This year the European Union marks the 60 years anniversary of the Rome Agreement which became the starting point of European integration, at the same time with the EU facing serious internal and external challenges, reflections on the Union’s future were initiated.
This text does not seek to specify specific EU reform proposals, but rather to discuss what sort of European Union Lithuania needs, what could help ensure the implementation of a united common vision and what sort of path the EU will proceed on.
Many scenarios – how to agree?
Just last year the six founders of the EU – France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries released a joint position that the creation of an ever more united Union must continue, regardless of certain countries potentially being left behind. By the way, this statement was released in the heat of the UK referendum on EU membership and was used by the pro-leave campaigners as an argument that no-one intends to hear out Britain’s position.
This March, a symbolic declaration was signed in Rome by the heads of 27 EU states over the EU’s future, it specifies the key goals of the coming ten years – a safe, thriving, harmonious, socially responsible EU, capable to take a global role and open to all European countries which respect and support European values. It was agreed for all EU members to jointly seek the specified goals under the principles of consensus and discussion.
A little earlier, on March 1, the European Commission presented the White Book regarding the EU’s future. In it the EC presented five possible development scenarios for the Union up to 2025. When presenting them, the EC president Jean-Claude Juncker quipped that it is likely that of the five scenarios, it will be a sixth which will be chosen. And this appears increasingly true since the presented spectrum of development possibilities defined the discussion field for further debates, but did not resolve the fundamental puzzle – toward where should the EU move?
Of the five proposed scenarios, in principle three can be discarded immediately. The first (Continue what was started) [can be discarded] because it is widely agreed that the EU needs changes and this specific scenario proposes to continue moving onward with the same tempo and principles. The second (Only the Common Market) [can be discarded] because while every country benefits from deeper integration than just the Common Market differently, all together they experience more benefits (In the case of Lithuania – Cohesion Policy, energy security).
Meanwhile the fifth scenario (Do more through joint efforts) in principle means a factual movement toward federalisation, thus it neither has a tangible practical basis, nor, from the perspective of national states, reflects pubic and state expectations.
As such factually the discussion returned to starting positions and the most discussed is the third scenario – Those who wish will do more.
It reflects the six EU founding states’ position on moving forward despite some countries’ doubts, which factually means a potential appearance of “two” or “two speed” EU. The challenges that arise from this are that on one hand the appearance of “two speed” EU could become a means of pressure toward more rapid federalisation (with countries outside the core being threatened to be left peripheral), on the other hand it completely does not match the spirit of the Rome Declaration to move forward with combined effort.
And specifically this is why it is categorically rejected by the Visegrad states which seek an EU reform which reflects the interests of all EU member states.
While the year dedicated to discussions of the EU’s future is coming to a close, so far no tangible guidelines have been reached, toward where we should move. And somewhat undeservedly the fourth scenario proposed by the EC is forgotten – Do less, but effectively. No doubt it would be no easy task to agree on the areas which should become priorities, however this would turn musings on the EU’s future (which raises tensions due to differing visions) into discussions of a very specific political agenda.
The EU should review and narrow its agenda without aiming to take over questions from national agendas which are currently little or not at all regulated by the EU, however this would allow to clearer distil the EU’s function. Such a scenario would ensure a suitable balance for Lithuania between national interest representation at the European level (seeking closer integration in energy, transport infrastructure, innovation and trade) and suitable sovereignty where European integration would not bring benefits (such as social and healthcare policy).
Citizen’s expectations must be reflected to ensure unity
At the end of June, one of the most authoritative British analysis centres Chatham House announced a study, in which it analysed ten European Union states’ societies and elite’s views of the future of Europe. Austrian, Belgian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Spanish and UK citizens’ opinion analysis regarding European integration presented at least a few interesting and, in part, new insights. While historically the engine of European integration was the elite which understands its importance and public would remain in the role of the “silent consenter”, the situation is changing and it must be better understood.
10 thousand citizens from the ten states and over 1800 representatives of the elite participated in the survey, which revealed the three most notable dividing lines when talking about views of European integration. Firstly – the divide between the elite and the public.
Only 34% of the public state they feel the benefit of EU membership and a whole 54% believe that their state was better off ten years ago. Meanwhile a whole seven of ten elite representatives state they benefit from membership in the Union.
Thus the elite is far more inclined to be optimistic regarding both the current European Union, as well as its future in deepening integration, while the public is more inclined to return some powers to national states.
Such results are also presented by several other research papers published in recent years.
The second divide is seen in societies themselves. While it is often thought that views on European integration are most impacted by the economic and social circumstances of the citizen, the aforementioned survey showed that the most influence was actually from self-identification.
Citizens of liberal values and world view are the most supportive of the EU, its core principles and deepening integration, meanwhile those desiring order, a strong hand and uninclined to favour changes, quite the opposite, believe that member states should regain more autonomy. Chatham House scientists state that today this and not age, education or any other public grouping best allows to define views on European integration.
Finally the third divide – the divergence in elite views on the direction of European integration. Among the elite we find three similarly sized groups which support either retaining the status quo (28%), deepening integration (37%) or returning powers to member states (31%).
As such the conclusion is made that we are at a new stage in European integration where we can no longer talk of an elite that views European integration positively and a more sceptical public because both groups have become far more diverse. As such considering the EU’s future based on the binary “Integration or fracture” model is no longer effective.
Today we have public groups which, while stating they feel the benefits of the EU, do not support deepening European integration and even support returning powers to member states in some areas. And the simplifying Eurosceptic label is not at all suitable for such individuals. Equally the real view is not revealed by the trends observed in a number of surveys that Lithuanians are one of the most positive nations regarding the Union, the perception of an absolute Lithuanian support for deepening European integration.
Both among the public as among the political elite there exists a far more diverse view of the future of Europe. And watching the strengthening of the protest vote in Western democracies, which is at least partially explained by the segregation of the public and political elite, we have to realise that a stable future path for Europe can be chosen only after receiving the public’s support for it. And for such support a wholesome, not imitation discussion between groups which have different visions is needed.
Does Lithuania have a vision for the EU?
With EU members and institutions proposing their ideas for Europe, the Visegrad states plan to soon present their perspective as well. On October 13, after the meeting of the four states’ leaders, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo stressed in a press conference that EU reform must match the interests of all member states and “our join union is today adjusted by considering the expectations of only one group of states”. Thus it is important that Lithuania would also not be left on the margins of this fundamental EU discussion and would actively formulate its national position regarding EU reform.
For example currently the Seimas is holding discussions which seek to distil the “parliamentary” level view on EU reform and future. Greatly differing visions are proposed: from support for deeper integration in all areas (thus movement toward EU federalization) to urges to maintain the project of “Europe of nations” and strengthen member states’ say in EU project decision making.
The common principles that are not being discussed right now are that membership in the European Union (together with NATO membership) ensure wholesome geopolitical security and full-fledged integration with the West.
Thus the Lithuanian interest is to retain a unified Europe, at the same time keeping the role of the US in Europe as the key NATO state. Thus such initiatives as greater defence integration have to only be supported to the extent that they complement, not overlap with the Alliance’s competences and activities.
Second, the Lithuanian interest is to retain the EU’s attention and understanding of Russia and processes in the Eastern neighbourhood in general.
While the EU is experiencing “expansion fatigue” and internal structural dilemma and is unable to express a clear position on membership prospects for states such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Eastern Partnership policy must remain at the centre of attention due to its importance for overall regional security and stability.
Thirdly we must come to the realisation that the whole European integration process was linked to member states’ aim to establish premises that favour them at the European level.
Thus Lithuania should not be an exception and we should be able to flexibly seek partners in separate EU policy areas of relevance to us, seeking the best solution from the national perspective. Priority areas where increases or maintenance of current integration levels should be pursued are energy security, trade and innovation, external border protection and defence (security) policy, so long as it does not overlap with NATO.