In September 2016, European Union leaders gathered for the first time in 43 years without the British prime minister at their summit table. The aim was clear: Produce a roadmap that would avoid a repeat of Brexit, and help the bloc plan for life after British membership.
The Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap committed the remaining 27 EU members to reforming their imperfect union. Two and a half years later, the EU has succeeded in stopping other countries from joining the Brits in heading for the exit door. The political chaos unleashed in the U.K. by Brexit has acted to dampen calls for other national departures.
While Brexit is yet to happen, leaders are gathering on Thursday at an informal summit in Sibiu, Romania, to set the course for the bloc’s future. POLITICO assesses whether the EU lived up to its goals for improving the bloc.
Communicating with citizens
Leaders promised: “We need to improve the communication … We should inject more clarity into our decisions. Use clear and honest language. Focus on citizens’ expectations, with strong courage to challenge simplistic solutions of extreme or populist political forces.”
Report card: The EU has engaged in a large-scale citizen consultation program, under the encouragement of French President Emmanuel Macron and a more than €30 million campaign to encourage citizens to vote. EU leaders, however, have failed at the bigger picture of discouraging support for “extreme or populist political forces.” Since the Bratislava summit, Italy has elected a government composed of two populist parties, while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán turned increasingly authoritarian, leading to his Fidesz party being suspended from the European People’s Party — the dominant center-right political family. In the EU’s own Eurobarometer survey from April, 33 percent of respondents said their first emotion when thinking about the EU is “doubts,” while 28 percent said they think of “hope” and just 27 percent said “confidence.”
Trust in the EU
Leaders promised: “An attractive EU they can trust and support.”
Report card: Support for the EU is rising across the Continent. More citizens now see their country’s EU membership as a good thing than at any point in the last 25 years. In April’s Eurobarometer — which surveyed nearly 28,000 people across all member countries — 68 percent said that their country had “on balance benefitted” from EU membership. Ten percent of respondents said EU membership is “a bad thing.” Disapproval of membership has decreased over the past six months in 20 countries. The majority of Europeans (51 percent) also said they feel “their voice counts in the EU,” a trend that emerged in 2018. Before the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in 2016, just 37 percent of Europeans said their voice counted. But that does not mean trust levels are high: Overall, just 42 percent of Europeans say they trust the EU, according to data from Eurobarometer’s November survey.
Leaders promised: “Ensure political control over developments in order to build our common future.”
Report card: Internally, the EU’s foreign policy is widely derided as bumbling and ineffective — the result of the bloc often seeking, and failing, to achieve unanimity among the 28 member countries to take decisive action on any given issue. U.S. President Donald Trump’s combativeness and general disdain for the transatlantic relationship has knocked the EU off its footing, even as it faces new challenges from the East, notably Russia and China.
The EU has worked tirelessly to preserve the Iran nuclear deal after Trump’s unilateral withdrawal, but the agreement remains in jeopardy. On Russian aggression in Ukraine, the EU’s sanctions have proven ineffective and the Minsk peace process remains stalled. The EU has made some progress in working with China, especially on trade in the context of Trump’s tariffs. But on major world trouble spots like Syria and Venezuela, the EU is simply not a significant voice — despite aspiring to be the world’s conscience on fundamental rights. The EU’s flourishing relationship with Japan, including a new free-trade agreement implemented this year, is a bright spot.
Leaders promised: “Never to allow return to uncontrolled flows of  and further bring down number of irregular migrants. Ensure full control of our external borders and get back to Schengen. Broaden EU consensus on long-term migration policy and apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity.”
Report card: The EU has reduced irregular migration numbers through a series of bilateral deals designed to reduce human smuggling and return people who do not qualify for asylum to their home or third countries. There is partial control at EU borders, but also only partial solidarity with Italy, Greece and Spain, the frontline countries that continue to bear most of the burden of dealing with new arrivals. More than any other issue, migration concerns have driven the increased support enjoyed by nationalist and Euroskeptic parties across the continent.
EU countries have failed to reach a deal on reform to the Dublin regulation, which dictates that the country where migrants arrive in the EU must take responsibility for them, and there is no sign this will be resolved in 2019. The Dutch and others complain that secondary movements of migrants within the EU are still very high. As for Schengen, the migration crisis prompted a number of countries such as German and Austria to reintroduce border checks, which are ostensibly temporary but continue to be extended. MEPs have called for stricter limits on intra-Schengen controls.
Arrivals via the Central Mediterranean route have decreased by 90 percent, a success on the face of it, but the Libyan coast guard takes migrants back to the Northern African country where there is evidence that they often are tortured.
A plan for processing centers in Northern African countries, so-called disembarkation platforms, brokered at a marathon European Council summit in June last year never got off the ground.
Defense and security
Leaders promised: ”[To] do everything necessary to support Member States in ensuring internal security and fighting terrorism.” Specifically they promised to intensify information exchange, work harder against hybrid threats (often digital), work toward making national defense forces interoperable, and to “start implementing the joint declaration with NATO immediately.”
Report card: Nearly all EU governments subsequently agreed to launch a new military pact (known as PESCO) and voted to increase EU defense research spending. The EU opened a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Finland and invested in border control. However, the overall funding picture is damning. Defense is one of the few fields where the EU has made real progress since the U.K.’s decision to leave (partly because London’s objection to more military coordination has been dimmed) but it seems that nobody expects the EU to be able to protect itself without the help of the Americans if problems arise. At least not in the short term.
Economy and jobs
Leaders promised: To fight youth unemployment and “create a promising economic future for all, safeguard our way of life and provide better opportunities for youth.”
Report card: Unemployment ranges from 1.9 percent in the Czech Republic to 18.5 percent in Greece. The EU’s average youth unemployment has fallen from 18.7 percent to 14.9 percent since the Bratislava declaration. That’s a long way from the 58 percent youth unemployment rate in Greece in 2013, yet far too high for a union offering a “Youth Guarantee,” which is supposed to ensure everyone between ages 15 and 24 has a job or education placement. The Juncker Commission has made specific efforts to push national governments to invest more in education and training as well as in a new “social pillar” of European rights, but the results are haphazard at best. Europe has no minimum wage standard nor guaranteed unemployment benefits.
Economic growth remains disappointing. While 2018 GDP growth rates topped 4 percent in eight countries, only two (Malta and Poland) will match that in 2019, according to the Commission’s own forecast. Growth will be 1.3 percent or less in Germany, the U.K., France and Italy, which together account for two thirds of the EU economy. By comparison, the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019 and the World Bank predicts a global growth rate of 2.9 percent.
President Juncker did deliver the massive European Fund for Strategic Investments (also known as the Juncker Investment Plan) in record time. EFSI claims €389.8 billion in investments so far, and says 929,000 small and medium-sized businesses will benefit from its investments.
As leaders gather in Romania’s Sibiu to consider a new strategic agenda, the EU can point to progress towards the ambitions set out in the Bratislava Declaration. But despite those achievements, significant challenges remain. Euroskeptic or Eurocritical political forces are powerful in several member countries, and are set to gain over 250 seats (around a third) in the May 2019 European Parliament election, according to POLITICO’s projection.
Problems include slowing economic growth, holes in national tax systems, and a lack of secure jobs in many EU countries for young people in line with their increasing levels of education; as well as persistent lack of trust in political institutions, the slow pace of defense and security cooperation, the continuing headache of Brexit, and continuing threats to the EU’s cherished rules-based multilateral order from Trump, China and Russia.
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