A turning point will come after next year’s European Parliament elections, where the dominant EPP and S&D groups are expected to suffer serious losses, boosting both the Eurosceptic and far left groups, and possibly the Liberal camp. This is hardly surprising, given recent signals from Italy and Austria.
Leaving aside the potential for institutional deadlock, which will be determined by the Parliamentary arithmetic, another question looms large: what form will the take over the course of the next five years? There is the hard Eurosceptic argument that Brexit and the rise of a mix of nationalism and populism in a number of countries is the beginning of the end of the EU construct. This point of view labours under the assumption that the EU as a whole is completely separate from Member States, with the criticism usually focusing on the European Commission officials who allegedly act independently of Member State wishes.
The reality is, however, more nuanced (isn’t it always?). Although the European Commission has a certain degree of independence, there has not been a Commission President, perhaps since Jacques Delors, that managed to chart a course in the face of Member State resistance. The Commission leadership responds to pressures from Member States, with recent examples the proposals for the screening of foreign direct investment and the taxation of the digital economy. These issues were clearly placed on the agenda by Member State coalitions and executed by the Commission. And any Commission proposal has to go through the Parliament and Council, both of which represent the political alignments at the national level.
What all this means is that there is a strong likelihood that for all the anti-EU rhetoric, governments of the nationalist / populist variety could very well see the benefits of co-opting the EU institutions and attempt to shape them after their own image. The key question here will be whether the EU institutional architecture proves flexible and resilient to withstand this challenge and accommodate change. The Union’s history has shown that it has never developed in a linear fashion, but rather through crises that periodically shook up the established order and led to its transformation.
One of the less promoted features of the EU project has been that even in cases of crises and challenges, the system remained at least as it was, avoiding a backslide. At the same time, the project managed to generate a critical mass of support that sought to maintain it. In institutional development, staying still does not necessarily mean moving backwards.
In conclusion, it is not unlikely that the next five years could see some changes in the mold of the European Union. We can debate at length whether this creates a Europe many of us are uncomfortable with. But this change might be a necessary price to pay to avoid the dissolution of the Union. Because a change in course can sometimes be easier to correct further down the line than sinking the boat and having to build it from scratch.