Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, Professor & Jean Monnet Chair, director of the Jean Monnet EU Centre of Excellence and the Borders in Globalization Research Lab at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria
The European Union (EU, Union) in 2020 is strong and united - maybe as strong as ever, even when faced with both an international health pandemic and humanitarian crisis unequaled in two generations, and a forthcoming major economic recession unlike any since the 1920s stock market crash and world-wide deflation. Key to its resilience and strength is its continuing resolve and commitment to integration as the central means by which to address crises.
In 2015, when Jean Claude Juncker became president of the European Commission, the core mandate and the focus of the Commission appointments was all about energy and energy integration. At the time, a number of member states, chiefly Germany, wanted to untangle their energy geopolitical dependency on Russia and the Middle East. However, by the end of the summer in 2015, the focus of the Union had shifted to the migrant or refugee crisis, deemed the worst European humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. It forced Europeans to face up to their worst xenophobic tendencies. Obviously, as expected the Union was only the first of many regions of the world faced with increased human mobility. The Juncker presidency of the European Commission faced many internal crises in its engagement with this issue, but in the end the results are there: The EU reformed its migration and border policies, investing over 20 billion in social, economic and security policy-areas with direct impacts on migration and the broader geopolitical stability of the Union, i.e. in its immediate neighborhood, through Neighborhood policies. Today, as a result, countries such as Morocco, receive close to 1 billion euros per year to modernise infrastructures, agriculture, trade and tourism, and their rights regimes, as their economies also absorb new migrant-workers. Other countries, such as Turkey, have received larger funds from the Union to rapidly develop temporary immigrant camps and other infrastructures while their economies also benefit for cheap migrant labor.
2016 was another eventful year for the Union: The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada was signed and on June 23 the United Kingdom (UK) voted to withdraw by a referendum margin of 52 to 48%, and as of January 31, 2020, the UK has left the Union.
The two issues of the ratification of the CETA and of Brexit occupied the Union during most of 2017, 2018 and 2019. Indeed, then UK Prime Minister Teresa May notified the European Council of its intention to leave on March 29 2017; triggering article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty for the first time in its history. By end of May, the Union and Britain initiated article 50 negotiations. In September the CETA entered in force provisionally. By December 2017 the Union had signed another important free trade agreement, with Japan, the Economic Partnership Agreement. It was approved last December. In February 2018 the European Commission published the first draft withdrawal agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom. In March, Commission President Juncker, and High Representative, Mogherini, launched the Defence Union for 2025. It was set by year-end with 47 projects. The 2020 Multiannual Financial Framework confirmed a new European Defence Fund of 7.014 billion euros. Critics, pointed out that it was 8 billion lower than initially proposed, but it is a reality. In January 2019, as the Euro celebrated its 20th anniversary, the free trade agreement with Japan entered into force. The Union and Japan also accepted each other’s data protection systems as equivalent. In June, after twenty years of negotiations, the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, signed an agreement on trade with the Union.
When looking back historians may find that the British-Exit, or Brexit, benefited greatly from nationalists’ political discourses on migration. However, in 2020 the major nationalist parties in Europe are not faring as well today in national politics as they did then (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands). This is in part because the European Union has also strengthened decision-making to engage with criticisms such as the democratic deficit. The CETA, in this regard, is important on two accounts: democratic accountability of free trade agreements and the economic benefits of such agreements. Indeed, the signature and ratification of the CETA across Europe was much more thorough than in Canada: The European Commission required ratification of the treaty by 38 national and regional parliaments. In contrast, in Canada it was ratified by parliament not by provincial chambers. The requirement could have stopped the deal but did not; the important point being that this accrued accountability and transparency, encouraged more democratic and legislative reviews, and was successful. Because of Canada’s colonial history, BREXIT will likely affect Canada’s ability to trade with the Union as about 25 of 155 billion CAD of goods and services transit through the UK from Canada; but, in 2020, the CETA is more important than ever as trade with the Union is increasing while decreasing with the UK.
In the last year, May 23-26, the elections of the 751 members of the European Parliament were held. The new parliamentarians elected the Ursula von der Leyen, as the first woman president of the European Commission on June 16th. She presented the new commissioners including 12 women September 10th. In October, a woman as well, Laura Codruta, became the first ever European Chief Prosecutor. Her office located in Luxembourg investigates crimes against the EU budget, fraud, corruption and cross border frauds. In November, the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency started recruiting officials. It is tasked to hire up to 10,000 border guards by 2027. Last December, former Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel became president of the European Council, taking over from Donald Tusk. Both Michel and von der Leyen have been praised for their leadership leading to the 1.8 trillion coronavirus economic recovery package.
In sum, over the last five years, despite major setbacks, a humanitarian crisis and the British decision to leave the Union, the European institutions have further expanded their reach into the lives of Europeans, while fulfilling it strengthened mandates, demonstrating unusual resiliency and innovation, and a genuine capacity to bring together compromises, unique in modern history, that clearly strengths the Union’s outlook on its future.
Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, is Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Governance in the school of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. He is the co-editor, with Amy Verdun and Achim Hurrelmann, of European Union Governance and Policy Making, University of Toronto Press, 2018.