Foto by European Council via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Future of Europe: From Rhetoric to Reality

In light of the special European summit meeting in Sibiu on Thursday, Federico Fabbrini reflects on the ongoing debate about Europe’s future, and which factors will likely shape it going forward.

On 9 May 2019, Europe Day, the European Council will host a special summit meeting in Sibiu, Romania, on the future of Europe. This special summit, which takes place just weeks ahead of the 10th European Parliament elections and at a critical moment in the Brexit process, was originally scheduled as the climax of a 2+ year reflection on the future direction of the European Union. The process was triggered by the European Commission with the publication of the white paper on “The Future of Europe” on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March 2017—exactly the time when the United Kingdom notified its intention to leave the EU under Article 50 TEU. It has facilitated a high—level conversation among EU institutions and national governments, bringing back to the table the question of the EU finalité.

In particular, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, launched a new working method in October 2017 known as the ‘Leaders Agenda’, which foresaw a more structured conversation among national leaders around thematic issues—including migration, trade, internal and external security, and economic affairs—with the aim of “resolving deadlocks or finding solutions to key political dossiers.” Moreover, under the leadership of the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, heads of state and government of the EU27 were invited to present their visions of the future of Europe in front of the European Parliament as build-up to the European Parliament elections. Hence, starting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in January 2018, during the 16 months until the European Parliament recessed for the new elections in April 2019, the prime ministers and presidents of 20 member states presented national priorities and programs on the future of Europe to the European Parliament. And the President of the European Commission, Jean—Claude Juncker used his last two state of the union addresses in 2017 and 2018 to call for a stronger, more united, and more democratic Union, and to make the case for a European sovereignty as a perspective on the future.

Nevertheless, with the partial exception of the European Pillar of Social Rights—a set of 20 principles designed to reaffirm the EU commitment towards a social Europe, which were solemnly proclaimed by the EU27 in Goteborg, Sweden, in November 2017, but which remain deprived of any legally binding value—no practical consequence has yet followed from the process of reflection on the future of Europe in terms of legal or institutional reform. Hence, the debate on the future of Europe has been powerful in rhetoric but week in reality.

Yet, since the process of reflection on the future of the EU was put in motion, the challenges for Europe have increased, not decreased. First, the legacy of the euro- and migration-crises have continued to haunt the EU, fostering divisions among the member states and fueling Euroscepticism among the population of several countries. This process was well reflected in the Italian elections of March 2018, which produced a sovereigntist government majority openly hostile to the functioning logics of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Moreover, the so-called rule of law crisis—the challenge to the values of democracy, respect of the rule of law and protection of human rights, which constitute the foundation of the EU—has worsened in a number of EU member states, particularly in central and eastern Europe, with Poland and Hungary now subject to the Article 7 TEU procedure. And while the EU has been united in handling the secession of the UK, geopolitical shifts, notably connected to the crumbling of the transatlantic alliance under the Trump Administration, have further strained the EU in the area of foreign affairs and trade.

Given this challenging situation, it would seem imperative for the European Council to finalise the debate on the future of Europe, including through concrete proposals for appropriate institutional reforms. Nevertheless, as I have argued more extensively elsewhere, it remains to be seen whether the heads of state and government will be able to do this—and in a format of 27. In fact, while path dependency remains a powerful driving force in European integration, creating institutional incentives to maintain the status quo, the conflicting visions of integration which have emerged among regional groupings of member states with an ever more explicit opposition between a market and a political vision of Europe seem to reduce the possibility of finding a common, consensual way forward for reforming the EU at 27. Even leaving aside the thorny question of the future position of the UK following its complicated withdrawal from the EU, the question on the future of Europe remains wide open, and the reality of the European Parliament elections as much as the rhetoric of the European Council will be a key factor in shaping it.


Federico Fabbrini is Full Professor of EU Law at Dublin City University (DCU) and Founding Director of the DCU Brexit Institute.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.