Is Europe’s troubled union really ready to change?

After six decades of relentless if incremental integration, might the European Union be about to go into reverse?

The “ever closer union” enshrined in EU treaties since 1957 no longer looks so assured after a voter backlash in May’s European Parliament elections and Britain’s increasingly strident demands for a looser relationship with Brussels.

As the smoke clears from the battle over nominating Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the gulf between Britain and its EU partners looks wider than ever although all sides talk of focusing more determinedly on public concerns about jobs and prosperity.

Brussels insiders say that for all the talk of radical reform, the 28-nation union is unlikely to change much either towards deeper integration or to greater decentralization in the next five years.

Asked whether the “wind of change” was likely to lead to any discernible shift in the coming years, more than one official quoted Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”, a fresco of stratified 19th century Sicilian society.

“Everything needs to change so that everything can stay the same,” said a Commission veteran with 20 years’ experience.

“We’ve heard the promises many times before. They are always genuine and probably well intentioned, but the reality is different. Things don’t change just like that.”

Since the creation of a coal and steel community among six countries in the rubble of World War Two, the objective has been to unite Europe’s nations economically and politically to prevent a return to conflict.

Through waves of expansion, including the addition of 11 east European states since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the union has grown to 28 countries comprising 500 million citizens, all part of a single market with a swathe of common rules.

The euro single currency, launched in 1999 and now used by 18 member states, is perhaps the greatest symbol of Europe’s determination to forge a common future.

But the last decade has called into question the overriding principle of ever closer union.

Founder members France and the Netherlands voted down a proposed EU constitution in 2005. A debt crisis that began in Greece brought the euro zone close to collapse in 2012, and anti-EU populist parties scored stunning gains this year.

The EU has seldom suffered such a deep identity crisis.

At the forefront of the doubters is Britain, an awkward member of the club since 1973, with a population mistrustful of Europe and a prime minister determined to renegotiate its relationship with the European Union.

In January last year, Cameron launched his campaign for fundamental change, including erasing the common aim of “ever closer union”, etched in Europe’s founding treaty since 1957. He promised to put the result to an in/out referendum in 2017.

“We understand and respect the right of others to maintain their commitment to this goal,” he said. “But for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective.”

The Dutch government, an ally of Britain’s on many European issues, took a similar stand a few months later, saying the time of ‘ever closer union’ in all policy areas had passed.

The oft-quoted analogy is of a bicycle that must keep moving to stay upright. The question is whether the EU’s is slowing down and starting to wobble, with at least one country set to tumble off?

Juncker and integration

Anyone looking for evidence of a reversal of integration would have struggled to find it in the debate over the nomination of the next president of the European Commission, which proposes and enforces EU laws.

At a summit on June 27, Europe’s leaders voted by 26-2 – with only Britain and Hungary opposed – to put forward Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, for the most powerful EU job.

A multilingual federalist from the heart of Europe, Juncker, 59, has spent his life advocating deeper EU integration, whether on labour policy, trade or economics.

Having cut his teeth in the heyday of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and France’s Francois Mitterand, he naturally sees Franco-German cooperation as the motor of Europe.

Yet that engine is no longer firing on all cylinders because Germany has grown in power while France has weakened, throwing the central partnership out of kilter.

Whether Cameron’s defeat over Juncker was a turning point toward a British exit, or just another bump in the road, remains to be seen.

Cameron believes Juncker is the wrong person to overhaul the way the EU does business and fears the Luxembourger will make it harder for Britain to renegotiate its relationship.

Juncker has spoken of the need to work with Britain to resolve its concerns about Europe. EU leaders, keen to avoid isolating Cameron or forcing the hand of British voters, were similarly emollient.

“The UK raised some concerns related to the future development of the EU,” they said in a statement after the divisive meeting. “These concerns will need to be addressed.”

They went on to say that deeper integration could be pursued by some but not others. There was no mention, however, of going into reverse.

For Cameron, it goes nowhere towards overhauling how the EU works day-to-day, or responding to deep-seated frustrations expressed by many voters in the European elections.

The most that continental partners may be willing to offer Britain in terms of decentralizing EU reforms may be less than the least Cameron needs to win a referendum.

Plus ca change

Cameron wants both to return to London powers he feels were wrongly surrendered to Brussels, but also to reform EU institutions and how the policy machinery works.

He claims support from many Europeans who regard the EU as a distant and clumsy bureaucracy, and from some fellow leaders who fear the EU will fall further out of favor if it doesn’t set clearer priorities.

The European Commission has already launched a program, called REFIT, designed to simplify EU laws and reduce regulatory costs. In outgoing Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s words, the aim is to make the EU “big on the bigger things, small on the smaller things.”

Thanks to the EU, citizens travel freely and cheaply across the continent, mobile phone roaming fees will soon be history and it is possible to work in any of the 28 countries. Yet that is not enough to convince naysayers who see the EU as a tentacular bureaucracy that overly interferes in their lives.

Cameron is not alone in demanding the EU become less intrusive. In one form or another Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande, Italy’s Matteo Renzi, Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Juncker have intoned a similar mantra.

Yet there is a three-way divide. Cameron and a handful of allies see the goal as being “less Europe”. The EU should be a powerful single market and the world’s largest trading bloc, but not much more than that, they contend.

Merkel and some other core European leaders, especially those in euro area, see reform as leading to a tighter, more deeply integrated EU, that uses its trading power to exert global influence, competing with China and the United States.

Then there is a third school that wants to preserve the status quo and avoid divisive referendums.

Having made no explicit promise to voters, Merkel will be able to live without treaty change. Cameron, on the other hand, has promised voters a renegotiation and a referendum, and his political future is on the line.

If the opposition Labor party wins next year’s election, the prospect of an EU plebiscite may recede for a few years.

But without a substantial renegotiation, it is becoming hard to see how a referendum would result in anything other than a vote to withdraw from the European Union.

Cameron appears to recognize it may be an uphill struggle.

“I’m trying to achieve, between now and 2017, something that I accept is very difficult,” he said after his summit defeat. “I want us to get out of ever closer union.”

Conscious of the difficulty of changing a course that has been set towards one destination ever since the EU’s founding, he added: “You don’t turn around a tanker like the EU with ease.” [Reuters]

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