European Union Future

European Union Future

The Future of the European Union

Introduction to European Union Future

The EU has come a long way since 1951. Its membership has grown to include most of Western Europe and it is poised to absorb much of Eastern Europe as well. It has developed a common body of law, common policies and practices, and a great deal of cooperation among its members. Its progress, however, has been uneven, with spurts of activity separated by dormant periods. After vigorous activity in the 1960s, it was not until the mid-1980s that the EU moved decisively to greater integration. In the 1990s concerns about the economic climate and evidence of popular disenchantment with the EU led to a slowdown in innovation. Both the Amsterdam and Nice treaties emphasized consolidation rather than addressing outstanding issues.

This erratic progress is in part due to two unresolved conflicts within the EU. The first is whether to give priority to “deepening” or “widening,” that is, whether to concentrate upon integrating the existing members further, or to welcome new members so that all can have an input into the kind of Europe they want. The second is the conflict between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism. Despite broad acceptance of the supranational principle, national governments have been reluctant to cede control over all policy areas to EU institutions. The development of three distinct EU pillars reflects this reality: Member states have declined to yield national control to supranational institutions over politically sensitive areas such as foreign policy and judicial affairs.

One of the most immediate challenges facing the EU is to secure the long-term success of the euro, an outcome that rests in part upon how acceptable it proves to world financial institutions and markets. Enlarging the EU by including Eastern Europe should, over time, improve economic prospects by extending the single market and stimulating economic growth and trade. The EU hopes that enlargement will raise the EU’s standing as the major European voice in world affairs and contribute to security and stability throughout Europe.

It has proven difficult, however, for the EU and its member states to forge a united position on the future of EU finances and structures after enlargement. Under existing criteria, the bulk of funds dispersed under the CAP to support agriculture-by far the largest element of EU spending-will have to be transferred to the new member states. This has alarmed poorer member states accustomed to receiving these funds, while richer members are reluctant to provide more CAP funding.

The budget issue and enlargement also present problems for the structure of the EU. They raise questions about the nature of the European Commission, how nations should be represented on the commission, and the extent of the commission’s authority and responsibility. As the power of the EU has grown, the organization has drawn criticism for being undemocratic, since the European Parliament has no real powers or control over decisions. Furthermore, the decision-making bodies, especially the commission, are not subject to any democratic check.

Uncertainties about the future of the EU are underlined by concerns among member states over the potential loss of their ability to act independently. A reluctance to cede national authority has been most pronounced in security policy. The EU failed to present a coherent front in either the Persian Gulf War or the former Yugoslavia when required to move from a common policy position to a common action. The desire of some countries to build a common defense policy is resisted by others that insist that at best a European defense force can only be supportive of and subordinated to NATO.

The EU’s decision to welcome 10 new member states in 2004 raised many questions about integration. In June 2004 the EU member states agreed to the final text of the first EU constitution, which was primarily developed to streamline EU institutions and facilitate enlargement. The final text was the result of more than two years of draft negotiations. Built on the founding treaties of the EU, the constitution further defined the roles and powers of EU institutions, such as the European Parliament. Ratification of the constitution required approval by all 25 member states (including the 10 new members), either by popular referendum or by parliamentary vote, by November 2006.

In May 2005, however, voters in France and Netherlands resoundingly rejected the proposed EU constitution, plunging the EU into its worst political crisis in decades. Soon thereafter several EU member states announced they would postpone their own votes on the constitution. At the EU summit meeting in June, EU leaders abandoned their plan to ratify the constitution by the November 2006 target date. EU president Jean-Claude Juncker described the proposed constitution as “no longer tenable” and called for a “period of reflection.” The summit also exposed deep rifts in the EU over economic integration. Budget talks broke down after leaders failed to resolve a bitter dispute that primarily involved Britain and France. Britain’s insistence on a reform of the CAP, which sets farm subsidies, was strongly opposed by France.

At the 2007 EU summit, however, the 27 member nations agreed on a treaty with governing rules for the organization that would replace the defunct constitution. The treaty created the position of president of the European Union and a stronger head of foreign policy to represent the EU on the international stage. It also sought to ease EU decision-making by requiring majority, rather than unanimous, approval of many policy decisions. European leaders signed the treaty in Lisbon, Portugal, in December 2007. Only Ireland planned to hold a popular vote on the treaty. Other EU members sought parliamentary ratification.

The difficulties surrounding the constitution raised further questions about what the EU is and what it wants to achieve. For almost all its life span, European integration has resulted from elite initiatives and agreements that did not involve national electorates. In the 1990s, however, the picture changed because of the single market, demands for more harmonization, and the Maastricht Treaty. Popular discontent with elite decisions increased, indicating that electorates could no longer be taken for granted. Almost all EU activity has focused on building the equivalent of a state encompassing much of Europe. Yet little effort has focused on how to create a European nation with a strong bond of identity across national borders, making European citizens feel they have much, including a future, in common. The effort to forge a European identity was expected to pose a major challenge in the 21st century.

Despite these challenges, the EU is unlikely to disappear. It has become a fact of life, with the countries enmeshed together in a host of cooperative practices. The EU has had great success in developing a culture of collaboration, and it occupies a place at the center of Europe. What is at issue is not its survival, but its form as it leads Europe in the 21st century.” (1)


Notes and References

  • Information about European Union Future in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • Guide to European Union Future

    More Topics about the European Union

    European Economic Area, European Union, European Union History (including European Union Early Cooperation, Benelux Customs Union, European Coal and Steel Community, European Economic Community, European Community, Expansion of the EC, Single European Act, Creation of the European Union, Treaty on European Union, Amsterdam Treaty, Treaty of Nice, Treaty of Lisbon, Monetary Union and EU Growing Accountability), EU Pillar System, EU Major Bodies Structure, European Commission, Council of the European Union, European Parliament, European Court of Justice, Court of Auditors, European Central Bank, Economic and Social Committee, Committee of the Regions, European Union Policies, Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy,

    EU Economic Differences, European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund, Cohesion Fund, European Investment Bank, European Monetary System, Economic and Monetary Union, EU International Relations, EU Expansion,

    EU and Non-European Nations and European Union Future.

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