The future of the European Union, and the world

The fate of 500 million Europeans as a mirror for all our futures

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Jean-Claude Juncker, the leader of the European Union’s executive body, has taken on the unenviable task of reconsidering the future of the EU on its 60th anniversary. He and his colleagues have approached the mass of issues using a classic futurist trick, spinning out a set of contrasting scenarios, five in this case. They set the stage with a prefatory enumeration of the challenges confronting the EU: new economic stresses, the rise of new technologies, immigration, terrorism, and the growing skepticism about the ‘European project’ across the member states. Basically the front page of any major European newspaper.

Here’s a summary of the five scenarios from the website of Eurochild, a network of organizations working with and for children throughout Europe:

Eurochild’s summary of the White Paper on the Future of Europe

Carrying On: In this scenario, the EU27 sticks to its course, implementing and upgrading its current agenda, in line with the 2016 Bratislava Declaration. The focus is on jobs, growth and investment by strengthening the single market/single currency; and on the fight against terrorism. The speed of decision-making relies on Member States’ capacity to overcome differences of views to achieve long-term priorities.

Nothing but the single market: The single market becomes the main “raison d’être” of the EU27, while withdrawing from other areas e.g. migration, security or defence (or social). In this scenario there is less regulation, but capacity to act collectively is reduced.

Those who want more do more: This scenario proposes the idea of a “2-speed Europe”, with enhanced cooperation between Member States who want to do more in specific areas, such as defence, security, or social matters, and with the possibility for other Members to join at a later stage. In this scenario, the rights of EU citizens vary depending on whether they live in a country that has chosen to do more or not.

Doing less more efficiently: To increase effectiveness, the focus is reduced to a limited number of areas to be agreed by the EU27, such as innovation, trade, migration, where the EU can have more added value. This scenario results in a clearer division of responsibilities, but increased difficulties in agreeing on prioritisation.

Doing much more together: Member States commit to deepen the social and economic basis of the EU27 by sharing more power, resources and decision-making with greater coordination in fiscal, social and tax matters. Citizens have more rights derived from EU law, but there is an increased risk of scepticism towards the legitimacy of the EU vis a vis national authorities.

Regrettably, the White Paper does not include any explanation of how each of these scenarios would actually be implemented, nor does it provide any clarification in terms of the process to be followed. What seems to be clear is that the document drafted by the Commission is aimed at encouraging Member States and the European Council to take the lead in the debate.

Another way of thinking about the scenarios is a matrix, which may be where the scenario developers started¹:

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I’ve seen a great deal of open criticism of the report, such as this:

Josef Janning, Scenarios for Europe: Deciphering Juncker’s White Paper | European Council on Foreign Relations

The paper reads like a run-of-the-mill think-tank report from ten years ago, featuring a hefty dose of disillusionment with EU reform and failed referendums. In fact, the White Paper falls short of laying out any specific plan or recommendations for what to do next. Instead, it provides scenarios that seem to scare the reader about what could happen to the EU over the coming years, while failing to state what might actually trigger the alternative futures it sketches.

Even Janning credits the commission for attempting to triangulate on the problems at hand, and that each scenario does ‘point out areas of constructive action for the future’. But his earlier criticism — the lack of a plan of what to do next — is, at first glance, damning. However, it may be a wise course to take since there a great number of unknowables in the winds.

We need to dream of One World, a union of all the people on Earth, excluding none, and not limited to any specific continent, confederation, or alliance.

And we know from cognitive science (thank you, Daniel Kahneman) that asking a group to go off and look into a problem can lead to miserable results if their findings are boiled down too quickly to a single proposed course of action. The activities associated with making a pitch, as opposed to laying out all the salient information for examination, narrow options rather than opening them up.

So Juncker and Co. may be taking a prudent course, even when critics call for a recommendation. But I agree with the criticism of not spinning out deeper scenarios, like what series of conjectural events might lead to the members of the EU choosing the Looser/Less option in the range of alternative futures? I could imagine a series of exits from the EU — like Brexit, Grexit, and so on — where the end state would be Looser/Less. But I would like to read those missing stories to understand the various Europes envisioned.

The vision for a united states of Europe may be too stunted for this century, and the reasons for its decline may be more complex than an apparent caving in to the immediate geopolitical and economic pressures of today’s world order, or reneging on the principles that motivated its formation.

I don’t buy any end state based on Tighter/More at this point, like the easily dismissed ‘Doing much more together’. My bet is that trends converge toward Less Europe, falling somewhere between ‘Nothing but the single market’ and ‘Doing less more efficiently’. ‘Nothing but the single market’ is the minimal variant of ‘Doing less more efficiently’ anyway, so it may be that a short list of other non-contentious, non-nationalistic issues — like the metric system and telephone interoperability — would be lumped together, while studiously avoiding problematic areas like immigration, defense, and a single currency.

The vision for a united states of Europe may be too stunted for this century, and the reasons for its decline may be more complex than an apparent caving in to the immediate geopolitical and economic pressures of today’s world order, or reneging on the principles that motivated its formation.

Instead, consider that this is the twenty-first century, a very different time than 1957. We need a new dream to underlie our theories of political order, human rights, and the intersection of the two.

We need to dream of One World, a union of all the people on Earth, excluding none, and not limited to any specific continent, confederation, or alliance. To the extent that the European Union was erected in opposition — in competition — to the Soviet Union, its mission was defensive and antagonistic.

I’m not suggesting that the Soviet Union was some noble state; not at all. But I think we need our dreams of future union to be aspirational and universal, not nightmares spun of hatred, xenophobia, or us-versus-them tribalism.

And of course, I am failing in the same way Juncker’s report has done: I am not telling a plausible story leading to a new world order based on One World principles. I’ll have to get on that, soon.

  1. I’d love to find some description of the process involved in the report’s development, but I haven’t found one yet.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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