Written by Marcin Grajewski,
2018, the last full year of the current European Parliament’s current term brought tougher challenges and choices for the European Union than the previous year, when, in the words of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the ‘wind was back in European sails’, along with the economic recovery. Still, the passing year was better than the annus horriblis of 2016, when the EU faced a number of existential threats.
The 2018 agenda was dominated by US President Trump’s decisions, which raised the spectre of a trade war, Brexit negotiations, the unabated rise of populism and anti-establishment movements, unsolved migration issues, problems with the rule of law in some EU countries, Russia’s assertive foreign policy moves and a gradual slowing of economic growth in Europe. Those events and processes featured in the debate on ‘What mattered in 2018 and why: What think tanks are thinking’, organised by the European Parliamentary Research Service in the Library Reading Room on 18 December. These tough issues and other developments form the backdrop for the European elections in 2019.
Speakers from major international think tanks who took part in the debate concluded that most of the challenges discussed have not yet been overcome and some might not even be resolvable for the time being. For example, the long-term stability of and sustainable growth in the European Monetary Union and a wider EU requires far-reaching reforms, involving considerable centralisation, and yet there is no political nor democratic appetite for that, said Maria Demertzis, deputy Director at Bruegel, an influential economic think tank. This is why, despite an ambitious reform agenda advocated by French President Emmanuel Macron, progress in reforming the EMU was limited in 2018. There is also no ideal solution to the migration problem, which has haunted the EU ever since hundreds of thousands of migrants escaping war and poverty in Africa and Asia made it to European shores in 2015 and 2016, noted Camino Mortera-Martinez, a senior research fellow at the Centre for the European Reform, a London-based think tank, which now has an office in Brussels. The refusal of several EU Member States to back the UN-sponsored Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, exposed deep divisions over the issue in the Union, as well as difficulties in formulating a common foreign policy in general.
Mortera-Martinez and others, including Dušan Reljić, head of the Brussels office of the powerful German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, noted that the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, now set for 29 March 2019, will wreak economic and political havoc, especially in the UK, where the political atmosphere is completely poisoned by the Brexit debate. Among the several possible scenarios, the least damaging in the short-term would be the approval of the agreed departure agreement in a crucial vote in January. It is also possible that the government falls, that there is what is known as a ‘hard Brexit’, or that a new referendum is held.
Wojciech Białożyt, Managing Director of the Warsaw-based WiseEuropa think tank, said central and eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, were acting against their own long-term interest when they implemented judicial and other reforms that many EU politicians believe violate the bloc’s rule of law principle. While the Hungarian government has a constitutional majority to pursue the controversial changes, the Polish one however does not, thereby breaking its own constitution. Białożyt expressed hope that some new members from central and eastern Europe would stop attempts to weaken local institutions guaranteeing the rule of law, or the EU might face difficult choices as to what action to take.
All speakers agreed US President Donald Trump’s volatile policies posed the biggest threat to the global economy and rules-based, multilateral system. A full-blown trade war could throw the world into recession. Suggestions how the EU should react to Trump varied. Bruegel’s Demertzis argued that Europe should be ‘reactive’, so as not to exacerbate the situation. Others believed that the abdication of the US from its traditional role of benign protector of the global order offers opportunities for the EU to forge new trade ties and boost its defence cooperation and capability.
The EPRS conference was held under the ‘What Think Tanks are Thinking‘ brand, which is also the title of a weekly publication that gathers links to recent think tank publications on a given topic.