How Proposals for Reforming the European Union Could Backfire

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Corey Cooper

Paris, Berlin, and Brussels all agree that the European Union needs to work faster and smarter if it is to tackle present and future challenges. French President Emmanuel Macron has effectively made reforming the European Union his raison d’être. But he is not waging this endeavor alone, having joined forces with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is finally coming out of grueling coalition talks, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is as idealistic as ever in the final year of his term. This troika would typically be the perfect amalgamation for transforming the European Union, as was the case when François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and Jacques Delors pushed the European project to some of its greatest feats. However, these political forces are not enough to drive reform in today’s European Union. In fact, they might make matters worse.

Macron, Merkel, and Junker have each touted the importance of European reform in high profile speeches filled with lofty rhetoric and ambitious proposals. They have framed reform as the only way to address the rising tide of populism, lingering economic anxieties, and pressing security challenges. Most notably, Macron’s speech at the University of Sorbonne was a passionate plea for a Europe properly equipped to tackle globalization’s negative externalities. More recently, Macron and Merkel, sometimes dubbed “Mercron,” were the dynamic duo at the World Economic Forum at Davos, where they made separate speeches with the same appeal for a more integrated Europe with greater agency to act in Europe and on the world stage. These calls for reform are not just about deeper policy integration, they are directed as institutional changes as well. Junker’s State of the Union speech last year was notable for proposing a single presidency, a European finance minister, and a broad call for “new floors to the European House.” Collectively, they have one theme: now is the time for more Europe.

Not everyone on the European stage feels the same way. Following Macron’s Sorbonne speech, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte accused Macron of proposing a “federal Europe,” adding “Integration for integration’s sake will only harm public support for the European Union.” Far-right populism and Eurosceptism have not dissipated; in some ways they have metastasized. While 2017 may not have produced a President Le Pen or a Prime Minister Wilders or witness Merkel’s downfall, it did see populists make significant gains at the polls and in national parliaments, all at the expense of mainstream, pro-Europe parties. Reforms that grant more power to Brussels will fuel Eurosceptic narratives.

There is also the European Union’s most pressing internal challenge: the erosion of liberal democracy in Central Europe. Poland and Hungary’s open defiance to the European Union threatens the European unity that would be necessary to push forward any significant reform agenda. Their challenge to Brussels is not a rising threat, but a real and present danger. Not only are political leaders there in vocal opposition to the spirit of the reforms, but they could, and mostly likely would, oppose these reform efforts in the European Council. A Franco-German push for reform will make the growing gap in European unity even wider.

These reform proposals have serious merit, but they are not based in political reality. Brussels would need more power and resources to effectively confront the myriad of challenges and threats facing the European Union. The same is needed for the European Union to properly seize promising opportunities and harness its economic potential. At the same time, opponents of reform believe granting more power to Brussels will only exasperate bureaucratic ineptitude while stripping national governments of their sovereignty. Herein lies Europe’s paradox: the solution is in itself a problem. It is the need for deeper integration versus the popular will for it. The European project has faced these realities before, but at no other time have the costs been so high and failure so certain.

The pursuit of these reforms could backfire, causing a populist backlash in European electorates and greater defiance from Poland and Hungary, as well as any other allies they might garner as a result. The brand of reform being proposed would take time to actualize and produce tangible results. Time is not a friend to the already shaky political scene for Europe’s mainstream political parties and the existing cracks in European cohesion. Junker said in December, “There’s no better time to fix the roof than when the sun is shining.” In reality, the sky is partly cloudy at best and the roof needs more work than he thinks.

The post-Brexit European Union will be a twenty-seven-member trade superpower with more than 500 million people. There is economic growth, falling unemployment, and historic strides recently in the realm of defense integration. Macron, Merkel, and Junker have articulated a detailed, enthusiastic vision for how they want to harness this potential. However, the future of the European project should not be herald in by a determined Franco-German agenda alone. European reform, from conception to fruition, should be a gradual, joint endeavor by all member states to make. The European Union will only succeed if reform is inclusive and democratic. If that is not the case, the result could be the rapid unraveling of the European Union.

About the author: Corey Cooper is a research associate in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. All views expressed in this piece are the author’s own.