What Future for the EU – and Where Does Scotland Fit In?

21 February 2019
Event Partner

© 2019 SCER

The Scottish Centre on European Relations and the Royal Society of Edinburgh organised a high-level policy roundtable in January 2019 held at the RSE. Bringing together senior figures from the policy world (politicians, officials, academics, think tank experts, diplomats, media, NGO representatives and others), participants in the off-the-record event discussed the theme of “What Future for the EU – and Where Does Scotland Fit In?” The roundtable was held as part of SCER’s major review programme, Scotland and Europe: Disruption, Continuity and Change.

The EU faces an uncertain future, with numerous internal and external challenges to confront. In contrast to the UK, Brexit is but one of many challenges for the EU. With the European Parliament elections in May, and the subsequent appointment of a new European Commission in the autumn, we are entering a period of institutional change for the EU. This is an important time for reflecting on the state of Europe and considering new strategies in response to challenges and opportunities.

Internal Challenges: Divisions, Solidarity and Reform

Within the EU, important internal challenges will need to be addressed. The Franco-German motor, considered by many to be a vital component of a successful EU, is troubled, hindered by a weakened political environment in France and increasing political stagnation in Germany. The UK’s impending exit from the EU will change the politics of EU decision making, and has led already to the formation of new coalitions such as the ‘New Hanseatic League’. The longer-term consequences of these power shifts remain to be seen. Discussions have continued on introducing qualified majority voting to further areas of EU policy, including foreign policy, but agreement has yet to be found.

The question of solidarity and fragmentation within the EU will be key in the EU’s politics and direction over the coming years. Social Europe has often lagged behind economic integration and the single market, although it remains crucial to sustaining public support for the EU. Negotiations on the next multiannual financial framework are currently ongoing, but political divisions between net contributors and net beneficiaries to the budget persist. Relations between EU countries are increasingly marked by major disagreements – such as the political dispute between France and Italy over interference in domestic politics.

Political developments within certain member states give cause for concern. Hungary has become virtually synonymous with illiberal governance, and Poland has, in many ways, followed in its footsteps particularly in respect of the judiciary and the rule of law. Corruption, money laundering and press freedom issues have developed in a number of other member states. Right-wing populism is a major concern in many member states and in the face of the European Parliament elections. The new European Parliament is likely to return a greater number of representatives from populist parties and limiting any gains in the elections will be important as will be the question of how the mainstream responds.

Reform of the EU will remain on the agenda. With the prospect of treaty change in the near future fairly remote, attention will turn to policy innovation within the current treaties. In his major interventions on the future of the EU, French president Emmanuel Macron has called for the development of new institutions for the eurozone – including a eurozone budget. His initiative has led to agreement on the first ‘eurozone budgetary instrument’ which will be incorporated into the next EU budget. However, it will be modest in size, and Germany and the Netherlands are less enthused with the idea. Migration has become a critical issue in the last half-decade – political attention has focused on opposition to the influx of external migration into the EU across the Mediterranean, yet the EU faces important demographic challenges which migration can help to address.

External Challenges: Uncertainty, Unity and Leadership

The EU is confronted by an increasingly unstable world, with external challenges which in many cases only an EU acting in a united fashion can effectively address. The threat to multilateralism has grown substantially, particularly under the US Trump administration – withdrawals from international agreements and fora is becoming more common, from the Iran nuclear deal to the UN global compact on migration. The trade wars which the US has started will have a significant impact on the EU. However, the EU serves as a key example of multilateralism internationally and its collective size also gives it a role as a major international regulatory standard setter. a. While the future direction of globalisation is unclear, amid the changing world order, the EU should be looking at how it can provide stronger leadership on global issues in the face of differentiated views on many issues within the EU.

The global challenges which will impact on the EU look set to become more acute. The EU must remain an important player in tackling climate change. The shift to a greener economy and society needs to be centre stage. Human rights are increasingly under threat globally by resurgent forms of repression in all parts of the world. As countries such as the US partially retreat from leadership on these issues, the EU can choose instead to build on its important role in promoting human rights. At the same time, the EU can do more to ensure that its progressive human rights policies are not only advocated externally, but also consistently applied internally – where the rule of law issues, amongst other questions, continue to raise challenges.

In geopolitics, China has become an increasing priority and concern for the EU. The rise of China not just as an economic actor, but as a military, security and cyber actor, needs a coordinated response from EU member states. Concerns about Chinese attempts at building influence in individual members of the EU and NATO will need to be addressed. The EU will need a more coherent common response to China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative rather than a fragmented one.

EU-Russia relations are also challenging. Maintaining a common EU response, including the prolonging of sanctions, may prove to be difficult in the face of different positions across the EU. Russian interference in democratic processes in the EU and elsewhere also needs to be confronted more by the EU. The EU’s neighbourhood contains a range of other challenges and issues. Turkey’s problematic politics and its shift away from democratic norms is troubling and poses a challenge for the EU. The political dynamics and conflicts in the Middle East will equally require new responses from the EU. On EU enlargement, the aim will be to see progress from the candidate countries towards accession while attempting to limit further tensions in the western Balkans.

Scotland has a range of interests in, and concerns about, these major EU challenges. In some areas, Scotland has more opportunity to influence and participate in policy discussions than others. Brexit, of course, impacts here. Should Brexit happen, Scotland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK and that will inevitably make influencing and participation more challenging – and it will need more efforts to remain engaged. On energy, climate change and the environment, Scotland has strong contributions to make to the European level. Its progressive domestic reforms on human rights can also, to some extent, provide inspiration for other parts of Europe.

The roundtable at the Royal Society of Edinburgh is pictured above