While Europe found itself in a new triangular relationship and holding more and more divergent views with the USA’s Trumpism on one side and Russia’s Putinism on the other, the composition of fish fingers and chocolate spread became a popular discussion topic in the press and amongst EU Member States. The increasingly tense global debates and increasingly childish debates within the EU created a vacuum which could be easily filled by populists or nationalists. Within that context the Commission took a leap forward by trying to focus the debate on a real question: the future of Europe. Since the long-forgotten Laeken European Council in 2001 launched a European Convention on the Future of Europe there has not been a broad debate on future paths for Europe.
Nobody has contested that the five options laid down in the White Paper reflect the most important signposts for the future. It is easy to criticise the fact that the Commission has not come out for one of them and has not delineated their impact on major policy areas. And, since the European Constitution was abandoned in 2005, not much reform progress can be reported. The decade under Commission President Barroso was characterised by standstill, particularly in the social area. The Juncker Commission’s relaunched debate now includes the future for social issues as well but the conclusions of the extended consultation on a European Pillar of Social Rights are not yet released (probably late April). When Juncker writes “we must once again look forward”, it sounds like an echo of Dante’s Divine Comedy where the sinners are damned to look backward. We have to move away from any simplistic choice between “more” or “less” Europe when it is gridlocked.
The European Parliament discussed two reports on the future of Europe in February, but a clear focus or message were missing. The EP did not have the courage to say that Europe’s dilemmas are solvable only if the EU’s modus operandi is changed and the institutional framework is renewed. Even in the event of failure, a debate on treaty change could help to clarify what’s really at stake. The future of Europe is not only based on the Juncker options, but also on a profound overhaul of the current policy framework. The absence of a social dimension to the prevailing austerity policy has had a dramatically asymmetrical impact on Northern and Southern Member States. The trend towards economic and social convergence has reverted to one of divergence, a widening of differences in economic and social performance and social justice.
As the next European elections are still quite some time away (mid-2019), a clear message on Social Europe is not yet required. Often, just ahead of the European elections, the lack of Social Europe is perceived, for instance in 2009, when the French Presidency had a close look at the yield in the area of social legislation and concluded that it was too meagre. France decided to add its stone to the social pillar and pushed hard for a renewal of the Directive on European Works Councils. Nowadays, a further strengthening of the EWC Directive is necessary, but the Commission has a blind spot on workers’ participation. For more than a decade, the Directive on a European Company Statute – initially drafted to protect national industrial relation systems – has turned into an instrument to circumvent workers’ participation in company boardrooms. Recently, the Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee decided to have the first general debate on this issue since the first direct elections in 1979. However, again the EP seems to be unable to draw clear conclusions on this topic.
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In this context, it is quite positive that the Commission has launched a debate that allows us to look at the future of different policies – not only workers’ participation, but also gender equality, posting of workers or other important topics – in relation to the five scenarios. What kind of progress would a Europe of different speeds and concentric circles or variable geometry effect? It would be perfectly conceivable to imagine better workers’ participation in the Eurogroup or in the group of 18 Member States which have a form of workers’ representation on company boards. It was not by accident that Jürgen Habermas introduced a discussion between Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel and French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron about the future of Europe on 16.03.17 at the Hertie School of Governance with a comment on a “Europe of different speeds”. In the past Habermas has repeatedly underlined that ‘the Eurozone would delimit the natural size of a future core Europe’, meaning a ‘closer fiscal, economic and social policy co-operation’. An ambitious social policy agenda nowadays is closely linked to the option of core Europe.
It sounds banal, but different speeds would be better than no speed at all. Different speeds was the only Juncker scenario left after excluding the now unrealistic federal scenario and the two unconvincing ‘muddling through’ and ‘standstill’ options as well as the mere single market option. Different speeds would allow for more and better social policy in the Eurogroup which is preferable to the endless deadlock. However, scrutinising the form integration should take is not sufficient. Political will to go forward is needed as can be observed with the financial transaction tax which is stuck in Council. All kinds of arguments are put forward to reject the multiple speed and concentric circles approach. For instance, it is argued that it would split European citizens into first- and second-class citizens. However, looking at current concentric circles, it is not always clear which one is first class and which one second: From a security perspective, are citizens better off inside or outside Schengen? From an employment perspective, are citizens better off inside the Euro area where unemployment is higher or in the EU28? This terminology of first and second class only obscures the necessary debate on the paths we need to explore. The multi-speed option, which was not the aspiration of many citizens but becomes a necessity after Brexit, will leave Europe in a quite different shape. What scholars have repeated for decades on the ‘irreversibility’ of European integration has not survived its first real test, the British secession. A Europe of different speeds gives the right to all Members to join core policy areas, but does not obligate them. This new Europe will be multifaceted and multifarious come what may.