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The future of the EU: Now what?

Posted by hkarner - 3. September 2016

Date: 01-09-2016

Source: The Economist

Europe vows progress after Brexit, but is unsure which way to go

AUGUST usually finds Europe’s politicians bronzing on the beach or lacing up their walking boots. But for the past few weeks they have been huddling, scheming and debating how to give their floundering European Union a fresh lease of life.

Merkel cc“Citizens will only accept the EU if it makes it possible for them to prosper,” said Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, during a visit to Warsaw last week.

If there is a fresh urgency to the EU’s latest bout of navel-gazing, blame Brexit. Britain’s vote to leave on June 23rd was a grievous blow to a club that has only ever known expansion. At a summit six days after the vote, the leaders of the 27 remaining countries vowed reform and arranged to meet again in Bratislava on September 16th. Much of the recent shuttle diplomacy has been aimed at finding common ground for that meeting. As ever, Mrs Merkel has taken the lead.

On August 22nd she and her French and Italian counterparts laid on the symbolism by holding a mini-summit on Ventotene, an Italian island where Altiero Spinelli, an early Euro-federalist, had been imprisoned during the war.

There is no shortage of ideas. This week five senior European analysts and officials issued a paper calling for a “continental partnership”, including new decision-making structures for the single market, which could include Britain as well as other countries on Europe’s periphery, such as Turkey or Ukraine. Diehards are dusting off plans for grands projets like a standing EU army or a Europe-wide intelligence agency.

But in a curious echo of the British government’s struggle to move ahead with Brexit, Europe’s leaders have not progressed much beyond slogans.

This summer’s terror attacks brought calls for intelligence agencies to share more information, and for boosting the powers of Europol, the EU’s police co-ordination body. But such suggestions are nothing new. At Ventotene the leaders urged more defence co-operation. But there is little will to create anything that could rival NATO.

On refugees, agreement seems limited to a beefed-up EU border force that officials hope to conclude on later this year. Eastern European governments remain implacably opposed to the EU’s plans to distribute hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers across Europe. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s combative prime minister, will stage a referendum against the relocation plan on October 2nd. The easterners also fear a fresh wave of job-killing “social” initiatives from the European Commission.

Ideas for deepening integration in the euro zone, from common bank deposit-insurance schemes to a single finance minister, seem no closer to fruition. Leaders have spoken of a scheme to tackle youth unemployment, but most of the tools for that lie in the hands of national governments, which may lack the will to act (a mild labour reform in France triggered weeks of protests this summer). Coming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany limit leaders’ room for compromise.

The crises that have buffeted Europe in the past few years continue to bubble away. The EU’s talks with Greece over its third bail-out are not going well. The Minsk peace process in Ukraine is stuck. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU’s mooted deal with America, has become a piñata for electioneering European politicians: this week ministers in Germany and France declared it dead. And while a deal with Turkey has cut refugee flows, smugglers are still getting through and Greek islands are dangerously overcrowded. Turkey has threatened to scupper the arrangement entirely if the EU does not grant visa-free access by October.

Brexit does little to fix any of these problems.

(In some cases, such as TTIP, it makes them harder.) And managing the departure of a major country presents the EU with an entirely new sort of challenge. The will to keep the club together is strong, and predictions of further exits to follow Britain’s are overblown. But the old adage that Europe is forged only in times of crisis is starting to look threadbare.

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