By Ann Mettler and Pawel Swieboda
Optimism is back in Europe after almost a decade of poly-crisis.
Europeans have regained faith in the merit of staying together in the face of global and societal disruptions.
Many people say this is a reaction to what goes on across the Channel and on the other side of the Atlantic. This is only partly true.
If anyone wondered what checking out of Europe or weakening multilateralism leads to, it is now for everyone to see.
There are at least two other factors which matter for the recovery of confidence in the European project. Firstly, the EU’s positive agenda of change is delivering results.
Recently, the euro area and the EU more broadly recorded the highest level of employment ever. Investment is up and economic growth is projected to be twice as fast as in the United States.
Secondly, Europe has been fortunate with political leaders who, in a number of recent national elections, have not given ground to populism but confidently stood for democracy, reform – and Europe.
They have been supported by progressive grass-root movements, such as the Pulse of Europe, which have spoken up for Europe across the continent.
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Switch back to September 2016, when European Commission President Juncker announced in his annual State of the Union speech that a White Paper on the Future of Europe was forthcoming.
Only three months after the fateful vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, this was considered a bold move, which many viewed as destined to fail because the continent appeared on a downward spiral.
When the White Paper was launched in March 2017, only days before the United Kingdom triggered Article 50, thereby paving the way for its departure from the European Union, it effectively shifted the focus on forging a common future for the remaining members.
That is why the White Paper is often called the ‘birth certificate’ of the EU27.
Today – as the recovery strengthens and populism seems to be kept at bay for now – the discussion on the future of Europe needs to make the most of this period of renewed hope.
It is based on past experience that the worst thing to do when confidence returns is to procrastinate and change nothing. There is now a strong sense that Europeans are prepared to invest in our common project, having had a glimpse into the possible alternative.
Many Member States, but also other actors, realise that disintegration, illiberal democracy and populism are not only empty shells, but they are also profoundly dangerous to the democratic traditions, freedom and tolerance that have been painstakingly built up over past decades and that most thought could be taken for granted.
This is by no means to imply that Europe should not change. References to Brexit or Mr Trump might give us a renewed sense of belonging for now. In the longer term, Europe can only prosper on the basis of renewed vitality and legitimacy of its own project.
The White Paper has two parts which are equally important. One covers the long-term trends which will shape Europe’s future, from technological change to the age of mobility and a longing for security amidst new threats.
The other one presents five scenarios on where Europe could find itself in 2025. Uniquely, the Commission has not put forward a single, preferred policy blueprint, like many times in the past.
This is not only because of the timing of the White Paper, at the height of the electoral season in many European countries.
It is also because we are fully convinced that Europe faces a number of fundamental political choices about the direction of travel with regards to future integration, which should not be fudged or decided behind closed doors.
Neither should the Commission claim the monopoly of wisdom on what is the most fruitful way forward.
An EU-wide debate is needed, engaging citizens through new channels and making sure that their voice matters.
In an effort to help that process, the White Paper has been complemented by a number of reflection papers on issues which are of a formative nature for Europe’s future.
From the social dimension, through globalisation and defence to the future of the EMU and EU finances, it is clear that there are different possible destinations for Europe in 2025.
And it is important that the choices on offer, as well as the inherent trade-offs, are more widely discussed and better understood. Working with scenarios has helped move away from the often simplistic and binary debates of the past between for or against, more or less, Europe.
This new, more nuanced vocabulary that the different scenarios enable has already improved the policy discourse and shifted discussions to a more constructive, forward-oriented discourse over what the EU27 want to achieve together – or apart – in the years to come.
Of course, reflection is only worth the effort if it is ultimately translated into concrete decisions. That moment is approaching. It is not for the Commission to prejudge the nature of political choices EU leaders will make and public opinions will favour. What we will want to do in the coming months is two-fold.
We will present more detailed versions of the five scenarios on the future of Europe with specific guidance on what they would imply and how they would need to be achieved.
Again, we will do so in a neutral fashion, not to favour or disfavour any of the outcomes.
Secondly, we will also present an agenda on how to use Europe’s leap of faith to better anticipate and focus policy on long-term challenges, rather than primarily react to crises that could have – and should have – been foreseen.
President Juncker will use the occasion of his next State of the Union speech in September to lay out additional initiatives in line with the White Paper process.
And the Commission intends to make use of its right of initiative to the full, knowing perfectly well that the temptation of the day might be to pursue business-as-usual. This, however, would be a profound misreading of the public mood, as well as a disfavour to the European Union itself.
An informed, future-oriented, EU-wide public discourse is not only a healthy manifestation of democracy, but also a way to ensure that we chase away the demons of division and populism.
Anne Mettler is the Head of the European Political Strategy Centre and Pawel Swieboda is the Deputy Head of the European Political Strategy Centre