Events / Politics

“The EU now: what is it and where is it going?”

The European Flag, one of EU’s symbols

On Friday 19 October, I went to a conference at LSE featuring Anthony Teasdale, visiting Senior Fellow at LSE and DG of Internal Policies at the European Parliament, Simon Hix, LSE Professor of European and Comparative Politics, Philip Stephens, Associate Editor at the Financial Times, and Stephen Wall, Former UK Permanent Representative to the EU.

This article aims at reporting (and occasionally commenting) the panel’s interventions on three main topics: the characteristics of the recent evolution of the EU, the predictions on the EU’s further development in the coming years and, finally, the gloomy prospects for the UK/EU relationship. 

Characteristics of the EU’s recent evolution

Anthony Teasdale started by reminding that the EU was a political system, with a body of supranational law as well as an executive and a legislative power.

He indicated very justly that before the crisis, after the negotiation and ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, most people considered that the institutional framework could remain stable for many years. However, the crisis showed that the EU needed “to move to a further stage” of integration.

Simon Hix echoed this thought, explaining that four years ago, we had a consensus for no major Treaty reforms: no big new transfers of competences and no significant evolution of the institutional setting.

Anthony Teasdale also highlighted three features of the EU’s recent evolution:

– There has been a re­-intergovernmentalisation. Indeed, the TSCG and the Treaty on ESM are intergovernmental treaties, not Community Treaties.

– The domination of the executives. This does not so much apply to the Commission; rather another kind of “European executive” emerged: national finance ministers, central bankers and representatives of the new bodies (ESM, EFSF).

– The two-tier arrangements. “In the classic model, although there were opt-outs, everybody moved towards the same direction, even if at different speeds. Now, two-tier is the leitmotiv. It is very risky for the UK, as it may not have many friends…” Teasdale recorded that in December 2011, David Cameron was the only European leader to veto the TSCG (which, subsequently, became an international treaty not incorporated in EU law).

Two facts may explain this isolation of the UK. The first is that “countries want to be close to action” in the future; the second is that if they want benefit from financial security, they have to sign and ratify the TSCG.

This leads to a situation where the UK strongly defends the Single Market, because it fears a divide between the Eurozone and the rest and despite its pro-intergovernmentalist traditional stance.

The EU’s development in the coming years

Simon Hix identified two categories of evolutions: policies’ ones and institutional ones:

– On the policy side, the discussions regard a future major step towards fiscal and economic integration, beyond simply a regulated market. The new fiscal transfer mechanism (ESM) could never have been envisaged 4 or 5 years ago. According to Hix, the move is as significant as the Single European Act.

– On the institutional situation, we will not go on with sole intergovernmentalism. For example, the European Parliament will become more powers of supervision, in order to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the transfers of power.

So, he affirms that “we will have a new policy and institutional equilibrium”.

Philip Stephens also focused his intervention on the future of the EU, claiming that in 5 years, the EU will look very different from now.

He noted very justly that most British commentators had a bad judgment on the future of the EU as they underestimated the “sheer political determination of many governments to hold on to the incomplete and imperfect political and economic structure” and to improve it. So, for example, Germany showed much more flexibility than expected.

Nevertheless, he still has some doubts about the medium- and long-term perspectives of the Euro:

– The first is about the economic choices of the European leaders. He noted that everyone cannot have surpluses and the same level of competitiveness. “Of course, maybe, over time, Germany will become more pragmatic, but there is a real clash of economic theories about the nature of the EMU”. In my opinion, it is also very important that European leaders be aware of the plurality of crisis in Europe (it is not only a sovereign debt crisis) and, accordingly, adopt a plurality of solutions adapted to each crisis.

– The second is the long-term political commitment to the EMU. According to Philip Stephens, “one of the paradoxes of the EMU is that it is the most federalist / integrationist project the EU ever embarked on, but at that time, many of the former incentives to integration (such as French-German reconciliation or Soviet threat) were gone”.

The gloomy prospects for the UK/EU relationship

Stephen Wall affirmed (a bit cynically, in my view) that “the UK applied to the EU because it had no alternative”. But “at that time, the picture was clearer than now: there was the threat of the SU, the EEC was successful, and the UK had no other option. Now, only the third one applies.” As a European federalist, I must disagree with such vision of the current EU integration: despite its current troubles, the EU remains an area of economic prosperity and political freedom which has few equivalents in the world. Furthermore, I believe that the EU should not build only on the past and on fear, but should also build on the vouloir vivre ensemble (the will to live together). Ernest Renan said of the Nation that it was “a plebiscite each day” (“La nation est un plébiscite de tous les jours.”); it should become the same for the EU, not as a substitute, but as an additional community for all EU citizens.

Philip Stephens was equally skeptic about a possible improvement in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

He believes that we are heading towards an exit of the UK from the EU. He said that the British claims for additional opt-outs are useless, as there are no many more things to opt out from… In fact, the UK is bound nearly only by the acquis and the other Member States will not accept any renegotiation on the core policies of the EU.

He reminded that David Cameron proposes a road map, followed by a referendum if he is reelected. Given the situation and the impossibility of any renegotiation, it will probably be an in/out referendum, where the “out” could win because “if no major politician stands to defend Europe, it is not surprising that people feel anti-European”. Indeed, Philip Stephens did not only criticize the Tories, but also the Labour which has preferred opportunistic standing. Stephen Wall, on his side, wondered whether the British PM had a plan to keep the UK in the EU, reminding that despite the strained relations with the EU, the UK had contributed to shape some very important evolutions, such as the realisation of the internal market and the launch of a European Foreign and Security Policy (EFSP).

Simon Hix also discussed the strategic error of David Cameron at the European Council of December 2011, when he underestimated the will of other political leaders to reach an agreement. And in the facts, the veto was circumvented by an intergovernmental Treaty.

He insisted that “the UK does not understand that it cannot pick up just what it wants and opt-out of all the rest”.

He too predicted a British exit from the EU, reminding that it will have significant implications for businesses.

In fact, his question about whether one could imagine the future President of the European Commission or European Council being British illustrated very well the situation: the obvious answer is no, because the UK is already far in the “second-tier” (Philip Stephens even spoke of a “third-tier” for the UK).

Conclusion 

The panel agreed that there will be much more European integration, but probably without the UK (which will have to leave, if it doesn’t follow).

However, Stephen Wall believes that “democratic accountability will remain primarily at national level”, leading to the question of whether the citizens in all Member States will support the extension of competencies at EU level.

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

2 thoughts on ““The EU now: what is it and where is it going?”

  1. Thanks for your very interesting commentary and very fair summary of Friday’s discussion at the LSE. I think we got away from the usual polemics about Europe to have a serious conversation about what is going on and where it leaves Britain. It is great that you covered it ! Anthony.

    • I will use this occasion to thank you for the very interesting conference. Identifying the challenges and the real options at hand to address them is indeed very important if we want a sound democratic debate on the EU. Pierre-Antoine Klethi

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