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The Future of the E.U.

European Union

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs.

The European Union has never lacked ambition. It was born 60 years ago with the noblest aim of all: to prevent a return to the catastrophic conflicts of the past by binding together the economies of its core nations and creating a trading zone that would help sustain postwar recovery. As the decades have passed, its ambitions have grown and its perimeters expanded, and the utopian vision of a united and peaceful continent with open borders and a shared currency slowly became reality.

But given opposing political currents, many are wondering where the European Union is headed today.

Eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall brought the number of EU member nations to 28. In 1999, the single currency was born, and 19 countries now use the Euro. The dream of a united Europe thrived for a long time. But then came financial collapse­—and with it a breakdown of the values the EU held dear.

The 2008 financial crisis began in the U.S. but swiftly spread to Europe, hitting the eurozone nations especially hard. In the nine years since then, while Europe has remained a popular place to visit, unemployment has risen in some southern European countries and the quality of life has fallen for many residents—along with public support for the bloc.

Meanwhile, the arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking sanctuary forced some borders to close, and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine brought back war to the EU’s doorstep. Then came Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, and for the first moment in the bloc’s history, it was faced with a contraction, not expansion. It seemed as if 2017—with a run of elections contested by anti-EU parties—could be the year it began to unravel for good.

But suddenly, in the space of a few months, the future is looking brighter for the European Union. In March, a candidate who campaigned to pull the Netherlands out of the EU failed to do as well as expected in the Dutch elections. Then Emmanuel Macron appeared to slay the continent’s nationalist demons for good by beating Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration National Front party to win the French presidency in May.

Around the same time, some positive economic data emerged: The average level of unemployment in the Euro currency zone is now at its lowest in eight years, while growth is nudging upward at 0.5 percent.

“You get a sense of relief, five years of breathing space,” says Chris Bickerton, a professor at the University of Cambridge and author of The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide. “Macron didn’t come as a savior, but he certainly provided some breathing room and a positive narrative that people could try and push forward.”

The question now is what Europe will do with this reprieve. How youthful new faces like Macron and the EU institutions address citizens’ underlying concerns will define what becomes of the bloc in the next decade—and whether it thrives or dies.

There remains a lot of work to be done to regain the public’s trust, and the Dutch and French elections show that European populations are deeply divided, with a growing segment that feels disconnected from the centers of power. Many eastern and central European nations want a tough stance on migration and security, while countries such as Germany and Italy argue for a humanitarian response and more burden-sharing among EU member states. Reforming the eurozone to make it more resilient to global financial turbulence also is subject to fierce debate, with disagreement over whether austerity or growth-oriented policies are the best way forward.

Another major challenge is the Brexit negotiations, which got underway soon after elections in the United Kingdom on June 8 narrowly returned Theresa May’s Conservative Party to power, albeit without a majority. Britain will leave the European Union in March 2019, but the big question is what kind of deal they will get.

“If Brexit seems to work out quite well for the British, then that’s really bad news [for the EU] because that sends a message to other countries that leaving is not so bad,” Bickerton says. The remaining members of the EU must put up a united front, but that could crumble in the face of two years of negotiations.

While the future direction of the European Union is uncertain, there are three broad scenarios for how the EU might look a decade from now.

Ever-closer union: There remain some committed Europhiles who argue that the EU must move toward a United States of Europe, a federal state modeled on the U.S., where power is centralized and integration goes deeper than ever before. This is generally thought to be unrealistic right now given that there is little voter appetite for such radical reform.

Ever-shrinking union: The dream of the likes of Le Pen and other euroskeptics, who want to see more countries leave the EU as the supranational state crumbles and power returns to the nation states. However, since Brexit, public support for the EU has risen, and no sitting government supports holding a referendum on withdrawing from the bloc.

Ever-fracturing union: The idea of a multispeed EU in which countries that want to integrate further in areas such as defense and fiscal policy go ahead while others stay outside “core Europe” is gaining support from key members such as Germany and Italy. It is, however, opposed by many central and eastern states who warn it will lead to greater division.

The most likely outcome will be an informal shift to some aspects of all scenarios, with deeper integration among countries using the Euro currency and a potential push in the field of defense and foreign policy led by Germany and France, while some powers return to national parliaments and more skeptical nations are able to opt out of some policy areas.

It is what the EU does best in a time of crisis—muddling through. And while there are some fresh new faces to represent the best of the bloc on the world stage, it remains to be seen whether they can carry the league boldly into the future. Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a Brussels-based journalist who covers the EU for global news publications.

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