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Belgian daily Le Soir has obtained information about the broad thrust of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's revamped proposals for EU integration after Brexit. What to make of them? Open Europe's Pieter Cleppe gives his take.
28 February 2017
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘White Paper’ outlining his revamped plans for EU integration after Brexit has featured quite a lot in the continental media over the past week. Italian daily La Repubblica reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had both urged Juncker to delay publication until after the celebrations for the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on March 25 – the very event which the document was intended to mark.
Belgian daily Le Soir has obtained information about the broad thrust of the now famous White Paper. Interestingly, the article suggests Juncker only briefed his team of commissioners on the initiative last week and has summoned them for an extraordinary meeting later today to discuss the matter.
At today’s meeting, Juncker will reportedly put forward four or five concrete scenarios for structuring a post-Brexit EU which the 27 heads of state and government of the remaining member states would have to consider. Le Soir cites a “European source who has been closely following the preparation” of the White Paper, as saying that these scenarios are not “academic models” but instead “options based on real political experiences in the EU.” None of the options would entail treaty change, a move which is intended to circumvent politically-charged referendums and complicated parliamentary ratification in member states.
The White Paper will presumably be finalised shortly, as Juncker is keen to get it ready for the Treaty of Rome anniversary at the end of next month. Whenever it is published, it is widely assumed that it will be hard actually to decide anything until after the 24 September German elections at the earliest.
An overview of possible scenarios Juncker could present, according to Le Soir, follows. (A caveat: the White Paper is still a work in progress, and even the number of scenarios is reportedly not fixed yet.)
The first scenario is “to continue on the current path”: implement the different working programmes and political agendas which were once again reiterated at the Bratislava Summit last September.
The second scenario is to pursue “EU federalism to the maximum”, which Le Soir’s source dubbed “the Verhofstadt option.” This refers to former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, who is also the leader of the ALDE liberal Group in the European Parliament. Verhofstadt has long argued in favour of the ‘United States of Europe’.
The third scenario allows those countries that prefer to advance more quickly on the path of further integration to do so without others being able to block them. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is a supporter of this idea, having suggested that the Eurozone could be a natural platform to serve as the suitable orbit.
German Chancellor Merkel has also backed the scenario, having stated that, “There will be a multi-speed EU, and not all members will participate in the same steps of integration. I think this may be in the [March 25] Rome declaration as well.” The Polish government led by Beata Szydło is known as an opponent of the idea, but the Polish Prime Minister did not contradict Merkel when she repeated her support for this idea at a joint press conference.
Le Soir’s source notes that “certain member states see this option as a way to get rid of member states that are slowing the EU down – one especially thinks of Hungary and Poland – while others on the contrary see it as a way to push them to accept continued integration.”
According to Le Soir, Juncker does not intend to support the third scenario of an “avant-garde group,” even though he mentioned something similar in a recent speech, as he reportedly intends to do anything to keep the 27 together after Brexit. As a result, Juncker is thought to support a fourth scenario that has two varieties and would be “innovative.” It would combine elements from the first three options, but the details are secret, and the newspaper’s source did not want to disclose it.
With this White Paper, Juncker wants to reignite the debate over the future of EU integration. The Treaty of Rome anniversary would be the springboard, while the end-year EU summit in December (after the German election) is envisaged as the culmination of the process.
Based on what Le Soir has reported, one could summarise all four scenarios for the EU’s future post-Brexit as “more of the same” – that is, yet another call for ‘more Europe’ but with little willingness to undertake wholesale reform of the EU. Since the White Paper will reportedly steer clear of recommending EU treaty change, a mere political pledge to make more use of “enhanced cooperation,” without relaxing the treaty’s procedure to do so, is only a shaky political pledge.
Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that, after Britain’s departure, core EU member states would suddenly become enthusiastic about “ever closer union.” It wasn’t only Britain, but the strength of anti-establishment parties across Europe which stopped the EU from agreeing to go further. And in Italy or Austria, such parties may be even closer to power.
Needless to say, Juncker hasn’t listed the option of turning the EU at 27 into a mere trade-facilitating arrangement – a vision that may have kept the British in if it had ever been presented. According to a Pew poll, a majority in EU countries want to return powers from the EU back to member states. Few people dislike the fact that the EU makes sure Ryanair and Wizzair can offer cheap flights everywhere.
But anger towards the EU inevitably follows when ‘Brussels’ meddles with national budgets, when it organises fiscal transfers or when it imposes conditions attached to these fiscal transfers. When the EU micromanages national decisions on asylum policy, it’s dealing with policy areas that are close to the heart of the democratic debate and which are often deemed too sensitive for supranational officials to decide. The EU could limit itself to something that’s already ambitious enough: removing barriers to trade.
But perhaps Jean-Claude Juncker has been around for a little too long to include “the EU as a mere free trade arrangement” as a scenario?