The search for a vision for the future has dominated political life in 2017, not just in Russia but also in the European Union. After Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016 with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” offering a new American dream that was contradictory and vague yet still attractive for many U.S. citizens, European leaders followed suit in 2017. Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!” movement in France seized the lead in calls for reform from more radical rivals, and in anticipation of Russia’s presidential election this year, myriad institutes, organizations, and presidential candidates have also been tasked with finding a vision for the future.

There is a big difference, however, between sketching out enticing prospects within the framework of the domestic political process and trying to breathe new life into supranational organizations such as the EU. The latter has many more players and many more contradictions between them, and the number of problems has also increased significantly over the past few years of integration. For several months now, trajectories for EU development have been under discussion, with both EU bureaucrats and member states offering their opinions on the challenges of future integration.

Despite all of the efforts, a new vision for the future of a united Europe hasn’t been articulated, though there is so much desire for this that the outlines of a new EU agreement are becoming the main topic in EU politics. The EU views many of the new crises—from migration and terrorism to Brexit and authoritarian trends in certain countries—not as problems, but as challenges that must be overcome in the near future using integration instruments. And in coming years, attitudes toward integration projects will define EU member states’ positions on other matters, and shape the behavior of supranational European institutions as they transform from bureaucratic institutes into political players.

Juncker’s Single-Speed EU

Two basic scenarios for EU development had been formulated by the end of 2017 and are still being discussed. The white paper on the future of Europe, which was prepared to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, referred to these scenarios as “doing much more together” (accelerating integration at the same speed for all EU members) and “those who want more do more” (a multi-speed Europe with differentiated or flexible integration).

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented a detailed description of the first of these two scenarios—for a single-speed Europe—in his September 2017 State of the Union speech. Juncker offered an ambitious vision of a future united Europe that appears at first glance to be a pipe dream of EU bureaucrats.

However, a full summer of protracted and laborious consultations with representatives of member states preceded Juncker’s inspirational speech. As a result, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, who is famous for his negotiating skills, recognized the scale of the contradictions plaguing the EU and found the sole solution: to raise the stakes by including as many ideas and proposals from each interested party as possible in the new integration project. Juncker’s bold proposals, which are still being discussed and elaborated, include expanding the Eurozone, setting up a European currency fund and a European intelligence unit, combining the chairmanships of the European Commission and the European Council, and departing from the concept of consensus vote.

The idea of the package agreement is simple: since negotiations on reform in the most sensitive areas haven’t been fruitful, the sphere of measures being discussed should be extended to include proposals that suit all member states, in order to harness the spirit of tangible integration prospects. As the sphere of discussion grows, so will that of compromise, giving the talks a chance of success.

The inclusive nature of Juncker’s plan uses three important mechanisms. The first is to compile core proposals that address the concerns of most EU members. Today, these concerns are defense and security, which have become more critical due to terrorist attacks, Trump’s unpredictability, and the sense of vulnerability of Europe’s eastern borders with Russia. In addition to the traditional set of measures, such as ramping up cooperation by the special services and discussing a joint European armed forces, Juncker included some new and non-obvious integration steps in this core set.

One of his proposals is to create a full-fledged energy union that would allocate mutual assistance obligations to EU members when one lacks energy resources, with the added benefit of further weakening Russia’s political influence. Another is establishing a supranational commission for auditing foreign investment in Europe. This step would above all limit China’s ability to buy up the EU’s strategic infrastructure and cutting-edge technologies.

The second mechanism is to include in the overall set of measures the vested interests of parties that are least inclined toward compromise. For example, the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) constantly laments the inferior quality of foods and medications that European producers supply to central Eastern Europe compared to those sold in France and Germany. This motivated a proposal to increase the power of national governments to fight violations of quality standards.

The Baltic states fear that Russia will buy up all of their land, so the aforementioned foreign investment commission could pay particular attention to infamous Russian money. Croatia wants to enter the Eurozone, but has had little success so far: this can be included as a separate objective in the overall integration plan. Spending-conscious German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally advocates the introduction of a minister of finance for all of Europe: sure, no problem.

The third mechanism is to show prospects of overall economic growth in sectors that have yet to become contentious, such as cybersecurity. According to 2016 data, 80 percent of European companies have been attacked by hackers at least once; the number of cyberattacks aimed at extortion on EU territory has grown fourfold since 2015, resulting in colossal losses for both companies and individuals.

In response to this problem, Juncker proposed setting up a European Cybersecurity Agency: essentially increasing the authority of the existing European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA). Until recently, ENISA was functionally a research center, involved in developing recommendations for national governments, which did not prevent growing losses from cybercrime.

The European Commission developed a number of measures to strengthen ENISA, including expanding its staff and doubling its budget to 23 million euros per year, introducing a certification program for the IT and communications sectors, and establishing a Europe-wide cyber shield to prevent attacks such as the attempt to hack into Macron’s email during the French election campaign. The economy of scale from integration in this sector will be an advantage for all EU member states.

Cybersecurity reform is also important to the EU because it is a step toward the creation of a single digital market, another new and potentially mutually advantageous integration opportunity. The strategy for a single digital market was published back in 2015, and its objective was to ease conditions for consumers and businesses by 2019, stimulate sector growth by revoking obsolete copyright protection norms, ensure the free flow of data, implement the ePrivacy directive, and so on. The implementation of the strategy has stalled, however, and the commission is trying to give new momentum to the initiative, particularly since it enjoys support from the private sector.

Integration for the Interested

Despite all of Juncker’s negotiating talents, his proposal for deepening integration mashes up rather than solves the large number of disagreements between EU member states. The second basic integration scenario—“those who want more do more”—recognizes this problem and postulates that further integration should be based on the principle of a multi-speed Europe, which is regaining popularity.

This approach is grounded in the idea of growing a progressive “integration core” within the EU, which would not be forced to take into account the interests of outsiders that are unable to become involved in the integration process at the same rate as the core. At this stage, the Eurozone—minus weaker countries like Greece—is expected to become a prototype for this core. In this scenario, the Visegrád Group will remain on the periphery, as will the countries of Northern Europe and nations that have yet to meet Eurozone criteria, such as Croatia.

A “lite” version of a multi-speed Europe has essentially been in place in the EU since the beginning of the century. It was formulated back in the 1990s, following the recognition of Europe’s growing diversity and plans for the EU’s large-scale eastward expansion. EU bureaucrats were aware that if they wanted to maintain the pace of integration, then they had to learn to find exceptions to rules and allow certain countries to ignore certain general requirements, and they hoped that the differences would fade with time due to the overall popularity of the European project.

By the time the Treaty of Lisbon was ratified in 2009, this kind of flexibility had extended to human rights issues, with the UK, Poland, and Ireland allowed to implement the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union only to the degree at which it would be in line with national legislation: i.e., not to ratify the statutes on abortion.

Integration continued until the 2008–2009 crisis, and new integration initiatives were conducted first through a core of ten–fifteen countries and then extended to other states in a milder format. One of the last results of multi-speed European development was the establishment of the European Banking Union in 2014–2015.

Despite sporadic successes, the disadvantages of the multi-speed approach are clear and have been described in detail by researchers. The approach runs the risk of the EU disintegrating into two associations under one roof. It sees the further exacerbation of differences between states, the cessation of positive effects that are traditional for integration (such as the spillover effect, when integration reaches a certain level in one sector and promotes integration in neighboring sectors), and the weakening of incentives to make the compromises typical of any multilateral association.

A further negative effect for the EU has to do with the rejection of the principle of uniform implementation of laws throughout the territory of the EU, even though initially it was seen as a priority that all countries should equally implement and follow Europe-wide norms. Mutual advantages from integration are based on a uniform level of responsibility for their implementation. Instead of making exceptions and accumulating contradictions, the EU should wait for a natural alignment of interests and build a harmonious policy. All of the drawbacks can be discerned in the operations of the EU over the past ten years.

Nevertheless, the majority of Western European countries, including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, support the idea of a multi-speed Europe. The Benelux and Malta are in favor. Poland and other members of the Visegrád Group are opposed, and one EU representative from Bulgaria even compared the multi-speed principle to apartheid, i.e., the deepening and formalization of the existing inequality in the making of vital decisions in the EU.

This harsh rhetoric is quite understandable. Poland and Hungary prefer a scenario that isn’t popular with other EU countries, which the white paper describes as “doing less more efficiently.” This vision for a future Europe supposes a partial return of the most contentious supranational powers back to the level of national governments, and instead offers greater integration in the most challenging sectors, above all in defense and security, and uniform standards for quality of goods.

Poland and Hungary, which are frequently criticized for their “authoritarian tendencies,” thus hope to regain some of their sovereignty—for example, in regulating the media or balancing the functions of the judicial and legislative branches—but to still receive general European subsidies and security guarantees. Major Western European landowners and multinational supermarkets are pushing local farmers in central Eastern Europe out of the market. The local farmers will therefore call for a version of integration in which the EU focuses more on defense and security and less on the continued harmonization of economic and customs policies.

Macron’s Speeds

Despite opposition from the Visegrád Group and a number of other countries, France’s Macron expands the principle of a multi-speed Europe in his program for the EU’s modernization. His vision for the EU, albeit less ambitious than Juncker’s plan, serves as a real alternative to the European Commission’s intentions. While Juncker is thinking in terms of lofty concepts of a united Europe, Macron is concerned with France’s interests and the revival of its leading role in tandem with Germany, as was historically envisaged.

Brexit has brought that remote dream much closer, but the EU countries that lag behind—for which Macron has no intention of waiting—prevent swift development. Macron’s vision for the future of Europe is the “those who want more do more” integration scenario, with a focus on a two-speed Europe. All of Macron’s key economic and defense initiatives, which are similar to ideas from Juncker’s program, presume the involvement of only Eurozone countries: i.e., countries that are already on the integration frontier and are prepared to move further ahead.

The French president sees a special role for a Franco-German center in the future EU, which by 2024 would have a single market, common business standards, and—effectively—a combined security space. In this way, the EU would turn into concentric rings in which France and Germany serve as the core, the modernized Eurozone forms the middle layer, and the other countries remain on the periphery of the integration process.

Despite serious resistance to Macron’s program—not just from traditional opponents of a multi-speed Europe, but also from the Netherlands, among others—the French president’s proposals aren’t impracticable. Macron’s frankness strengthens his position. He wants everyone to recognize that EU member states are not united on most matters, and therefore can and should continue to move forward at different tempos, but in the same direction. Even within the Eurozone, there are creditor states and debtor states, and their interests are at odds; it is therefore impossible to achieve unity within the framework of the old rules. It is better to be different and move forward than to pretend that everyone is the same and tread water.

Macron’s position stands to benefit from Brexit. London has always had its own opinions, which hampered the integration initiatives of France and Germany. The UK was more likely than other countries to vote against the majority in the Council of Ministers of the EU, serving as a shield for other Euroskeptics. Without such a shield, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark will find it harder to stand up to the united front of France and Germany, even if this front is currently being tested.

Immediately after the elections, Merkel supported Macron’s plans, particularly the part about a new role for a Franco-German core. However, the developing political crisis in Germany made it necessary to adjust this position. Most German political parties are skeptical about the idea of a single budget for the Eurozone.

The most important thing about integration projects isn’t how useful they may be to particular countries or how much they could help deepen integration. It is how realistic the proposed scenarios are, since the EU has long been not just an economic union, but also a political project with its own internal political process and players.

The standoff between Macron and Juncker vividly illustrates two alternative approaches to EU integration: the principle known as a Europe of Nations, where states play a defining role, and the supranational approach, where an independent supranational institution is granted increasingly greater influence in the interests of the integration project.

The European Commission is trying to seize more and more authority, evolving from a bureaucratic institution into a political player, and justifying this elevation with positive effects from integration. Meanwhile, EU member states, such as Macron’s France, favor a Europe of Nations, insisting that the drivers of integration should be the private—but common for the majority—interests of the member states.

The ambitiousness of Macron and Juncker’s strategies fuels skepticism, but their main objective isn’t to go all the way in their plans; rather, it is to revive debates about integration, to win leading positions among those who determine its progress, and to maximize their future political influence.

Russia’s Role

In this situation, Russia should do its best to stop being one of the threats that the EU takes into account when determining its development trajectory. Long-term modernization and reform programs are long-term specifically because they structure cooperation for decades ahead, building paradigms that are difficult to escape from, even for the mutually beneficial improvement of relations.

A transformation in relations could be prompted by a discussion of a new framework agreement between the EU and Russia in place of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which has grown obsolete and ineffective. In view of sanctions and the Ukraine conflict, it is unlikely that an equally broad agreement could be signed, but resuming constructive dialogue and displaying positive intentions will decrease Russia’s chances of being seen as one of the threats that are fundamental to the new institutional state of European integration.

Russia’s current strategy for interacting with the EU—trying to use disagreements between EU member states in order to push through decisions that benefit Russia—will become less effective as integration inevitably continues. The last example of this approach by Russia was the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Initially, since EU regulations were not expected to apply to the project, it was assumed that the pipeline only needed approval from the countries it would cross: Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Nevertheless, Poland and the Baltic states tried to torpedo the project, worried about how construction of a new pipeline bypassing Ukraine might affect the EU’s security and ecology.

In order to smooth over the contradictions, the European Commission took an unprecedented step and—for the first time in EU history—requested a mandate from EU countries for negotiations with Russia about the pipeline. Germany’s rigid position and the subsequent negative reaction from the legal service of the EU Council regarding the issuance of such a mandate blocked the ability of the European Commission to delay the Nord Stream 2 construction, but this took a lot of effort. Furthermore, the European Commission is still trying to find a way to influence the situation by expanding the applicability of rules for the internal energy market. As supranational institutions obtain the status of political players, they will have more and more such powers. 

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Mikhail Komin
  • Taisiia Shentseva