Three decades after Maastricht, the EU remains a work in progress. While the political constellation in 2022 seems favorable to reforms in several policy areas, the union could easily once again be thrown into crisis mode.
The Maastricht Treaty signed thirty years
ago, on February 7, 1992, was the last big gamble of European
integration. Then French president François Mitterrand had convinced
Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor at the time, to sacrifice the D-mark
on the altar of European unity in order to make Germany’s reunification
more palatable to its neighbors.
Contrary to the expectations of many
experts, the euro became a success. But neither of the two leaders
anticipated that the monetary union would increase rather than diminish
Germany’s influence or that the project would require major repair work
during the financial crisis some years later.
Three decades on, the era of radical
innovation through treaty change is gone. In an enlarged and more
heterogeneous EU, governments struggle to find common ground. Also, as
populist parties now have significant support, substantial treaty change
could trigger multiple referendums with unforeseeable results.
Governments hate playing Russian roulette. However, the need to develop
EU policies remains and so the focus has shifted to secondary
legislation, soft law instruments, and financing tools.
Today, the EU reform agenda resembles a
series of loosely connected building sites, including the monetary
union, economic governance, climate, digital innovation, migration, and
The Conference on the Future of Europe was
meant to mark a return to a comprehensive approach to EU reforms in
addition to being an experiment in deliberative democracy.
The citizens’ panels brought forth numerous ideas, but many will not
survive scrutiny by governments. The final report in May 2022 might give
an impetus to reforms but will not change the dynamic described above.
Progress is likely to remain compartmentalized and piecemeal.
The constellation of political forces
appears more favorable to EU reforms in 2022 than in recent years. If
Emmanuel Macron is reelected as president of France, the four biggest
countries will all have strongly pro-European leaders. The group of
so-called frugals (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden), which
previously fought for restrictive fiscal policies, might be less of a
constraint, as the Netherlands and Austria have softened their stances.
The time between the French parliamentary election in June 2022 and
Italian general elections in 2023 could thus become a window of
opportunity, in which a number of important dossiers can be moved
The climate transition
will remain at the top of the agenda. After setting ambitious targets
and delivering a compelling political narrative in the form of the
European Green Deal, the emphasis has now shifted to implementation.
Key legislative files for delivering faster emission cuts are set to be
negotiated throughout 2022. With the focus on implementation come far
greater political challenges. The current gas price spike already shows the strong headwinds ahead, just as the urgency of progress increases steadily.
Economic governance will also receive a
lot of attention, as the fiscal rules suspended during the COVID-19
crisis will come back into force after this year. Major changes in the
parameters of the fiscal pact seem unlikely, but greater flexibility in
their application could facilitate new investments in climate, digital,
In reforming the Schengen system, EU
member states will replace the European Commission in the driving seat
and emphasize tougher controls over external borders. The demand by
Southern European governments that the burden of hosting asylum seekers
be shared remains the biggest hurdle in reforming the EU’s asylum
When it comes to security and defense, in March 2022 the EU will adopt the Strategic Compass,
a tool designed to give impetus to the development of these policies.
However, the EU is still far from being a credible geopolitical player.
The Commission-led efforts to enhance resilience by reducing asymmetric
dependencies, diversifying supply chains, and protecting the EU from
external coercion assume even greater urgency in this context.
While the alignment of political forces
appears more propitious than in recent years, it is impossible not to
see the dark clouds looming over Europe.
After two years, the pandemic
still dominates European politics, consuming much of the energy of
political leaders and distracting from other priority concerns. There is
hope that the virus might finally become endemic, but uncertainties
remain. While economic risks have receded, the societal damage will
burden the EU for a long time.
Russia’s aggressive behavior has brought Europe to the brink of war. Rather than “learning the language of power” as HR Borrell proudly announced at the beginning of his mandate, the
EU is relapsing into the old dependency on U.S. leadership. For the
moment, Washington may help manage the crisis. However, this dependence
could become problematic given the uncertain prospects for constructive
U.S. policies beyond 2024.
Finally, the rule of law deficits in Hungary and Poland
put the very foundation of the EU as a community of law into question.
If neither elections nor the deployment of legal and political
instruments by EU institutions remedy the situation, tensions will
further rise and poison European cooperation in various policy areas.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the
current constructive disposition of most governments will allow for
genuine progress to be made in the coming months, or whether the EU will
again be thrown into full crisis mode by external or internal
challenges. Either way, 2022 promises to be an interesting year.
Hover over the blue highlighted
text to view the acronym meaning
over these icons for more information
No Comments for this Article