What will the EU look like in 2050? This blog looks at a number of scenarios.
The EU currently has 27 members. 9 are candidates for accession, including the Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia& Herzegovenia. Turkey has been a candidate since 1999 and actual membership still seems remote. Even without Turkey the candidates will put a strain on the EU budget and on solidarity between existing members as budget allocations are redirected to the poorer new members. Ahead of this new enlargement it seems a good time to speculate what the EU might look like in 2050.
One scenario is that by 2050 the EU will have taken a decisive step towards nationhood. This can be defined in terms of identity – a situation where identification with the EU decisively trumps feelings of identity associated with the member state. Nationhood would also imply that policies traditionally associated with the nation, notably defence and security, but also fiscal policy, health, education and welfare spending would become in large part responsibilities of the EU. The EU would have to have its own tax and spending budget big enough not only to match these new responsibilities (rising from a budget level of less than 2% of EU GDP in recent years before the Ukraine invasion to say, arbitrarily, 10-15 %) but would also engage in even greater inter-state fiscal transfers and wield fiscal powers sufficient to complement the monetary powers of the ECB.
The main driver of such a scenario would probably be external. A collapse in confidence in the US would not only see the Euro emerge as the main alternative reserve currency to replace the dollar but would also provide the motivation for the EU to look to its own security and defence rather than rely on NATO or on security guarantees from the US.
A second scenario would be a Europe of concentric circles. The inner circle would consist of those member states willing to act as one nation, sharing powers in most key areas of collective choice and the outer would consist of those European countries wishing to associate with other European countries but not wishing to transfer responsibility for all important collective tasks to the EU. Turkey and the UK might be in such an outer circle. The idea of ‘associate' membership has been kicked around for a long time but has been rejected by applicant states who do not wish to be seen as ‘second class’ members. In this scenario such reservations are outweighed by a desire of those in the outer circle to retain functions that members of the inner circle are prepared to see exercised collectively.
Multi speed - closer cooperation
The idea of a multispeed Europe is sometimes conflated with that of concentric circles but is essentially a less formalised division between member states. Some members would wish to cooperate more closely in certain policy areas and serve as an advance guard for others who would catch up in due course.
The idea of a differentiated EU allows for member states to join in different areas of collective endeavour with no obligation or inference that those opting out would need to catch up, or that joining in collective decision taking in one area would imply joining in collective decision taking in other areas. It is sometimes dismissed as a ‘pick and choose’ approach to association but would provide one response to any increase in divergence between the member states over such issues as immigration, tax powers, budget allocations, and the green agenda.
A transnational future
In this scenario the EU would become more like a typical international organisation such as OECD or the Council of Europe. It would imply that the EU had been unable to meet the challenges of the next quarter century in its existing form and that the strains between member states had not been contained. The idea of ‘ever closer union’ would be placed in abeyance and decisions, for example about how to respond to frontier technologies and their regulatory fall-out, would be taken in a larger group of the like-minded. the EU's current strategy of pressing for 'first mover advantage', in international regulatory relationships would have been shown to produce poor results. Decisions would be taken by consensus (allowing for abstentions rather than unanimity). In these areas, EU law would no longer claim supremacy or direct effect.
In this scenario the EU would continue along its existing trajectory, avoiding discussion of the ultimate shape of ever closer union and justifying its role according to the results of its policies. Policies would be adjusted pragmatically and opportunistically – for example budget constraints might be circumvented by normalising a larger use of collective guarantees, as in the case of financing the Ukraine.
Theme park Europe
Europe is full of cities with a wonderful past, Prague, Budapest, Paris, Rome, Florence, to mention just a few. Increasingly such cities are becoming hollowed out for ordinary living as tourism takes over their historic centres. In this scenario Europe goes the same way. It becomes a service economy for tourism and retirees while those Europeans who are future oriented move outside Europe to more dynamic centres where they can live more enterprising lives. Despite EU efforts to support industries of strategic importance for the future, scientific, and technological advance move elsewhere, including to China and India. Europe has faced one such geo-economic shift in the past when in the 16th century there was a shift from a Mediterranean focus to an Atlantic seaboard focus. The geo-economic shift was followed by a geo-political shift as European empires spread around the world. Such shifts are difficult to read as they happen but the focus of today's geo-economic changes could well be on momentum outside Europe.
The final scenario is that the EU dissolves, unable to meet the policy tensions in areas such as budget policy, immigration, environmental policy and security and left behind by geoeconomic and geopolitical shifts. In addition, continuing Income disparities between member states would undermine the idea that membership stands for fair treatment. As a result of policy failure, the EU would be unable to base its support on the successful outcomes and results of common policy initiatives while lacking the alternative of a base of popular consent. The Founding Fathers of the American constitution were afraid that the post-independence confederation would break up into several different groups of states. Dissolution of the EU might see different smaller groupings emerge.
Which of these possible future scenarios is more probable lies partly in the hands of the member states but also depends on external factors. The internal politics of ever closer union is shifting in unpredictable ways. Internally, the policy strains mean that justifying ever closer union by the successful outcome of its collective policies could become increasingly difficult. The absence of a basis of popular consent for the EU’s institutions will be an increasing weakness. Germany and France have provided the main integrating force until now. If they weakened their support because, for example, Germany was no longer prepared to bankroll an expanded EU, and if France succumbed to its traditional bilateralist tendencies, then muddling along becomes the most probable. But external factors may be more decisive. If authoritarian states such as China and Russia maintain an assertive challenge, and if confidence in the US declines, then the incentive to move towards the kind of federalism associated with the idea of nationhood becomes the more probable.