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Future opportunities, threats, challenges and goals of the European Union

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Abstract: The story of European integration has been a remarkable achievement going from an economic union of six states to a supranational organisation consisting of a majority of countries on the European continent. Today, the EU finds itself in a shifting world order and a period of continuous crises posing many threats, challenges as well as opportunities to the European Union (EU) in terms of its vision. The aim of this paper is to list out the major opportunities, threats, challenges and goals of the EU in the near and distant future. The focus is on addressing long term trends rather than just the short-term implications of the present global dynamics. This includes both internal questions of the EU as well as those concerning the role of the EU in the global order. Similarly, I try to link the current issues to trends and patterns in 20th century Europe and how the EU can use lessons from its history to shape its future policy.

Introduction

The EU has come a long way from the 1950 Schuman plan and the 1957 Treaty of Rome to currently being the world’s second largest democracy (EEAS, 2020) and third largest economy (World Bank). The EU currently finds itself in a global shift towards a multipolar world order (Dee, 2005), the largest change since the end of the Cold War (Krauthammer, 1990). This has several implications for the future of the EU, both positive and negative, both internal and external. Combined with this, the past decade has seen Europe experience the brunt of many regional and global crises such as the European debt crisis, the 2015 migrant crisis, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 energy crisis and most recently the Russia-Ukraine war. While this has posed direct threats and challenges in the short term, the EU faces much larger long-term questions. However, this dynamic also presented many opportunities for the EU to capitalise on. Therefore, the current phase can be described as being the most critical period in the history of the EU yet. The EU needs to treat all these issues with a clear vision in line with their future goals, but at the same time, the answers to some of these questions can be traced back in European history. One thing that is certain is that the EU needs to act with urgency and unity.

Opportunities for the EU’s future

The emerging multipolar system has presented the EU with an opportunity to act with greater unity. The rise of China, India, Russia and others as economic and military powers surpassing most or all individual EU member states means that if the EU wants to be a major actor or a “pole” in the multipolar future, it is necessary for it to be a unitary actor on matters of global importance since none of the EU states would be able to become a pole on their own (Herolf, 2011, p.2,16).

The opportunity for greater unity also stems from the need for a more consolidated approach. The Russia-Ukraine war could be a positive factor contributing to a stronger European identity and common policies as was also seen post Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 (Gehring, 2021, p.1489,1500-01,1511). While the current situation is different, a parallel could be drawn to the latter and early post-war stages of World War II, a period which fostered ideas of European federalism (Wiener & Diaz, 2009, p.31-33). Therefore, while the European response to the crisis does not indicate a shift towards federalism, it might prove as an opportunity for further integration and unity in policies.

The war combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy crisis have forced the EU to focus its policy on resilience and strategic autonomy (Jacobs et al., 2022; Håkansson, 2022, p.2-3). This has given the EU an opportunity to reduce its vulnerability by streamlining the process to the two most important aspects of not only the priorities set by the EU parliament for its internal policy but also in terms of achieving the key foreign policy aim of “strategic autonomy” as set out by the EU in its 2016 Global Strategy (Alcaro & Tocci, 2021).

Threats to the European future

The EU is faced with many pertinent threats. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) in 2022, the EU faces 15 risks that could cause potential harm to its stability and prosperity in the near future ranging from climate events, economic risks, etc. However, the two most pertinent threats that appear to be long-term threats to the EU are 1) Russian aggression and 2) Populism.

Russian aggression poses a threat to not only European security but also to European integration. For Russia, the expansion of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) closer to its border provides it with a perceived threat to justify what might be seen as defensive expansionism. Its offensives in Georgia, Crimea and now Ukraine are clear examples (Dedman, 2010, p.2,185-190). This can be traced back to the post World War II era, when Stalin followed the same policy of defensive expansionism in Eastern Europe. The current scenario reflects a reactionary cycle created by EU/NATO expansion followed by Russian defensive expansionism. Irrespective of the realisation of Ukraine becoming an EU or NATO member, the prospect of this being a possibility led to Russia’s aggression. However, the 2022 invasion has led to Finland and Sweden, two EU countries joining NATO. Thus, Europe finds itself in a security dilemma (Kunz, 2022), since further NATO enlargement means greater Russian defensive expansionism. The need for the EU to become a stronger security actor has become clear and the EU has made its intentions clear to do so. While the EU’s capabilities might be seen as only complementary to NATO today (Borell, 2022), this will help the EU’s goal of strategic autonomy in the future. The rearmament of Germany can be seen as a positive step in this direction, but there is also a need for restraint and oversight on the part of the EU. There always lies a possibility of an arms race such as the one Europe experienced in the early 1900s (Richards & Waibel, 2014, p.37).

Europe has witnessed the rise of populist parties since the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 migrant crisis. The populist movement poses two main threats to the EU. Populist movements in Europe have been shown to be based on targeting migrants and Euroscepticism (van der Woude, 2020; Noury & Roland, 2020, Buti & Pichelmann, 2017). The root of the socio-economic problems in Europe is seen to be European integration and the decision-making of Brussels. The rise of populist parties is not limited to the elections of the member states but can also be seen in the parliamentary elections of the EU itself. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that Eurosceptic parties make up 29% of the EU parliament following the 2019 elections, the highest in history (Desilver, 2019). This poses a major challenge to the EU as those who opposed the EU are themselves making decisions of the EU and a continuity in this trend poses a severe threat to the future of the EU (EU Council 2021). Similarly, the securitisation of migration is also a key challenge for the EU. While in no means comparable to the Holocaust, the targeting of immigration and immigrants by neo-Nazi populists as the reason for socioeconomic problems has similarities to Nazi Germany (Lazaridis & Tsagkroni, 2015).

Challenges for the EU

One of the most pressing issues for the EU remains that of integration. There are numerous factors to consider in this case. Should the EU aim to grow wider or deeper, or both, or neither? Meaning, should the EU pursue enlargement and add more member states or should it focus on greater integration amongst the existing members, which are already 27 in number. This challenge is even more pertinent after the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. Is there a limit to EU integration (Thiel, 2011)? There are arguments supporting each of the above-mentioned approaches to EU integration (Wiener & Diez, 2009; Kelemen et al., 2014). The failure of the EU to ratify the 2004 Constitutional Treaty and the subsequent move to the Lisbon Treaty also highlighted the limits of EU integration (Carbone, 2010). Furthermore, the EU has not been able to come up with a treaty since then. Another issue remains: the question of being European itself. What are the boundaries of Europe, both real and cultural? Many conservative and nationalist parties in Europe are against any prospective EU enlargement to Muslim majority countries such as the Western Balkans and Turkey (Bélanger & Schimmelfennig, 2021).

Another important challenge for the EU remains that of climate change. Climate change and sustainability have been important aspects of the EU’s internal and foreign policy discussions. The EU has often demonstrated its ambitions to be a global leader in climate policy (Çelik, 2020). However, the EU has often been criticised for its climate change hypocrisy and unfair demands on developing countries (Gold, 2022). The EU has been repeatedly advocated for reform in the Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) framework which requires the developed countries to take more responsibility against climate change than the developing countries (Petri & Biedenkopf, 2019). A reason for this is that China and India’s responsibilities towards controlling greenhouse gas emissions are limited due to this, even though they are two of the world’s largest emitters (Friedrich et al., 2020). However, the EU itself is the third largest emitter in the world. Furthermore, the per capita emissions of EU countries are significantly higher than most developing countries (Worldometer). Furthermore, the energy crisis and the Ukraine war are also challenges to the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate neutral goal. Therefore, not only the risks and vulnerabilities of the EU to climate change, but also its aim to be a leader in climate policy face several challenges.

Future goals of the EU

The European Union set four priorities for the 2019-2024 period including the protection and freedom of citizens, developing a strong economy, sustainability in Europe and promising European values and interests globally. While these are short term priorities, they are consistent with the historical tenets of the EU and at the same time provide a picture of the EU’s long-term goals.

However, according to me, the most important goal of the EU in its near future remains the development of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The EU announced its Global Strategy in 2016 and its main goals include: 1) strategic autonomy, or not being dependent on anyone for their security and 2) promotion of a rules-based world order based on multilateralism. Furthermore, the EU has also realised the centrality of the Indo-Pacific in the future. The EU aims to play a more involved role in the region for this reason. The EU has always aimed to be a normative foreign policy actor, meaning that its foreign policy is not based on realist power politics but rather on exporting its values. While the EU has reaffirmed the importance of promoting its values in its foreign policy, it also announced its ambitions of becoming an effective geopolitical actor in 2021 (European Parliament). Foreign policy remains one of the least integrated elements of the EU, which means that the foreign policies of individual states and the EU can be competing or contrasting in many cases (Hadfield et al., 2017). However, it is also increasingly the most important aspect for the EU’s global goals. Therefore, it is necessary for the EU and its member states to take the necessary steps toward the development of its CFSP if it aims to be an important player in the multipolar world.

Conclusion

The EU finds itself in a crucial period where it is posed with both threats and challenges but also the opportunities to achieve its goals. The current situation has many similarities to what Europe was experiencing exactly a century ago, including war, a pandemic, and a changing world (Carr, 2020). It is clear that trends in many of the current events affecting the EU can be traced back to European history and the lessons from then can help shape today’s EU policies. However, while learning from the past is important, it is equally important to look towards the future for answers. The Conference on the Future of Europe held in 2021-2022 was a great initiative in this regard. While the EU might not be experiencing it most glorious moments, it still remains the most successful experiment in regional integration (Feng & Genna, 2003). Whether or not it will reach greater heights or see a decline remains a mystery, however one thing is for sure, the EU faces several questions in the changing global order and the urgency and unity with which it acts will determine its future.