestions for how to avoid future crises, with proposed reform measures to respond to pressing problems of European citizens.

Covering the economic, social, and security dimension it proposes compromise solutions that could lead to a more differentiated integration process, where different groups of member states intensifying functional cooperation in different policy fields as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty.

Countering insecurity

Future development of the EU will according to the authors of the report be shaped by the fallout of the poly-crisis of the past decade that have not been fully overcome: the frustration with the EU’s inability to come up with resilient solutions, fragmentation and distrust between member states, and between European capitals and ‘Brussels.

Moreover, the populist threat of a more regressive, closed and nationalist Europe is becoming increasingly burdensome, as evidenced by the election results in Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary.

However, the report states that a “new sense of optimism” is visible, with the unifying effect of Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s election, the return of economic growth and rising citizen’s confidence in the European project amid this ”annus horribilis”.

In its conclusions, the report warns that no agreement will materialise between the North and the South on the reforms of the eurozone, or between West and East on the issue of migration, if the member states do not know how to find a balance between solidarity, responsibility and security that overcome divisions.

The New Pact for Europe report shows that an ambitious but realistic compromise at twenty-seven is possible. But the main message is, however, that failure to reform Europe in 2018 could lead to regrets. “If there was ever a bigger push for integration, it always happens out of crisis,” Emmanouilidis recalled.

The Franco-German engine and a turning point

Meanwhile, everything points to one important deadline – the European Council summit in June – where all the mentioned major European challenges in the report – migration, eurozone, defence – will be on the agenda.

“The key lies in Paris and Berlin and as to whether they will be ready and able to formulate a joint inclusive initiative which also reflects the interest of others which can then be a basis to progress at EU27 level – a key lies with the German Chancellor,” Emmanouilidis as well reasoned in a panel discussion with stakeholders during the conference last week.

After months of hesitation, it was expected that by then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will come up with joint proposals for European reforms.

And indeed, the political turmoil in Italy and Spain and transatlantic tensions seemed to have been a wake-up call: After a week of political turmoil inside the EU, in one of her rather rare newspaper interviews with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Merkel responded to Macron’s reform proposals, offering olive branches on investment and help for debt-mired eurozone member states, with some support for a revamped defence policy.

However, a Franco-German axis would in the end tangibly influence the fate of weaker member states, whereas a backslide the resentment over the influence from Berlin, Paris and Brussels could continue to grow.

“Even if there is a Franco-German understanding, do not understand me wrong, that cannot be a ‘dictate’: it is not about them dictating what should be done, it needs to be inclusive and there are a lot of veto players, which even if there is an agreement between Paris and Berlin, would be among those who would argue against any kind of movement at the present point of time,” Emmanouilidis warned.

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