Europe: Future scenarios

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In recent weeks, among the apocalyptic predictions concerning Europe’s future stood out those placing tremendous emphasis on the impact of the Dutch elections (March 15), of the French presidential elections (April) and of the legislative elections in Germany (autumn this year) on the future of the EU. Of course, also listed were the difficulties raised by the Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, or the financial crisis which returned in the Greek dossier, or the increasingly heated debate on the multi-speed Europe.

At least one of the defining elements of the so-called demise of the EU disappeared on March 15, with the results of the Dutch elections in which Wilders’s party – Eurosceptic, in fact announcing a referendum on abandoning the EU – finished second in terms of number of seats in Parliament, the electorate’s liberal orientation holding the majority (despite being split between several political parties). The Netherlands thus remains within the ranks of EU-backing states, the continental apocalypse losing one of its main pillars of media propagation. Of course, the others are left, but it’s no less true that a change of paradigm is noted – not yet finalised, but in process of taking shape – in the analysis on Europe’s future. Pessimism and resignation in the face of the Trump administration’s real or perceived hostility toward the EU, of the radical populist wave which allegedly threatens the traditional pro-European establishment in many states etc., are increasingly met with a sthenic and optimistic feeling about Europe’s future, with the public opinion’s conviction that everything is not lost at all, on the contrary, that the EU has unsuspected abilities to resist and survive and, moreover, to make progress on the already beaten path of European unity.

For the time being, this trend, as I pointed out, is not of priority, but it is ever more insistently making room for itself with the approach of the rest of the scheduled events deemed to be generating the end of the EU. Up next are the presidential elections in France, where polls crediting Marie LePen as the favourite in the first round fuelling fears that she could reach the Elysee Palace in May 2017 and trigger what she has already announced: the Frexit referendum, leaving the euro and abandoning economic globalism, simultaneously with a return to protectionism. In this case, one already notes the aforementioned trend of return of confidence, more precisely of positive reaction to the Cassandra cries which Euroscepticism got public opinion accustomed to in recent months. Thus, there is already talk of a Franco-German “grand bargain” in a new edition meant to trigger the reformatting of the EU, hence not just the survival of the organisation but its rebirth. This was allegedly the goal of the visit that Emmanuel Macron – one of the top French presidential candidates, whom the polls portray as winner of the runoff – paid to Berlin. What would this Franco-German “grand bargain” promoted by Macron consist of? Obviously, we are talking about the reaffirmation of the France-Germany duo, the engine behind the EU’s evolution from a six-member organisation to what it is today, a continent of 27 members, which has the most important GDP in the world and carries out a diplomatic and security action of high influence at international level, meant to create a model of prosperity and security in other parts of the world too.

Undoubtedly, the reformatting of the EU’s Franco-German “engine” takes time, not to mention the fact that lying ahead are events yet to take place from the list we presented at the beginning, among which the elections in France and Germany take centre stage. But, as the experts emphasise, extremely important is the priming of dialogue between Paris and Berlin on this issue, which Macron’s talks in Berlin, including with chancellor A. Merkel (March 16), are thought to have done. Jean Pierre Landau, one of the co-authors of a successful book on the euro currency and on the debate on the idea of European integration, recently pointed out that “the most important thing will be to re-establish a dialogue between Paris and Berlin on Europe. A Macron victory would make that possible.”

During Macron’s visit to Berlin last week, the idea that got through – according to those close to this event – was that an end must be put to the differences that the two states are having in what concerns European integration, the dispute over austerity (promoted by Wolfgang Schäuble in Germany) and the concept of financial-economic solidarity promoted by Paris in response holding a prominent position among them, having troubled Europe in recent years through successive crises and having generated the impression of German financial hegemony within the EU. What Paris proposes at this moment – and Macron was the bearer of this message to Berlin – is: “We want a new deal with Germany. If you talk about euro zone reform or migration it won’t work. But if you talk about the big three to five challenges, you can find compromises.” Defence cooperation, but also the promotion of a package of reforms in the direction of economic reconstruction could be included among the dossiers of this “new deal.” Top experts agree that this message has the chance of being positively received in Berlin, but the actions to implement it must also be fast, in order to have time to create the necessary weight with the German electorate by autumn. On the other hand, Germany is not at all in a comfortable situation today. Before Chancellor A. Merkel’s visit to Washington, at the end of last week, and her meeting with D. Trump (March 18), The Financial Times wrote the following about Germany’s unease: “If Ms Merkel looks out from the glass box of the chancellor’s office in Berlin there is trouble on every horizon. To the east are the ever more authoritarian and Germanophobic governments of Poland and Hungary. And further east a hostile Russia. To the west, is the US of Donald Trump; to the north the UK of Brexit. And to the south lie Italy and Greece, two troubled countries that increasingly blame Germany for their economic woes. Collectively, the situation threatens to revive an old German nightmare: the fear of being a large, isolated power at the centre of Europe.”

The scenario of a France-Germany “new deal” reveals in the current configuration yet another exigency to gain the necessary traction. It rather seems a scenario suited for a Germany that would elect Marin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate, bearing in mind E. Macron’s political movement’s left-wing affinities. Which was in fact noticed by the German conservative circles, one of those close to Schäuble, the feared finance minister who is the partisan of strict financial discipline on the continent, recently stating: “I’m not sure it’s the right time for this big vision, this grand bargain that the French talk about.”

However, worthy of note is the fact that Berlin, Chancellor Merkel herself, does not hesitate to discuss this scenario in order to find a solution to the crucial problem facing the EU now: survival. Proof of extraordinary political vision and wisdom in identifying the political compromise. And the results of her visit to Washington seem to strengthen even more A. Merkel’s determination to act ever more thoroughly in the direction of this Franco-German European “new deal.”