The future of Europe: Views from the capitals (Paul Schmidt, Emerging Europe)

At a time at which a clear pledge to European integration and a stronger commitment to reform would be needed, the debate on the future of Europe is not taking off – particularly in European capitals. A new book, The Future of Europe – Views from the Capitals, published by Palgrave, aims to contribute to the discussion in as many European capitals as possible. Authors from all EU member states as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey assess how their country could get more involved in the European debate and take the reader on a journey through various political landscapes and different views of Europe.

It is not the first time that Europeans have heard promises of deep reform of EU institutions, policies, and future orientation. But will their patience now be rewarded? The diversity of views regarding the direction and speed of European integration seems to be getting bigger rather than smaller, as complex negotiations over the next Multiannual Financial Framework lie ahead. While some European leaders have publicly reiterated their European preferences, others have remained silent. However, it was the European lecture by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Sorbonne University in Paris earlier this year that revived and drew the most of public attention. While the European Commission has already been organising citizen’s dialogues all over Europe for a while, the French president was the first national leader to call for democratic assemblies on the future of Europe to be held in every EU-country before the next elections to the European Parliament in 2019. Mr Macron touched on one of the weak spots of European integration: the lack of national political ownership. The debate on the future of Europe would need to reach all member states to gain momentum, and to engage with Europeans on all levels possible.

The book The Future of Europe – Views from the Capitals sheds light on the political dynamics within the EU member states and contributes to the national discussions about Europe. Authors from the – still – 28 member states as well as Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, and Turkey assess in short, concise, and easy-to-read opinion pieces how their respective country could get more involved in the European debate.

The contributions reflect the diversity of Europe and cover issues ranging from a perceived lack of ambition at the periphery to a careful balancing act between diverse national players and their standpoints at the geographical centre. The future of Europe is not only about bridging the dividing policy lines, but it is also about shifting powers, regaining trust and support for the European integration process, and the need to create policies that work. Nobody is born a eurosceptic.

Yet discussions share common features: the anxiety regarding national sovereignty and the reflection on the division of power in Europe, the different levels of political activism to defend one’s interests, the migration and border discourse, as well as security concerns, among other examples.

The pieces on countries with external borders place a particular focus on the security dimension of the Union as well as the migration challenge. For example, due to the worsening security environment, Finland is a frontrunner in arguing for a deepened defence cooperation, mutual assistance, and solidarity. Italy for its part is a country that has moved from a deep love for the EU to severe dissatisfaction. The further evolution of this relationship will depend very much on the answers given to the two most sensible issues for the Italian public: economic growth and migration control.

In respect to the latter, most of the authors from CEE countries encourage their governments to bring more realism into the debate and look at the real numbers as opposed to escalating rhetoric and evoking the “fear of the others.”

The writers from Lithuania and Latvia point to the level of emigration of young people – a brain drain challenge with which many central, southern and eastern EU member states are confronted with. At the same time, Estonia has become a hub for digital innovation by turning itself into a pathfinder for e-solutions. Thus, in a small geographical space, we find trends and countertrends that very much highlight the success and challenges national governments face.

Due to the legal and political frictions with the EU, the authors from Hungary and Poland emphasise the importance of the EU’s credibility, which they see as being at stake. They urgently call for a clear and firm EU position regarding the application of its own norms and values.

The contributions on France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Ireland argue for a multispeed Europe. For Macron´s vision of Europe, there are no red lines but new horizons. However, do his plans really appeal to blue collar workers? Here, the authors suggest that a European unemployment scheme could be of help. Belgium, on the other hand, is described as a former custodian of the European integration process. Today, however, its proactivity is disappearing due to its internal political constitution. In Luxembourg, again, support for integration occasionally goes even beyond pure cost-benefit calculations through, for example, demands for a stronger social pillar. For Dublin, in turn, the UK´s decision to leave the EU changes everything. Thus, a recalibration of its European strategy is deemed necessary.

The pieces from Austria and Slovenia argue that their countries should focus and prioritise in order to be heard and make a difference. The articles on Romania and Bulgaria draw on the country’s experiences regarding EU-enlargement. In addition, they consider their countries as laboratories of political trends that are common for the whole of Europe, like the rise of populism or nationalistic conservatism.

Portugal and Spain take the approach of the “good pupil”: two countries committed to the European integration process despite moderate criticism regarding the lack of clear strategies towards EU integration ever since their accession. This highlights a common feature of the integration process as such: once a state secures membership in the club, further development of the club takes a backseat. Or, even worse, membership in the club is downplayed and used for petty domestic politics – the place where political power and office are still predominantly traded.

Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, and the Czech Republic are perceived as outliers, as each tries to find its way through managing the risk of belonging to the periphery of integration.

Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey, for their part, assess the different ways to adhere to and influence EU decision making without being members of the Union, which also provide potential lessons for the UK in its search for an adequate future relationship with the EU.

Clearly, the future of Europe is not an academic debate! There is an obvious need to talk about Europe more vigorously in all capitals and every corner of Europe, simply because this is where its future will be decided.