The EU on the Way to a New Pragmatism

The Salzburg summit of EU leaders on September 19 and 20 seemed to be a further element in the long series of stagnation in European policy. 

Negotiations with the United Kingdom about a withdrawal agreement experienced a setback and in another key area, which moves EU affairs, namely migration, no substantial progress was achieved. This appears to confirm of a community, which is bitterly divided over important issues and unable to swiftly respond to even pressing questions. However, a closer look at the things reveals a more nuanced situation. The message to London shows that, at least for the time being, the 27 stand firm and continue to reject any sort of pick-and-choose compromise with the British. In migration, it came as no surprise that there is no support for obligatory distribution schemes of refugees within the Union. Hence, obviously the question was not in the center of the debates. 

Given the EU objective to improve the protection of its external borders, what was more sobering was the resistance of many member states to reinforce EU-border agency FRONTEX. The European Commission wants to upgrade the entity, by establishing a standing force of 10000 border guards, who would also get additional powers to register incoming migrants. For many member states, which wish to protect their national sovereignty, this goes much too far. Despite this sluggishness, it is worth noting that the EU has been more effective, when it comes to migration. The security of EU borders is a shared priority and numbers of asylum seekers have gone down considerably compared to 2015. Cooperation with transit countries e.g. in North Africa has improved, and the deal with Turkey holds. 

Also, the EU has taken first steps to do more in addressing the root causes of migration. Africa has emerged on the "political radar screen" of the Union and the readiness to support countries of origin has increased. 

Hence, in a way the Salzburg snapshot is quite typical for the general shape of the EU. The Union is absorbed by managing its internal quarrels and it produces an image of division, standstill and underperformance. In practice however, it has often been able to "deliver" or at least to do crisis management and damage mitigation. This does not mean to say that living with this discrepancy has always been the modus operandi of European integration and the Union will just continue with its little elegant, but effective muddling through. At least three things have changed, since the good old days of the European project. 

EU after Salzburg: Wrongs and Rights
On September 19-20, 2018, an informal meeting of EU leaders was held in Austrian Salzburg. Three issues - migration, internal security and the consequences of Brexit - initially did not promise unity of opinions between the leaders of EU states on the announced agenda.
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© 2018 Kerstin Joensson/AP

First, Europe's crises are not automatically catalysts for furthering integration. The sovereign debt crisis and the following reforms of the economic governance in the Eurozone have shown that crisis-induced progress is still possible. The conflicts around migration and many other squabbles however suggest that the "productive tension" between crisis and EU-reform is not a given and can easily turn into destructive gridlock. Second, as opposed to the past, when challenges from outside frequently turned out to be "external federators" and incentives for "more Europe", now, these extrinsic blows tend to act as controversial issues, which drive a wedge between member states rather than to bring them closer together. And thirdly, given the domestic political situation in many EU-countries, particularly the rise of new contesting parties and a reluctant public opinion, there are new veto players in European politics, which make it more difficult to implement change. 

Does this all imply a further disintegration or a breakup of European integration? Most certainly not. It is more likely, that the EU has embarked on a process, which will change the way it acts internally and how it interacts with the world. In this context, the following three features appear to gain ground.
First, the EU is changing its self-definition from a community, which is "deepening and widening", i.e. which is intensifying shared competencies and bringing in new members, it moves to an entity, which wants to "consolidate and cooperate", i.e. solidify, what it has reached internally and establish new bonds with neighbors (including different countries like the UK, Ukraine or Turkey) rather than making them members of the club. Second, given the troubles in global affairs, the questioning of a rules-based international order and the uncertainties in transatlantic relations, the EU will look for new at least thematic partnerships with the relevant players in the world. This could be partnerships for stability (in particular parts of the world), for prosperity (in order to modernize economies and to look for complemenarities in technological and trade exchange) or for multilateralism and the power of rules. The quest for "strategic autonomy" will not lead to a complete decoupling with the US, when it comes to security policy, but it will strengthen the EU's attemps to assume more responsibility in international affairs. And third, the EU will probably find a new internal consensus, which reconfirms its traditional commitment to "unity in diversity". This will mean that the EU will be a place for both Emmanuel Macron's France and Viktor Orbán's Hungary, accepting the diversity in views on the future of Europe (more integrated or more nation-state-based). In order to reach cohesion in spite of difference, the EU needs facilitators of unity. Particularly Germany, as a country situated in the middle of Europe and as a "central power", will probably contribute to holding the EU together. 

All in all, the EU is in period of multiple reconstruction. The hallmark of this process is more pragmatism. The European ship will not be completely redesigned according to a master plan, but according to the philosphy of ambitious gradualism, i.e. relevant, but partial change. In doing this, the EU for many will look like an UPO, an "unknown political object", as Jacques Delors once put it. So it will be a quite specific ship. But the new realism will keep it afloat and make it more robust.  

 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.