As part of Château Béla 2014 Central European Strategic Forum (5-7 December 2014), CEPI organized a panel discussion The next European Chapter: More Fragmentation or Renewal? within its Central Europe in the European Union projectChaired by CEPI director Milan Nič, the panel included views of Amb. Ivan Korčok, Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the European Union, Brussels; Roland Freudenstein, Deputy Director and Head of Research, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels; and Pawel Świeboda, President, demosEUROPA, Warsaw. The summary of the debate follows below.

Summary of the Château Béla session: The next European Chapter: More Fragmentation or Renewal?

As the new leaders of the EU institutions have taken their offices in Brussels, a range of huge internal and external challenges are accumulating. Discussion in this session was dominated by internal issues, including the Brexit and the economic malaise in France and Italy risking to infect much of Europe prolonging slow growth. Complacency in the key ‘old’ member states was singled out as a major danger. From a Central European perspective, President Juncker’s plan for a politically strong Commission (EC) as well as his €315 billion investment plan are good signals. However, it was acknowledged that the EC’s moment of truth is fast approaching. As the French and Italian budgets will be reviewed in March, the new Commission must demonstrate that no country is too big to blame. Without this happening, stabilizing the eurozone will be tough. This will be the key to strengthening economic governance.

Donald Tusk’s appointment as EU Council President was noted huge victory for Poland and Central Europe. His inauguration speech was tough and energetic by any European standard, in which he described Europe as a “community of values”, said Europe had “enemies” around it and termed the TTIP as a geopolitical project. While European leaders expect Tusk to focus on economic matters rather than foreign policy, he is likely to retain a strong voice on Russia, where he might clash with the High Representative Federica Mogherini. Opinions were divided over the extent to which foreign policy would become his priority, yet Tusk, described as pragmatic, down to earth and non-ideological on Russia, can nevertheless be expected to name and shame those member states seeking to strike separate deals with Moscow.

When it comes to the EU institutions, speakers warned of possible clashes. The European Parliament will be more aggressive vis-a-vis other institutions, while Commission is one of the strongest ever filled with heavyweight politicians.

German leadership in Europe, and whether we have passed beyond its peak, was also addressed. Berlin is a reluctant hegemon, “desperately” looking for a partner to share the burden of leadership. In the current situation, with France, Italy and the United Kingdom weakened, the only partner left is Poland. The situation is compounded by the serious effects of the economic crisis; half the member states now have a lower GDP per capita than before the crisis. The traditional party system is breaking down, creating space for irresponsible peddling simplistic solutions to complex matters. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel will need all the possible support, including for reforming the unsustainable European social model (8% of the global population drawing 50% of global pubic welfare expenses).

The possible UK exit from the EU was extensively debated. While the V4 shares many tenets of the UK’s vision for Europe, the Cameron government has failed to define a vision for European reform and to build coalitions for common-sense solutions such as the completion of the single market or a stronger role for national parliaments, and as a consequence marginalized the role of its country at the EU level. Regrettably, the cabinet’s main concern is with the domestic audience. In particular, scepticism on immigration represents a fundamental contradiction in UK policy on the single market and risks to alienate the UK’s natural friends in Central Europe. Heeding an increasingly euro-sceptic agenda, which resonates from Edinburgh to Moscow, Prime Minister Cameron was seen as “playing with the future of his party, the UK in Europe and Europe as a whole”. In addition, the promise of the referendum is a political trap, as whatever he could renegotiate will not be enough to communicate to the British public. Yet it should be acknowledged that euro-scepticism is not a growing problem only in Britain. Among others, a potentially significant challenge worth noting is the German mistrust towards European institutions (EP and EC).

Turning to the issue of V4 power and coordination on the EU level, it was noted that the format is influential on a range of dossiers from climate change to energy policy. Without much international fanfare and V4 branding, the grouping has nevertheless succeeded in “operationalising its activity in the Brussels process”. However, at the time when Poland and other Visegrad countries have secured more powerful positions in Brussels, the EU institutions will be consumed with a more defensive agenda.

Eventually, most participants agreed that we have to look for success stories.  Possibly we have to create a positive narrative regarding UK, and we have to broker a deal with the United States on TTIP. V4 also has to develop some sympathy towards the South Europe and the Southern Neighbourhood since we ultimately care only about our own (EaP and WB).