In the last decade, Europe has faced some of its most formidable challenges in the post war era. The European Union has been shaken by a wave of terror attacks across cities in several member states and the influx of refugees, fleeing war and economic stagnation, bringing into question the notion of border controls within the EU. Furthermore, the sluggish economic recovery in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis has sowed disquiet among factions of the political spectrum, leading to the rise of populist agendas. The chief change of course is the fateful decision by the people of the United Kingdom to vote to leave the EU. Considering these issues, it is therefore prudent for the EU27 to review what kind of Europe we want to achieve.
The White Paper on the future of Europe seeks to provide such a review by laying out five scenarios that are available to the EU by the year 2025. Namely, these scenarios are, 1) To carry on as the EU currently operates, 2) Shift to focusing purely on the Single Market, 3) Some EU member states doing more together, 4) Doing less, but more efficiently, and finally, 5) Doing much more together. These scenarios are not designed to be detailed blueprints nor are they the only options, instead these scenarios aim to kickstart a discussion on Europe’s future and drive us to re-evaluate what we as citizens of the EU seek to gain from it, in the years ahead.
When considering the EU’s role in 2025, it’s important to acknowledge the changing characteristics of the EU. For decades, the EU has been at the forefront of promoting a positive global agenda, as evidenced through the EU’s role in the Iran Nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Accord and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, Europe is faced with a falling share of the global population (down 4% by 2060) and a decreased share of world GDP (down 2% by 2030). This undoubtedly means that Europe will have reduced influence over an increasingly tense geopolitical landscape.
Internally, the EU’s society is also changing, for the first time, the current generation could be worse off than the preceding generation. This, coupled with an aging (and longer living) population, will produce new challenges for the EU and its domestic policy. Greater stress on social protection and the increased health costs associated with an aging population, emphasises the need for the EU to mobilize its full potential, by encouraging the enhanced role of women and minorities across the Union. Our society will also have to find solutions to 21st century problems, namely, the growing automation of industry and the changing employment landscape that will present along with further adjustments to consumption habits that must be found to reduce CO2 emissions, if the EU is to continue leading the fight against climate change.
Security and defence is also likely to become an ever more present issue on the European stage by 2025. Recent terror attacks have only served to renew Europe’s conversation about the potential for joint responses to such attacks. This has been compounded by the emergence of large scale cyberattacks against member states, requiring a strengthening of information sharing and cooperation. The recent migration crisis has also raised concerns, among some, in relation to European borders. The crisis posed a significant hurdle for many proponents of an ever-closer union, with opponents arguing for the reintroduction of national borders, threatening the Schengen region. This highlighted the difficultly in forming consensus across the EU in the face of crisis. However, it is a reality that as world population continues to rise and climate change tightens its grip, Europe may face an even greater number of migrants fleeing environmental destruction, famine and economic poverty. Europe must adapt its current position to be able to deal with such a humanitarian crisis.
The White Paper lays out a number of paths that the EU27 can take in the coming years to address these problems. The direction the EU takes will have profound implications for citizens in all member states, whatever the outcome, affecting the single market, monetary policy and how much the EU can deliver in relation to promises made. As witnessed by Brexit, the EU can no longer count on the unconditional support from respective populations. The EU27, must therefore perform a careful balancing act, however, the future of Europe remains firmly in the hands of the EU27 and their citizens.
In the coming weeks I will seek, through a series of articles, to look at each of the five scenarios facing the EU as part of the White Paper as well as examining some of the initial reactions to these scenarios from a range of leading figures.
Senator Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann