by Cezary Szczepaniuk
The European Union is a spectacular success story of the integration of European states that used to fight between each other in the past. It is considered the most advanced international organization in the world, with supranational decision making institutions, common trade, agricultural, social policies as well as foreign and security policy tools. On one side, for some Member States it is accomplishment for dreams of stabilization and economic progress, while for others it is an obsolete institution blocking sovereignty and development with its strict regulations. What are the challenges for an EU in the 21st century, now that it has grown up to 28 member states? What are the objectives of further developing the EU, while peace and stability was already achieved? What are the main threats to the existence and wellbeing of the EU member states?
First of all, the EU in the 21st century is the world’s largest economy. It is also the largest trading block with a GDP per head of €25,000 and 500 million inhabitants, gathering 28 different countries in one political, social and economic union. Regardless, it has to face a list of internal and external challenges which not answered may lead to a serious crisis. At the moment, the European Union is facing serious economic crises, caused by the global financial crisis in 2008, as well as faulty industrial policies, and, capital and labor movements on a global scale. The EU economy is becoming less competitive compared to the United States, Brazil or China. EU Member States are witnessing huge unemployment rates, especially among youth, while the labor markets have shifted towards developing countries. The single European market was launched in 1993 with success, but the 2008 crisis indicated that it didn’t prevent the EU economy from turmoil. Meanwhile, EU leaders who are negotiating the Free Trade Area with the US are trying to boost common economies and fight huge unemployment. Another problem are the differences in regional development, the effectiveness of the cohesion policy, in addition to resolving issues of how competitive the EU economy is in comparison with the BRIC countries.
Secondly, the European Union is witnessing a serious political crisis, apparent in its decreasing political legitimacy and complicated decision-making policies. In the recent European Parliament elections, polls have shown the lowest turnout in the history, equal to turnout in last elections in 2009, since the first elections of 1979. This is indicative of low levels of faith EU citizens have in the European Parliament’s power of changing their welfare situation. As an outcome of the crisis, European states are experiencing growing activity and support towards parties of the extreme right, who support eurosceptical populism. To this end, parties like Hungary’s Jobbik, National Front of Marine Le Pen in France or Party of Geert Wilders in Netherlands have gained serious influence in the new EP. The absence of charismatic European leaders like Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Charles de Gaulle or Jacque Delors are very well other symptoms of the political crisis in the European Union.
Thirdly, problems at the society level are emerging as a serious threat to the stability of European Union. Our societies are aging, while the lack of proper pro-natalist policies fail to encourage European families to have more children. This will undoubtedly have strong consequences in the quality of life, pensions of future generations, migration policies, and the competitiveness of entering the European Union. Among the initiatives towards creating common European citizenship, the Erasmus program remains most successful. Immigration policies in most European Union member states seems to fail and not provide appropriate codification of the law that would be beneficial for the EU economy and for potential migrants from outside the EU.
Jean Claude Piris, diplomat and politician said that “For decades, we, Europeans, have been accustomed to progress: peace, democracy, end of East-West division, improvement in economic and social prosperity, improved health standards, better protection of human rights, equality between men and women”. It is apparent that these times are gone and new challenges are knocking on the EU’s doors. Peace, which was so desired among European states after the war stricken time of 1945, seems to be threatened in light of the turmoil in Ukraine. The worsening condition of democracy in the European Union’s decision-making structures is just another indicator of the new challenges it will face in the coming years. Ultimately, if the EU fails to implement strong economic and political solutions, it will become less competitive in the global political economy. The EU has to speak with one unanimous voice while tackling global problems, responding to the Ukraine-Russia crisis, while also being mindful of military conflicts, like the civil war in Syria or Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All this may confirm that the EU project has lost sight of its main objectives, and the EU needs a new European renaissance.