Brexit may dominate headlines, but Dahrendorf Research Associate Marcel Hadeed argues the way forward for the remaining 27 member states is a much more pressing issue.
Much attention has been absorbed by the spectacle that is the Brexit negotiations, but much more fundamental changes are in the pipeline for the EU27. The European Commission laid out a range of proposals  concerning the EU’s future in March of 2017. For the first time in the history of European integration, its direction and modus operandi were put into question. Tellingly, only one out of six proposals (five official, one unofficial) suggests the continuation of the modus operandi that has been termed “muddling through” for its lack of vision. The Commission has called upon the member states to deliberate and choose one path forward, putting them centre stage in the debate about Europe’s future.
There are good justifications for the necessity of drastic reform. 2016 was the year of the “Polycrisis ” and the bitter climax of the so-far crisis-ridden 2010s. It showed that (1) the challenges of the 21st century have reached European Union, and (2) the Union was unable to respond to them to the satisfaction of its citizens. External factors such as global financial flows, refugee and migration flows, cyber and hybrid aggression, and international insecurity have shaped the political agenda or are due to transform the EU in the near future—in the form of digitisation and demographic change. The inability to satisfactorily confront these challenges has caused considerable social and political upheaval within and between member states.
The time for decisions is fast approaching. Between the formation of a German government and the European parliamentary elections in 2019, only a year is left to set the course for the next European “government”—perhaps less considering the political deadlock that surrounds elections. With preparations for the multi-annual financial framework from 2021 gearing up, the time to discuss solutions to these issues is clearly now.
A difficult road ahead
The EU is politically ill-equipped to find solutions. Each crisis has produced camps of member states pitted against each other: virtually all policy fields “in crisis” in the European landscape are marked by deep trenches, be it in macroeconomic governance , migration , or security. Similar concerns can be expressed for forthcoming dossiers, including tax coordination and social rights. Today, even the fundamental values upon which the Union is predicated, such as the rule of law  and freedom of expression, are no longer uncontested.
Things hardly look better in domestic politics, where trust in institutions and politicians is incredibly low (although it’s increasing now). According to the latest Eurobarometer , in only 10 of 28 member states do national governments enjoy the trust of a majority of their citizens. While the EU is faring a bit better, reaching 50 percent trust in a total of 17 member states, it still averages out at only 47 percent across the Union. This dissatisfaction with both levels of the European governance system has contributed to the rise of populism that is currently challenging the established order.
Clearly the political preconditions for agreement among member states about the EU’s future are less than ideal, and the legislative window for this period is closing. Why would the Commission push the envelope now?
Admission of defeat
To present the white paper was an admission on the part of the Commission that things cannot continue as they are. It points to a general dysfunction in the system: disappointing delivery by the EU institutions and the reluctance of member states to provide them with the competencies needed to attain more efficient and effective policy responses creates the popular dissatisfaction the EU is currently witnessing. Thus, the failures to agree on policy responses to crises encourage political movements that make the resolution of future challenges ever harder.
The Commission has tried to bridge this gap by focusing on big-ticket items that generate a visible added value for European citizens. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared the body would be “big on big issues and small on the small ones ” and significantly reduce the number of proposals they feed into the legislative process. But this solution has had little effect on popular opinion.
Because much of the blame for not adequately responding to the “polycrisis” can be laid at the feet of the member states, the Commission’s attempt to make them commit to a common strategy for the future is understandable. Moreover, confronted with accusations of technocracy and opacity, the requested deliberations might even improve the EU’s public image and boost the legitimacy of the direction chosen in the end.
How to proceed from here
A main task of the deliberation process is narrowing the discrepancies between what is expected from Europe and what can be delivered. That will involve both lowering expectations and increasing EU capacities. For the former to succeed, politicians must finally be honest about the real costs of European integration in terms of autonomy, financial commitment, and solidarity. It also includes an end to the “Brussels bashing” and responsibility shirking of which national politicians are often accused.
To increase common capacities, the EU must pave the way towards easier agreements in the Council and thus do away with unanimity voting. The Treaty of the European Union provides the opportunity to introduce qualified majority voting in respective policy areas via so-called “passerelle” clauses  without necessitating Treaty changes.
We have come to a point where making the EU more efficient and capable comes at a cost for member states and national politicians. It means upending practices and prerogatives that are deeply engrained. But continuing them might plunge the EU and the member states into more crises, rocking a boat that is steering into nowhere without a compass.
The payoff, however, could be immense. By addressing the expectations-capacity gap from both sides, the reward could be not only a closer alignment between the EU and the people, but also a polity that is fit to confront the challenges that Europe is witnessing and will continue to witness. In the end, this might be the only true solution to overcoming the vicious cycle of disillusioned citizens and ineffective policy responses and thus the only chance for survival for the European Union in the 21st century.
Marcel Hadeed is a Dahrendorf Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.