On March 25th 1957 the memory of the Second World War still hung over the European continent like a venomous black cloud. It was beneath this horrific shadow that six European countries joined together to sign the founding treaty of a new international group. That group of course became the European Union and achieved success on a scale the founding members could never have imagined. Not only has it underpinned peace on a continent so frequently ravaged by internal conflicts in its past but it has also created a single economic market and a single currency. The union has brought into its membership a number of ex-dictatorship countries and numerous ex-communist countries once the Soviet Union fell, it has swelled in size from its original six members to 28. Yet despite everything the union has achieved when it meets in Rome this weekend to celebrate its 60th anniversary they all know the project is in big trouble.
The union is facing serious threats both externally and from within. Internally the union is full of flaws that were made all the more evident in the wake of the euro crisis, something which has yet to be fully resolved. The union’s prolonged economic pain has continued almost unabated since the 2008 economic crisis and has led to a plunge in support for the EU. Populist and anti-European parties are finding support growing and are more and more often attacking the very existence of the European Union, not the least in France. There Marine Le Pen is doing surprisingly well in the upcoming presidential elections, though all polls still indicate a defeat for Le Pen in the second round run-off against centrist candidate Macron.
Of course the most drastic result so far of rising anti-EU sentiment is Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU. The British Prime Minister Theresa May will not be in Rome for the union’s anniversary celebration, she plans to invoke article 50 of the EU treaty on 29th of March to officially start the countries Brexit process. For the next two years this departure will dominate much of Parliaments time and energy, and it will be a huge blow to the EU’s influence and credibility when such a large member severs ties.
And yet the union is not just beset from within, its external pressures are equally serious. A slightly unreliable pact with Turkey has softened the refugee crisis that threatened to overwhelm the EU yet it is still faced with a newly aggressive Russia to its East and an unpredictable President Trump to its West. Donald Trump is openly unenthusiastic about organisations such as NATO and the EU making this a terrible time for the union to be weak and divided.
It’s terribly ironic that an organisation set up to underpin the idea of peace across Europe and secure its security should be starting to falter right when that security is under threat. It shows just how much is at stake for the continent if the union fails to fix itself.
Normally pro-EU supporters suggest that the best way to fix the faults of the European Union is to make strides forwards in integration and cooperation to make a closer union. They say that shifting more powers to the centralised European parliament will allow the EU to strengthen its borders and will give it a more powerful voice when speaking out against the likes Putin or Trump. Yet despite these calls evidence is continuously mounting that neither the member states or their electorates want closer integration of the project, in fact public opinion is beginning to suggest they want the reverse.
With an ever-closer union not being possible the traditional response of the EU is to simply continue as they are and muddle on through. After all the euro crisis is past its worst point, immigration is on the downturn and Brexit will be managed somehow, it will not be a catastrophic event on its own. The main internal problem for Europe at the moment is the fast approaching election of a new French president. If Emmanuel Macron ends up the French president alongside Angela Merkel then the union will be led by a veherment pro-EU leadership, yet that won’t solve any of the EU’s problems, they would simply be continuing to muddle onwards. If Le Pen ends up winning the French presidency though, and pushes for her own referendum on EU membership, the union could find itself torn apart.
Is there though a better alternative for the EU to adopt than simply carrying on? A new report from The Economist suggests that a formal “multi-tier” system would make the EU far more flexible, countries would be grouped into varies tiers dependent upon their desires to integrate on various policies, and with a flexible tier system countries would be able to move across the spectrum with ease dependent upon the policies in question. For instance some countries may want to integrate more militarily but not economically, this would be easily dealt with in a tier system.
This is a similar idea to the recent idea of a “multi-speed” Europe. This term is most often used by EU leaders to mean that the core members of the group will work together on policies such as defence, economics, and welfare, suggesting that the countries will be moving towards the same end goal. This newer idea of a multi-tier system will even find a place for the other countries in Europe not in the union.
The report also suggests that to solve the numerous problems surrounding the euro there will be a tier including all euro members states and on the issue of currency regulation they will need to become more integrated with shared institutions, including a proper banking union and a common debt instrument. This should alleviate the euro crisis and drastically the likelihood of it occurring in the future.
There will then be a tier below this for the EU members unwilling to give up their sovereignty to join the euro. This idea goes against the language of European bureaucrats who generally expect each and every single member state to share in the same goals and ideals. The idea that countries will be given the ability to pick and choose what they want to subscribe to is generally frowned upon in Brussels, but it’s what people across the continent are increasingly calling for.
The union will also have countries like Switzerland who wish to be closely reliant upon the European single market but nothing more integrated into a tier, and then there may be countries like Britain who don’t wish to be bound by the single market rules but are still interested in trading freely across the EU.
This report also suggests a new associated status for countries like Ukraine and Turkey who are frequently told they are eligible to join the union but who know they will never be allowed to actually join as full members. This will create a low tier of countries who will be able to benefit from and contribute to the union albeit in a limited capacity.
If this idea is ever to actually work beyond mere theory there need to be strict and pragmatic rules for each tire. For instance, there may be countries who do not wish to partake the fully free movement of people, yet they would still be able to have access to the EU’s single market. It is also suggested that countries with military and diplomatic clout (i.e. Britain) should still be consulted and included on foreign and defence policies, only in this manner can the EU still be considered a major player when dealing with its numerous external threats.
If the European project is to survive another 60 years there are going to have to be a number of fundamental changes to its structure, it can no longer be a rigid top heavy organisation, it is going to have to become a flexible entity. If it is unable to do so then it faces disintegration and eventual collapse.