Where do we go from here? Designing the future of Europe

The future is created. By us. The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe invites politicians and citizens alike to focus on what they want for the future. 

Ann Mettler
24 April 2017

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave a speech in Rome, Italy, on March 25, 2017 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Xinhua/Press Association. All rights reserved.In an unexpected but healthy and much-overdue way, Brexit is helping to focus European minds on the future. Following the annus horribilis of 2016, which included a virulent mix of terrorism, populism and geopolitical instability, the time seems ripe for an honest reflection among the remaining 27 Members of the European Union on what they still want to do together – and what perhaps not. 

Rather than being the 'cheerleader in chief' for more and deeper integration, the European Commission took the recent 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome as an occasion to launch a White Paper on the Future of Europe. Conceived as the birth certificate of the EU27, this bold document offers a set of exciting innovations, which warrant attention at home and abroad.

Firstly, the White Paper presents five scenarios for the EU27 in the year 2025 – which range from 'carrying on' and enabling 'those who want more to do more' to refocusing by 'doing less more efficiently'. A genuine political novelty, the European Commission in this instance refrained from offering its own view – or most favoured scenario.

This (deliberate) choice has been puzzling to some but warmly welcomed by most. For an institution well accustomed to immediate criticism for whatever proposals it puts forward, the response has been unequivocally positive. Why? Because the use of scenarios has achieved its purpose: politicians and citizens alike have started to take a step back from the day-to-day and really started to focus on what they want for the future.

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Screenshot: The European Story - Prezi by the European Political Strategy Centre.Only when one knows where the journey is supposed to be headed can policy makers start to 'backcast' and identify which set of decisions are required to get closer to their goals. For instance, if Europe wanted to focus on what is foremost among citizens' concerns, namely security and migration, it should follow that these areas call for further political attention – including refocusing budget priorities. By the same token, if there is consensus that we want 'nothing but the single market', which is one of the scenarios of the White Paper, then these areas would of course receive little or no focus.  

Secondly, the White Paper has also made clever use of foresight and anticipation. For example, the document rightly highlights that Europeans will soon represent a falling share of the world's demography and economy. Whereas in 1900 Europeans made up 25% of the global population, by 2060 that share will have fallen to about 4%. The same is true with Europe's share of global GDP, which shrank from about 26% in 2004 to 22% by 2015. In fact, by 2050 no single EU Member State will represent more than 1% of world GDP.

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Screenshot from The European Story - Prezi by the EPSCThese seismic changes will also be seen in other policy areas, like defence, where the major spenders such as the United States, China, India or Russia are set to at least double their respective expenditure. One can extrapolate from such projections how the global balance of power might change and – without being a pessimist –foresee that these changes are unlikely to strengthen Europe's hard power in the world. But the larger lesson may well be that Europe can only achieve more by acting together because any single actor – even the largest among EU member states – is unlikely to achieve much at the global level on its own.

Finally, the White Paper is conceived as starting a policy process, animating reflection and debate over a defined period of time. How often have papers, conferences and political proclamations been little more than a 'flash in the pan', receiving heightened attention one day, only to be forgotten the next?

The so-called 'White Paper process' is purposefully designed to sustain the interest and facilitate the discourse between now and the European Parliament elections in June 2019. Five discussion papers are in the pipeline, starting with the 'social dimension of Europe' in April and culminating, by the end of June, in a paper on the 'future of EU finances.' In between there will be reflections on 'harnessing globalisation', the 'deepening of Economic and Monetary Union' and the 'future of European defence.'  The anticipation is that these thematic papers can pick up where the White Paper has left off and put some 'meat' on the strategic choices that are needed in areas of key priority to the EU27.

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Screenshot from The European Story - Prezi by the EPSCIt was Eleanor Roosevelt who said 'the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.' Just like the signatories of the Treaties of Rome believed that a Europe of peace and freedom, a Europe of democracy and prosperity, a Europe of opportunity and rights, was possible to build from the ashes of war, this generation will need to define its own ambitions, goals and dreams.

What do we want to stand for in 2025? How will we sustain a way of life that sets the global standard for quality, stability and social protection? And how can we remain masters of our own destiny in a more unpredictable world, with our declining share of global population and GDP?

These are not easy questions to answer but it's about time someone posed them and opened them up to a wider debate. The future doesn't just happen, It is created. By us. 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not necessarily of the European Commission.  

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