On 25 March 2017 EU Heads of State and Government celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document for the project of “ever closer union” that eventually became the European Union. The United Kingdom, however, was absent at the festivities, just as it was when the document was signed in 1957. Skipping this diamond jubilee was perfectly logical given that on 23 June 2016 British voters decided to leave the club.

But despite the lavish setting at the Palazzo dei Conservatori that boasts a façade designed by Michelangelo, this was not a moment of unbridled joy for EU leaders. Rather, it is a time of profound soul-searching about the future of European integration. In this context, Brexit is a symptom more than a cause as the difficulties of devising and justifying more cooperation are felt across Europe. The UK’s absence though is strategically problematic as the country has so much at stake in any re-foundation of the EU project.

To coincide with the anniversary, European federalists organized a March for Europe on 24 March. This initiative comes on the back of a call by various European public figures to turn the EU into a fully-fledged majoritarian form of government that would transcend national interests. The chances of this happening are very slim because EU leaders worry first and foremost about their national electorates. Nevertheless, the EU is at a cross-roads when it comes to delivering on expectations that integration makes countries better equipped to tackle policy challenges together.

Thinking about Europe’s future comes under the job description of the European Commission. It recently published a White Paper outlining five scenarios for the evolution of the EU, which was discussed at the meeting of the European Council in Rome. The federalist option is one of these scenarios, alongside a re-focus on the single market, a carrying on as now option, a less is more approach, and a multi-speed model.

Whichever path is pursued will matter greatly to the UK. What the EU will look like in the future will be of great significance now that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has declared her intention to seek a new referendum on Scottish independence. Will voters in Scotland who would have preferred to stick with the EU status quo be more or less enthusiastic for membership if integration is just about the single market? An a la carte EU is definitely in line with the ruling Scottish National Party’s desire to retain an opt-out from Economic and Monetary Union.

Keeping the pound is a perfectly plausible scenario for an independent Scotland, if the EU agrees. However, it cannot be done without acknowledging Westminster and the Bank of England’s demands. With the euro as an object lesson in poorly designed currency union before them, British policy-makers will be at pains to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Breaking up the Union will leave Scotland facing the prospect of a sterling currency area that is as much of a straightjacket for public finances as the euro.

Moreover, the strength of European unity will greatly affect the outcome of future UK-EU relations. A cluster of major foreign policy issues will depend on close cooperation between Brussels and London, most significantly, security cooperation and global trade. The known unknown in this context is the need for a new institutional architecture to make such cooperation work. That is why the UK government’s White Paper on Brexit spends considerable time discussing the subject. Yet a lack of European unity could jeopardise the EU’s ability to create a sufficiently robust framework. At the same time, a strong shared commitment stemming from a move towards federal-style integration could make the EU’s demands on matters such as regulatory equivalence problematic for the UK to comply with.

Discretion is, admittedly, a key part of diplomacy. But by avoiding rubbing shoulders with fellow heads of state and government when the champagne was flowing, Theresa May put more distance between her government and its negotiation partners. In many ways, Brexit is a consequence of the evolution of the EU because as competences were transferred a vocal minority of British Eurosceptics came to dominate the European debate in the absence of any pro-EU voices. It would be a mistake, following the triggering of Article 50, for British policy-makers to fail to understand the future direction of the EU.

This blog is part of the ERASMUS+ project AwarEU


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