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Quo Vadis EU?: Chiaroscuro Scenarios for the Next EU 5-Year Term

Excerpts from the opening speech given by Luigi Troiani at Stony Brook Center for Italian Studies Conference “Quo Vadis EU?” (14-17 Nov. 2019)

President Donald Trump accompanies German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she signs the guest book, Friday, March 17, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room, during her official visit to the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Whereas the National motto of the USA Federation declares: “E pluribus UNUM”, the EU’s motto says: “United in DIVERSITY”, In varietate Concordia. The USA Federation was made up by the winners of a civil war against the Confederation, wishing a strong central power: the tentative European Federation embodied in the present Union is a bottom-up process where diversities, decentralization, subsidiarity, and voluntary Enhanced Cooperation will always matter.

Richard Nasti and Salvatore Rotella at the opening of the conference



With the new European Commission expected to come into force at the beginning of December, the EU institutions will be completely ready for the next five-year term. The embarrassing time lag of 3 months at the start of the term is due to the MEP’s rejection of the previous appointed Commissioners from Romania, Hungary and France. Their substitutes have been examined on November 14th by the Parliament: in case of approval by the respective parliamentary committees, the plenary will vote on them on November 27.

The refusal of the new European Parliament says a lot about what the relations of the Parliament are going to be with the other three key institutions of the Union, namely the Commission, the European Council and the Council of the EU. The Parliament is likely to acquire additional autonomy and authority vis a vis the EU members’ governments. The 3 proposed Commissioners were refused, inter alia, for ethical reasons. It was an act which undermined the image of the elected President of the Commission, the German Frau von der Leyen. The previous German Minister of Defense was  already weakened by the parliamentary vote: she was elected with 383 votes, only 9 over than the necessary majority, and a percentage of votes (51.27%), less than the percentage won by her predecessors, Jean-Claude Juncker (56,19%) and José Barroso (51.9% of votes at his second mandate). Not having refused the previous candidate, Commissioners from France, Romania and Hungary (doomed to be inexorably grilled at the Parliament for ethics and conflict of interest), made her even weaker.

The Scenarios of the institutional life of next EU, suggest the following.

At the European Parliament, the thin majority which supported the election of Ursula von der Leyen was made up of PPE, S&D, and the liberals of RE “Renew Europe”, but the decisive votes needed to allow the German Christian Democrat to sit at the top of the Commission, came from the 14 Italian deputies of Movimento 5 Stelle. The missing 75 votes of the parties supposed to back the ambitions of Angela Merkel’s candidate, announced that the acting political majority at the EP has to be considered fragile and may become unstable during the 5-year term. It is a serious topic, for at least two reasons:

a) The parliamentary pact PPE-S&D-RE was aiming at guaranteeing that the EU project could survive and even be revamped, against the populist anti-liberal and anti-EU drive which recently has characterized so many EU countries, a consequence of the social and economic upheaval that erupted in 2008.

b) Only a stable EP majority may guarantee that a certain homogeneity characterizes the institutional bodies of the EU, to ensure the basic conditions for a fruitful inter-institutional dialogue and a harmonious EU governance. In order to be in force, the biggest part of the EU legislation needs a trilogue, i.e. the sharing of the same legislation by the Council of Ministers of EU, the Commission, and the European Parliament. This is easier to accomplish when the majority at the Parliament is politically homogeneous with the other two co-legislative bodies.

As for the inter-governmental cooperation, among the 27, the explicitly pro-Europe government are present in four key Countries: FRG, France, Italy, and Spain. The other country with a major population, Poland, is instead suffering the fierce nationalism of the Law and Justice party, PiS, of Jarosław Kaczńyski, winning 44% of the vote at Sejm October 2019 parliamentary elections.

Together with other three Central European Countries–Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia– Poland is active in the so called Viségrad group. The group became a major wall of nationalistic and selfish political visions, refusing to practice many EU’ acquis, and ignoring certain powers of the Commission, particularly in the context of immigration policies.

While the recent political developments in Slovakia made possible that new pro-EU orientation appeared in Bratislava, this is not yet the case with the other three governments’ positions. As for Poland, the Commission called the European Court of Justice to express its position on the forced early retirement of judges imposed by the Polish government, and won on June 2019. Radek Špicar, vice president of the Czech Confederation of Industry, declared a couple of weeks ago: “When you consider how much EU membership helped us, both economically and socially, and yet how much we’re complaining about it, it’s mind-blowing”. He added, “Our political elites refuse to educate the people and communicate fairly about the EU. We don’t have any leaders courageous enough to even open that debate”.

As a general statement, it can be said that the political composition of the Commission and of the Councils, together with the present political majority at the Parliament, may promise a stable and cooperative 5-year term, especially since the political election’s season in the big 6 is now close and there are no relevant polls approaching in the other 21 members. 

At the same time, consensus and loyalty of the European citizens to the EU is high and it may grow further, thanks to the events which are taking place in the United Kingdom. The American Pew Center’s polls on How Europeans see key institutions and issues ahead of European Parliament elections, released on May 20th, 2019, certified that a median 62% across 10 surveyed countries, including the Brexiteer UK and the heavily-suffering Greece, see the EU favorably. The highest “favorable” score belongs to Poland (72%) surprisingly, whereas the minimum comes from Greece (37%), with Spain, Germany, Netherlands, France and Sweden scoring between 60% and 70% of favor. Italy scores 58%, UK 48%. With the exception of Greece (62%), no country scores more than 50% “unfavorable”.

Having said the above, it appears that the EU lacks the leaders to move to the Federation. During the present five-year term of the Commission and Parliament, it would be an outstanding achievement to fully complete the Economic and Monetary Union and to enlarge the competences of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. At the same time the members wishing to move to closer fiscal, educational, political or defense relations can do that, provided that the Lisbon Treaty allows the Enhanced Cooperation between the states wishing to move to deeper integration of their policies.

With certain conditions, the Multi-speedy Europe is not a risk for EU. The intolerable risk for the EU is instead the internal or/and external blackmails impeding the advancement toward the Federation and towards common policies. The first community at the beginning of the 1950’s came from a Franco-German initiative, open to any other nation wishing to enroll. The Euro and Schengen freedoms came on the same basis. Diversity in the EU has never been perceived as a threat: it is instead a declared necessity so as to guarantee the survival and the advancing of the EU.

Whereas the National motto of the USA Federation declares: “E pluribus UNUM”, the EU’s motto says: “United in DIVERSITY”, In varietate Concordia. The USA Federation was made up by the winners of a civil war against the Confederation, wishing a strong central power: the tentative European Federation embodied in the present Union is a bottom-up process where diversities, decentralization, subsidiarity, and voluntary Enhanced Cooperation will always matter.

As for the EU foreign policy, any consideration starts from the transatlantic relations. President Trump is a fan of Brexit and a declared enemy of EU. His behavior forced Angela Merkel to repeatedly declare that Europe can’t rely on America anymore, and has to do so on its own. In fact, Europe still needs America, but at the same time it has to rely on itself. The Cold war and the bilateral system collapsed together with the Berlin wall, and in the new multilateral world the alliances will not be as rigid as they were during that mighty time.

However, the alliances à la carte, at any moment reversible by a presidential tweet, are a risk that the international system shouldn’t take, because they will produce instability, the return of secret diplomacy, the lack of reciprocal trust in international affairs and the risks of local wars which may develop in international conflicts thanks to the domino effect. The present situation at the Syrian-Turkish border, and the uninterrupted tensions in the Gulf area, are clear signals of how far the degeneration of the international system may go.

The American strategists should be aware that in promoting free-hands and America first policies, they stimulate the allied countries to do the same. In the present system of “Imperfect multipolarism”, the members of any alliance may migrate to another alliance, acting on the basis of temporary issues or limited goals. The existing four poles of attractions (USA, China, Russia, EU) practice asymmetric behaviors:  an objective stimulus which leads to the above described situation.  The Turkish military relations with Russia are an example of how far the free-hands policy and the alliances à la carte may go.

America is aware that China, the preferred scarecrow of president Trump, launched an intelligent offensive of friendship and cooperation to the tens of nations of the millenary Silk Road. The Chinese are used to reminding the Europeans that China and Europe are part of the same continent, EurAsia, and that they have shared a history melted by millenniums of cultural and religious exchanges, trade, scientific findings and, unfortunately, colonialism and wars. Today, the wealthy China offers EU money and investments, and declares itself ready to cooperative industrial policies. In so doing, Beijing is practicing the sharp power credited to it by the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, the unheard harsh critic of the American  hard power.

USA is refusing to be an affordable partner of China; Russia fears China and would be in any case unable to satisfy the Chinese needs. The EU could become the only appropriate choice of partnership for China. The EU may also favor a fruitful dialogue between China and America to avoid the confrontation and allow for the  instruments of cooperation to substitute the present trade retaliations and military building up in both parties on the Pacific shores.

Having in mind the above, it can be said that the future of EU will not necessarily be bright. EU is in need of deep social policies, after the long infatuation with the financially driven but so-called liberal policies. Compared to twenty years ago, many member countries consider that their personal and familial conditions have worsened. In most member countries majorities expect for their children a worse social and financial future than the one enjoyed by their parents. In France eighty-in-a-hundred adults hold this opinion; in Spain seventy two-in-a-hundred; seventy-in-a-hundred in Britain. The Southern European members of the EU have been hit hard by the last 10- year crisis and are in need of specific social policies in terms of  territorial and employment support. Greece suffered a true economic and social tragedy: 87% declare their situation worsened. Italy is not any better, with 72% of people declaring the same. If the above does not change, the EU will have a worrisome future.



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