All eyes are on the European Union and the Eurozone, and they have been for some time now — ever since the financial crisis battered southern Europe with a storm from which it has yet to recover. Brussels has much to celebrate this year, but it is playing down its jubilees and anniversaries, hoping not to draw attention as Brexit revs up, and Greece tussles over another bail-out.
One could have expected celebration in Maastricht this year — 7 February marks the 25th anniversary of that treaty’s signature — a treaty vital in paving the way for the modern EU and for the foundation of the Eurozone. When EU leaders met in Rome in March, they could have taken the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of the treaty signed in the city some 60 years ago, a treaty which saw the creation of the continental union. Instead, the summit focused on the future of the alliance, which seems shakier and shakier — the idea of a two-speed union was brought up not a few times.
It seems that the only enthusiastic supporters of the European project, of the single currency and the single market, come from inside Brussels itself
What is striking in debates on the future of the EU is that politicians of all stripes are pushing for change. The most resounding illustration of this came from France, where all five major candidates in this year’s presidential election, from parties that have traditionally been enthusiastically pro-Brussels to vocal critics of the EU, called for a change in the way the European Union works. Even Merkel — one of Brussels’ most enthusiastic cheerleaders — is now said to be weighing up a treaty change.
It seems that the only enthusiastic supporters of the European project, of the single currency and the single market, come from inside Brussels itself. Officers working for the European Commission cling onto the belief — more a fantasy now — that a united Europe could take the opportunity to fill in the power vacuum left by Donald Trump’s removal of the US from the world stage. But even in this most Europhiliac of institutions, hope is fragile. The executive has managed to hold off on any controversial policies that could fan the flames of Euroscepticism across the continent, pushing instead for relatively low-impact policies — like the elimination of roaming charges across the EU — that can bring citizens some pretty much unalloyed benefits.
Any discussion of the EU’s future is a fraught one — European leaders need to balance the needs of their own nations with those of the union at large. Lately, conversations about the EU have ended up emphasizing divisions inside the union: divisions on budget rules, divisions on migration, division on the fundamental nature of the European Union. Blocs of countries have emerged, including Southern countries calling for an end to austerity measures, and right-wing nations in the east of the continent calling for tough controls of migration, and an end to Brussels’ insistence that signing up to EU membership means signing up to EU values.
This is precisely what Merkel had feared, that opening negotiations on the future of Europe would divide rather than unite, and that these divisions could eventually push the union towards disintegration. Smaller countries — like Estonia where the EU is widely popular — are also wary of opening Pandora’s box and running the risk of pushing political discourse in the nation towards Euroscepticism.
The idea of a two-speed — or indeed a several speed — Europe might well seem inevitable. It could take several shapes, though. The most obvious would be a split between a fully integrated Eurozone sharing a single currency and no small degree of sovereignty, and a less-integrated periphery. But divisions run deep also within the Eurozone.
It was no surprise that the Rome summit in March this year produced no concrete outcome. Elections across Europe further muddy the waters — there are votes across the continent this year, and pretty much every candidate standing has a different view on the union.
The new French president Emmanuel Macron wants to push for a two-speed EU, while over in the Netherlands, Mark Rutte has had to fend off the wildly Eurosceptic Geert Wilders. In the UK, Theresa May has fought and barely won an election, ostensibly about Brexit, but her majority is non-existent, and some pundits believe she may not last the summer.
One thing, however, is sure; the ever-cautious denizens of Brussels will refrain from action until uncertainty quiets down. In the meantime, Brussels can still hope to benefit from the geopolitical uncertainty that Trump’s foreign policy is creating. But it remains unclear whether a political entity that is viewed as inefficient and lacking in legitimacy by its own citizens can rattle on for much longer.