Will the EU Survive? Brexit Not the Only Threat to the Bloc's Future

A journalist poses with a copy of the Brexit Article 50 bill in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, January 26. Reuters

The EU celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding Rome treaty on Saturday with a summit of the continent's leaders in Italy. Some six decades after that landmark document of European unity was signed, the union is facing one of its worst-ever setbacks with the UK's planned triggering on March 29 of Article 50, commencing formal exit negotiations between London, Brussels and the governments of the remaining 27 states.

Yet, damaging as Brexit will be, it will by no means solely define the future of the EU. Instead, the UK's pending exit is just one of a series of potentially existential challenges now confronting the bloc in a time or troubles. These range from internal pressures, such as the ongoing danger of Greece needing to leave the Eurozone, to external threats like an emboldened Russia, which recently commemorated the third anniversary of its annexation of Crimea.

At this pivotal moment for the Brussels-based club, the pressures and stakes in play are therefore huge and historic, and the clock is ticking for big decisions to be made. This is especially over Brexit given that the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, wants to conclude an overall deal with London, should that be possible, at a turbo-charged pace by October 2018.

Ways to Evolve

Amidst the frenzy of day-to-day events, Brussels is facilitating a fundamental debate about the union's future. Some longstanding EU members that signed the Rome Treaty in 1957, including France and Germany, would like to forge consensus around a new integration agenda. Yet, others, including many more recent accession states in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, are sceptical about this pathway. Moreover, the latter fear an increasingly multi-speed Europe will see them left behind and potentially lead to the EU's further dismemberment, or even complete disintegration.

In this context, the ambition of the Rome event, in the words of European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, is to see "the remaining member states fall in love with each other again and renew their vows with the EU." While this is a big stretch, the summit will come as a morale booster to the union.

This is especially so following last week's Dutch election—which saw the right-wing, populist, anti-EU Freedom Party fail in its bid to emerge as the largest single party in the nation's lower house. This outcome has boosted hopes in Brussels that the upcoming French and German elections will also see slowing momentum for conservative, anti-establishment, euroskeptical groups.

Given the multiple disagreements about the EU's future direction amongst member states, Juncker has sponsored a paper that outlines five main scenarios for how the bloc could evolve. The timeline for finalising decisions potentially extends from now until June 2019, when the United Kingdom could have left the EU, and the next slate of European Parliament elections are scheduled. Brussels' roadmap of initiatives and summitry includes discussion on the future social dimension of EU integration; deepening of European monetary and economic union; continental security and defence; and the EU's finances with one of its biggest financial contributors (the United Kingdom) set to leave.

Five main scenarios have been drawn up ranging from the EU retreating to no more than the current economic single market all the way through to the remaining 27 member states deciding to do much more together, reigniting European integration. Of these futures, the status quo scenario of "carrying on" is probably the most likely to be realised. This would see the EU continuing on a broadly similar trajectory whilst seeking to deliver on the Bratislava Declaration agreed by all 27 non-UK member states last year. This manifesto includes better tackling migration and border security, beefing up external security and defence, and greater stress on enhancing economic and social development, especially for young people across the continent who have been badly impacted by the fall-out from the 2008-09 international financial crisis, not least in countries like Spain and Greece.

However, that muddling through option is by no means certain in the current economic and political context. Further setbacks could instead see either a "nothing but the single market" or "doing less more efficiently" scenario come to pass. In either of these, the current scale of EU functions will be rolled back with limited resources focused instead on a smaller number of policy areas, including the economic union.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives at an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9. Reuters

Implosion Possible?

Based on current trends, the least likely scenario to be realised is "doing much more together." This would see all 27 remaining states sharing more power and resources, with decisions agreed faster and enforced much more quickly. More plausible, however, is the "those who want to do more" scenario, which would see more coalitions of the willing emerging in select policy areas to take forward the integration agenda on a flexible, rather than across-the-board basis. A model here could be the Eurozone where some 19 of the current 28 EU members have decided to enter into a monetary union with the euro as the single currency.

Perhaps inevitably, the worst-case scenario of the bloc imploding is not included in the five futures for the EU. Nonetheless, given the build-up of challenges now facing the union—both Brexit and beyond—this outcome is being reluctantly contemplated across the continent. As European Council President Donald Tusk said last month, the threats facing the bloc are now "more dangerous than ever" and could yet grow worse through either internal and/ or external pressures intensifying in 2017 or beyond.

Taken overall, the Rome summit comes as a welcome respite for the EU after months of turmoil. The bloc's forthcoming decisions over key questions such as deeper integration and an increasingly multi-speed union will define not just its internal and external character, but also its prospects for survival, potentially well into the 2020s.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.