EU after the watershed: beyond interdependence?

Publication Date

The EU faces multiple challenges, both internally and externally, so what does its future hold and is it still the right answer after the watershed?

The European Union has been going through enormous changes. Driven by the Permacrisis – an extended period of insecurity and instability – fundamental transformations in technology, sustainability and demography and the watershed moment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, security, particularly economic security, is now firmly back on the agenda.

The EU will have to continue to change and adapt to address this triple challenge. But this must happen in the difficult context of both internal and external fragmentation and polarisation.

What does this imply for the future of the EU? Is the EU moving from being a community of values enshrined in law to a confederation of interest driven by Realpolitik? And is the EU still the right answer to today’s changed environment? 



Good evening, everybody and welcome to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. My name is Michael Keating. I’m the General Secretary of the RSE. And the first thing I have to do is to apologise for being up here because this session was to have been shared by our vice president international professor, Mona Siddiqui. Unfortunately, Mona has gone down with a flu bug, or a cold bug is not COVID. I’m glad to say so as your Lord, in the interest of her own health, but particularly of your health, she shouldn’t be coming here, spreading the bug around but she very much, desperately disappointed not to be able to be here. This is the first thing I’ve got to do is announce the fire drill. We don’t expect the fire alarm. But if there is a fire, it’s for real. You just go straight out the door there. Follow the staff founder is standing there at the doorway, and right out and will have the dome outside. But that’s that’s the only housekeeping business. So today we’ve got we’ve got the McCormick lecture. This is an annual lecture about Europe named after the late Professor  Sir Neil MacCormick who has a Regis Chair of Law at the University of Edinburgh, and a huge intellectual influence to many of us in this room here including myself. Neil’s work spanned a whole range of things, but he had a particular interest in Europe and in constitutional matters. He spent five years as a member of the European Parliament and as a an active politician. He showed his usual intellectual rigour, generosity and openness in contributing to the debate about the future of England would that we had more elected politicians like him of the colour of him these days. The lecture today is by Dr. Fabian Zuleeg, who is by background an economist. He is no stranger to Edinburgh, Scotland. He has degrees I understand from St. Andrews, Glasgow, and a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. He tells me he’s been in this room many times, but this is the first time he will have been at the lectern. Fabian is a well known commentator, a researcher, an influential figure in the in debates around Europe, the nature of Europe and the future of Europe. He is director of the European policy centres in Brussels. He’s an academic, a public intellectual, but also somebody who in the spirit of the RSC makes knowledge useful transmits knowledge between the academic and the practical world. Today he’s going to talk about something I think the call is the perma crisis, the crisis we’re in the future of Europe about interdependence. Fabien will speak for about 30 minutes or so that will give us time for discussions and contributions for the floor. So Fabian, can I ask you to come up here?


Thank you very much, Michael, for that kind introduction. And thank you very much to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for inviting me. It’s a privilege and an honour to hold this year’s McCormick lecture, following on from very distinguished speakers before me. As Michael has said, I’ve had a long standing connection to Scotland and Scottish academia. And when I was here doing my PhD, it was at a time when Neil McCormick was at the Europa Institute. And it certainly was a presence, which was easy to notice he was very highly respected and known and admired for his interest, knowledge and expertise. He went soon to spend time on the continent as member of the European Parliament, and there he was part of the convention. on the future of Europe, which produced the constitutional treaty, that then morphed into the Treaty of Lisbon. I don’t think the UK, Scotland could have chosen anyone better to represent Scotland, which was always one of his true commitments. But also, and something I’ve always admired with him, a very truly committed person to European integration, which he contributed greatly to. So he has left a true legacy. And it’s an enormous privilege to hold this lecture in his honour. In my lecture will focus on European integration. And when I was preparing it, I was thinking, what wouldn’t Neil McCormick have thought about the European Union today? I don’t mean to comment on Brexit, I think I can guess what he would have thought of that, including the choices and conduct of success of UK Government. And the impact this has had on EU UK relations. I’m sure he would have acknowledged the right of a country to leave the European Union. After all, he was involved in drawing up the provisions for that. But I don’t think he would have liked the outcome, the way the campaign was conducted, or the ultra hard Brexit that was chosen in the end. But the changes to the European Union over the last year, go much, much further than Brexit. In many ways, Brexit has become a third tier issue for the European Union, given the challenges, which we are facing. So what I want to talk about is how the US changing in this radically changed landscape in which we find ourselves, which is characterised by pervasive uncertainty, volatility and downside risks within Europe, but also beyond. And just to preview my conclusion, I do think that we still need European integration as much as ever. But we will have to adapt the European integration process to deal with the challenges which we are now facing. In that I will be quite critical of much that is happening in the European Union, and especially what I see as much that isn’t happening. And what I will say will sound at times rather pessimistic. I know some people in the room, expect nothing, nothing less from me. But I do think we have to be more realistic about the assessment of where you’re stands, and in particular, where it stands in relation to the fundamental challenges we are facing, fundamental challenge to Europe’s future, including prosperity, cohesion, sustainability, security, peace, and democracy, with climate change and global conflict, looming very much in the background, or even in the foreground at the moment. And I think all of that poses fundamental intergenerational questions. How do we prepare in this world for a much more challenging world than we used to? The writer James Baldwin has said that not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. And I think that is a good motto to follow at this moment. But in all of this, I don’t question the fundamental premise of European integration. The European Union remains our single best hope to deal with trans border challenges. Working together in cooperation between like minded democracies, also creating a critical mass for joint action. I want to quote Neal McCormick, on the European Union. This was in 2004, but much of it is still true. The countries of the European Union have played a particularly strong part in the consolidation of democracy and human rights. They have developed a single market still by no means a perfect one, in which the decent prosperity of others becomes the key to one’s own decent prosperity, not a threat to it. Ordinary Europeans in these countries are better off than the ancestors, and have experienced a longer period of internal peace than ever in the history. The here too, for the European Union is far from faultless, but it has nevertheless been massively positive in its overall contribution to the lives of Europeans. The idea This unique and I would still argue effective mechanism, which makes European states deal with conflict in boring meeting rooms in Brussels rather than on the battlefield can somehow be replaced by something else. I do not see. I do not see what could replace it. But very happy to also argue about that someone has a better idea. But the European Union is going through enormous changes driven by what we call the perma crisis. Maybe we should have called it the perma Polly crisis. But certainly for the last 15 years, we’ve been hit by so many different crisis in Europe, terrorism, migration, the euro crisis, economic and financial crisis, debt crisis, Greek crisis, the occupation of Crimea, Trump Brexit rule of law challenges COVID. At the same time, we also have had to face fundamental transformations, the transformation of the technological revolution, again, taking actually on speed, with artificial intelligence at this moment in time, the sustainability transformation still very much incomplete. But nevertheless, existential, and also the demography, which is often forgotten in this discussion, but which is already changing economies and societies fundamentally. And on top of all of this, the perma Polly crisis and the transformations, we now have the watershed moment of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, putting security firmly back on the agenda, but also putting economic security firmly back on the agenda. And this crisis era is, of course, continuing at this moment in time, with the terrible conflict in the Middle East, with terrorism and war causing enormous suffering, but also the stabilising and splitting the global community. All of this is a challenge to the foundations of the European Union, the European Union was built on the idea of economic interdependence. That interdependence would guarantee that we would be able to live in peace, not only within the European Union, but also with powers outside. But what we have now experienced, particularly with Russia is that interdependence can be weaponized, and that it is no safeguard against aggression. So the you will have to continue to change to address this triple challenge, the watershed, the transformations and the public crisis. But in a difficult context of both internal and external fragmentation and polarisation, we can no longer treat these separately, the external and the internal is running into each other. But certainly, we have enough challenges internally, to make our European system at times, struggle at times not work at all. We have populism or rejection ism. Within our societies, we have what I would call anti parties, parties, which are against everything. We have misinformation disinformation, a very different way of conducting democratic discussions. We have what I call the British disease, that at the European level, the governments are all now saying, yes, we know, in principle what needs to be done, but we can’t sell it at home. So we’re not going to even talk about it.


We have rising inequalities, this cohesion. And that is already leading to political consequences with a number of quite fundamental political challenges present in government or in opposition in pretty much every European country by now. And what we will also need to see more is that we need a European Union, which can act in the kind of challenges which we are seeing at the moment. But even that is very difficult, as we have just seen when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East, where there was a lot of criticism of the institutions, and in particular the Commission and the Commission President acting whether she was right or wrong But it shows there is no willingness at this moment in time to have a real external role for the European institutions. Externally, we’re facing the demise of multilateralism. We’re facing a superpower rivalry which can, and hopefully doesn’t, but which can lead also to global conflict. We’re seeing war returning as an instrument of politics, including covert warfare. We’re seeing even where we don’t have that direct conflict, that economic conflict is becoming much more the order of the day, with my country first, being the motto for many. And what we’re seeing globally is also democracy under pressure. We are now becoming rapidly a minority, we have to see that democracy is not the model which the majority of the world is choosing. So all of this means when we look ahead, I would argue that we have a pervasiveness of risks of volatility of uncertainty, we have polarised uncertainty, radically different outcomes. Just to give one example, it makes a tremendous difference whether we have Trump back in the White House or not. But we cannot assess whether that is the likely outcome or not. Clearly, the worst case will not always happen. And here, I give a nod to Poland, where we have seen a very positive development in the last election. But I think we have to prepare for the worst case and react better. What does reacting better mean? I think yours was the European Union’s response. How hasn’t been much better than many would have expected in dealing with these crisis. Recently, during COVID. We have seen the European Union defending the single market. Being active on vaccines. We have seen that a new facility was created the recovery and resilience facility to provide direct support to countries which were economically struggling. After the invasion of Russia, we have seen that sanctions packages have been passed against the resistance of some member states. But nevertheless, we have seen them go through we’ve seen an unprecedented opening for refugees. We’ve seen financial support. For Ukraine, we have also seen military and weapons support. We’ve seen a renewed commitment to NATO, as well as an accession promise to Ukraine and other countries. Also, in the broader application, or sorry, the broader implications of that crisis, we have actually seen the European Union work rather well, on energy on ammunition. And in its external policies, visa vie countries like China. But I think the big problem for me, is what I call the progress illusion is the scale and the scope of our response, enough to address the scale and the scope of the challenges we’re facing. What I would argue is that we’re still having linear responses to exponential challenges. And this is not going to go well for a very long time. We need to have structural systemic responses to the challenges we are facing. And we cannot continue to go along with what we’ve called muddling through. Because ultimately, muddling through works when you’re living in a world which is generally progressing. If you’re living in a world, which is deteriorating, muddling through is extremely dangerous. But the EU has also been changing. It has become much more of a foreign policy actor. It has increased its executive powers. But that already starts to hint towards future conflicts. Is this what member states really want to see at the European level, a commission which acts it also raises questions about the role of the Parliament, the role of democratic scrutiny. It raises question Short of how the European system works better together with a member states, in areas where the competences lie somewhere between member states and the European institutions. The principal agent relationship where member states give the European Union tasks to execute is becoming much more under pressure. The EU doesn’t simply now execute what it is being told. It has to act in crisis situations. But this will be contentious, and it will raise the question of subsidiarity whether the European Union is best place. It also means that the European Union in this crisis and in particular, the institution’s go beyond the narrow competences, which are there, which then leads to an undermining of political and legal trust, as we have seen ever since the euro crisis. So I would argue what we’re seeing, at least in part is that we’re moving from a community of values enshrined in law, to a confederation of interest driven much more by real politic than by the legal framework. But that also leads to many people challenging whether the European Union is abandoning its values and becoming something which it was never intended to be. But certainly, the old division between high and low politics has disappeared. We had the kind of inverse federalism at the European level where foreign and security policy remained at the national level. Now we’re seeing that this is not sustainable. But we are also seeing that the alternative doing more together is also very contentious. What we are also seeing is that if the EU doesn’t take action, or if member states feel that the EU is not being effective in particular areas, then action is taking at the national level. And this will make it much more difficult to sustain the European frameworks which are there, we’re seeing it for example, when it comes to the single market, where we are now having much more state aid, much more intervention at the national level, which will, in the end risk the single market. In all of these challenges we’re facing, and I’m sorry, I did say it sounds a bit pessimistic. But we are facing very significant negative trade offs. We have to move away from the idea that we can achieve everything at once. It is a very comforting narrative narrative, that everything will be delivered at the same time. But what we are seeing now is that this is not possible. There might well be long term synergies between all these different objectives, but certainly in the short term, and they are very strong costs which will have to be distributed. And having that distribution of costs. We’re starting to see the political consequences of that. I would argue that some of the climate protest, and in this case, the protest against climate action, is actually a sign that policies are starting to work. Because if policies are starting to work, they are going to hurt. There are sacrifices which are need to be made. And that will mean that there will be political consequences as well.


These distributional consequences are very significant, because we are talking about systemic change. We’re not talking about tweaking at the address, we’re talking about distributional consequences within countries, between countries, between generations, between different groups within societies. It is very hard to get member states to focus on these challenges. There is a lot of tunnel vision. Member states have become much more short term interest driven. Also within the European Union. The discussions which take place, for example, at European summits have become much narrower. There’s very little talk about the European interest. It’s very much about defending one’s own patch. Sometimes in all of that the strength of the EU is quite surprising. It used to be said that if the member states are weak, the European Union is weak. I would say that’s not necessarily the case anymore. What we’re seeing is that the European Union is acting, even though the member states are very weak. But the question is what that will mean for long term political support? So is the EU still the right answer to the to today’s changed environment? I would argue it can be but the EU must reinvent itself. I think this is truly exciting when a beginning of a new area era. And it is similar to some of the challenges we have faced in the past when the European Union did reinvent itself. But I would argue that the stakes are very much higher now. I think if Europe doesn’t manage to reinvent itself, then we will not be able to determine our own values and our own interests for future generations. Yes, we need institutional and treaty change, especially in decision making, we cannot be in a situation anymore, where one country can hold up process progress for everyone else. But this is not enough, it is only the beginning, we have to start thinking very differently, we have to have much more strategic cross border thinking, we have to think much more intergenerationally, which all political systems struggle with. We have to deal better with risk volatility and uncertainty. So we need to anticipate much more anticipatory policies have to be the way forward, including in the external dimension, where the European Union remains rather weak. We have to reexamine and recast all policy areas. If we truly live in a titan vendor in a new era, then it cannot be that the answers were giving and policy of the same as we were giving before. But very often, when I see what actually happens, then what we are still seeing is marginal tweaks on what already exists rather than structural and systemic intervention. And we must start to see the EU. Many people have done this in the past. But I think it is very important that we understand that as a complex political animal. Very often we hear that something is common sense. But then it doesn’t happen. So we have to ask ourselves, why are these common sense interventions not happening. And that means we have to look at the nature of political limitations, we have to look at what limits they are now also for traditional policies we’ve used in the past. For example, the idea that we can simply take benefits from positive economic integration, and use those to redistribute to convince others is not going to work anymore in an environment with where we simply do not have the money and where we do not have positive benefits from integration. But rather we have costs which we can limit. We have to find ways of turning these negative short term trade offs between policy areas into long term synergies, and try to bring that back into the present. But it will also mean making sacrifices it will mean that we have to prioritise and we have to decide what is more important and what is less. And that means we have to look at what is actually the European common interest. How do we overcome the tribalism, the rejection ism, which is becoming much more present in all of our policy debates? I think part of that is also getting the narrative, right. Just to return to the example I mentioned, in terms of the sustainability transformation. I think we made a mistake telling people that the green transformation would also mean that we have green competitiveness and that companies would all benefit From this change, because the reaction we’re now seeing in many countries, is that citizens say, Well, if that’s the case, then the companies should pay for it, why should we have to make sacrifice. So we have to be more honest with people, we have to explain that if we have these challenges, if we have a war, that this is our business to deal with, and that no one else is going to deal with it, and unless we do it, then future generations are going to suffer. What that also means is that we have to find more effective exit or exclusion mechanisms for the European Union, even in areas of core integration. Because if we have countries who are no longer wanting to be part of that core, then we have to also find a way of being able to express that. And I think what we also have to see is more much more political leadership, much more vision of where we are actually going to go. But not only by politicians. I think we have a responsibility, and I’m talking about my generation to support the next generations ability to defend what we could take for granted. I think that is also a big question for the United Kingdom in Scotland. In my view, the United Kingdom belongs in the European Union. And Brexit has been a tremendous mistake. In conclusion, there is no way back to the European Union that existed a few years ago. So we have to develop it. Otherwise, we risk losing it all. And in that context, I also wanted to have another quote from Neil McCormack, he was talking about the Constitution. But I think it can be equally equally applied to the current situation. If a thing ain’t broke, don’t fix it is ancient wisdom, I argue for fixing what seems to be an unbroken thing. Truly, the thing ain’t broken. But it is seriously flawed. I fear by nature and profession, I’m probably even more critical and pessimistic about the future than Neil McCormick was. But I think where we have common ground is the commitment to European integration and the necessity to continue to develop and build on what we have to address Europe’s fundamental challenges through cooperation. And within a framework of democracy and rule of law. Europe is facing an enormously challenging new era. And it is our collective obligation to future generations to fix what ain’t broken. I hope that we can build on your McCormick legacy for the sake of future generations. And I thank you once again for the honour and privilege of being allowed to give the annual McCormick lecture. Thank you.


Thanks, Fabian, for that trenchant analysis, as usual, a bit of pessimism. But at the end, maybe a note of, of optimism, I just like to draw you out on why you finished at the end there. It is remarkable that the European Union has been written off so many times, but it keeps on coming back. There does seem to be some necessity there. But the way it’s done that and the way as you’re suggesting, and maybe doing it again, is a kind of deep politicised integration, kind of technical solutions to things, which works for a while, but the politics always comes out eventually that’s bound to and unfortunate that political space has been occupied by anti European and Euroskeptic. forces. So the question is really, how can we create a European politics that will European political space, that is not just about whether the European Union is a good thing or a bad thing? It’s about the future? Can we do that? Because I noticed you said, Well, we must do that. And we must do that, of course. But who are the we? who are who are doing this? How can you create a true engagement with European project?


I think it’s a very good question. Because I don’t think we have the answer to that. Also, because I would argue that a lot of the challenges we’re seeing are actually challenges which are mirrored at the national level, very often. And I think this is also why the European Union is often written off. People see it as something exceptional. But the reality is the European Union has always been political. It has always been about trying to find a way through between the different national interests and I think what we have seen in recent years is that many more citizens have actually felt that the European Union is also relevant for their lives. So in that sense, that’s a positive development we’ve seen, people have cared about the decisions which are taken at the European level. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that is a positive engagement, or that it will address your scepticism. That’s why I also call the rejection ism, because I think this is much broader than just about the European Union. This is about distrust in society in institutions. And the European Union is always a very convenient scapegoat for that, because in many ways, it does represent those elites. But we do also see that between young people, we have much more conversation also across borders. So they are positive signs. The question is whether the political systems and the dysfunctions we have in the political systems will allow us to maintain that.


Okay, thanks. Let’s open it up. Now. We’ve got the EVA and Hannah at the back. We’ve got microphones I see somebody right next, Jana.


Hi, Dr. Z. Liga. Thank you for your lecture. My question is as follows. Would you accept that European foreign policy has been in some in some important sense Americanized over the last few years? And that in the context of the possibility of Donald Trump’s re election in 2024, that this might be actually something of a risk to Europe’s the European Union status as an independent or a middle power in the world?


Do you want to do one? Yeah, can you? Yeah, sure. I think what clearly has happened over the last two years is that the security alliance of Europe with the United States of America has not only strengthened it really has come back stronger than ever before, which we’ve also seen with countries joining NATO, which would never have joined NATO if we hadn’t seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland, Sweden. So yes, on the security level, that alliance has become much, much stronger. There is also a, I think, a warning sign in that, that if we do have a different president, and it doesn’t necessarily just have to be Trump, I think we have to recognise that the current president is probably the most pro European president we are going to see in our lifetime. Whatever comes after that, we’ll have a different focus, even if it might not be as extreme as as Trump. But I think this is a a major question, because in the near future, there is no way we can take responsibility for our own security. We have neglected it for too long. So at this moment in time, we are dependent on the United States. In terms of the security alliance, I think when we’re looking at the economics, it’s a different question. And there, there are also a number of frictions between the European Union and the US the inflation Reduction Act, but also what we’ve seen the discussions around steel, around a number of different areas, where clearly we don’t have the same outlook. Also, given that the situation is very different economically. The United States, for example, have an abundance of cheap energy, we are very much dependent on imported energy, which is becoming more expensive. Again, also now, with the conflict in the Middle East, we are going to feel this much, much more economically than the United States. So there’s that friction between what is happening in the economic sphere and the security sphere. But I think when it comes to it in the end, the United States are also going to expect that IT security allies, at least to a large extent, fall into line when it comes to economics and particularly when it comes to economic conflict. So I would argue that actually Europe’s idea that we are middle power, which can somehow navigate between different powers is not going to be a reality unless we start seriously investing into the capability of doing that. because if we remain where we are now, we’re simply going to continue to be dependent.


Yes, here the middle


Can you expand on the UK is possible future with regard to association with Europe. I mean, that’s what we’re interested in


I don’t know. Because ultimately, as we’ve seen throughout the whole Brexit process, the decision of what happens in terms of any country’s relationship with the European Union is taken within that country itself. The European Union is not going to intervene in that discussion. If there is a major political change within the UK, which leads to a reapplication to the European Union, I wouldn’t be negative about that. I think most of European Union countries and citizens would be very happy to welcome the UK back. But at least from my current assessment, I think that’s rather unlikely. So what we can do is to try to make the cooperation work better at this moment in time. That means, yes, there are some things we can do on the economic side. But I have to say, I think that’s rather limited, I think the trade and cooperation agreement is pretty much as good as it gets, it’s not going to go much further, because that’s what it means to be outside the single market and the Customs Union. But I do think there’s a lot more scope for positive cooperation in other areas in foreign policy, in policy around climate and environment. But that also requires a willingness. And what we’ve seen so far, is that the British government has not been willing to cooperate on these issues beyond a certain minimum. Maybe that’s different. I think it’s extremely likely that we will see a different government in the near future. But even there, I don’t see at this moment in time a real engagement with the European question. I don’t see any discussion about what could be done. In many ways, I would actually argue that you see, more of a distance between the UK and the European Union, and that distance is continuing to grow. With lady on here.


Good evening, in relation to both security and economy, should the European Union be making more approaches towards Russia? with you to the future? It has happened in the past, I think Russia was less keen to, to communicate more with Europe, it didn’t happen. We’ve avoided this present situation. And do you think this is something we should be taking the future?


I think they, the reality is that Russia isn’t going to go away. So we are going to have to deal with Russia. But I would very much think that this moment in time is not the time to start talking to Russia, this moment in time, is one where we also have to show collectively, and we should all be very glad that we are not the ones who have to bear the brunt of this. That’s the Ukrainians. But that collectively, we are strong in standing up to Russia. Because in my view, Putin only respect strength. There is at the moment, no attempt from the Russian side to find a solution to any of this. And we have talked to Russia in the past after Crimea. There was a whole process which Russia completely ignored, which in the end led us to where we are now. So yes, we have to think about Russia. But at this moment in time, it is far too early to engage with Russia, and I think much of it will have to depend on the Ukrainians themselves. It’s not for us to decide how they interact with Russia. It is for them to decide what will have to happen next? Because they are the ones who pay a terrible price for what is happening.


I’ll pass it to you. Well, sorry. Thanks very much, Fabian. And, yeah, you’re right, you gave a kind of very, even more pessimistic analysis of what’s going on the view sent outside. But a, but you did end up basically saying that the, you know, that they have to stick together, the will stick together has to stick together. And we owe it to future generations to do that. Because you didn’t mention one possible option, which has been discussed quite a lot is open strategic autonomy. And it does that represent a viable feasible option for Europe to or for the future of European integration? Or will it to founder on the short term conflicts amongst among the member states, which you emphasised?


Yeah, I mean, open strategic autonomy really is part of the answer to the question on the United States, in the sense that we already had this discussion before Russia’s invasion, but it has intensified since then. But essentially, we have to maintain Europe’s ability to make independent decisions. But then, when it comes to open strategic autonomy, or to some extent that has now morphed into a discussion around economic security. The question then is what does that mean concretely? We can’t even agree on the concept. There’s a lot of debate about what does it actually mean. But when you’re then talking about what are the policies which come from that, then there are huge differences between the member states, does it mean that we have to sacrifice a certain degree of openness? Or does it mean that we have to diversify more? Does it mean we have to find more state aid for a different industrial policy? There are many, many different interpretations of that. But I think when I see where the debate is, at the moment, it’s not progressing very much from where we were a few years ago. And to just give one example, I think it is shocking in some ways that we are still not having a debate about the defence sector in Europe. We know it’s going to have to change fundamentally in the next 10 years. We know that it’s already starting to creak under the pressure, which is there. But we have no Pan European discussion around what are we going to do in the defence sector. So if you’re really looking to be strategically autonomous, then that certainly has to be an area we start talking about. But again, these strategic discussions hardly happen at the national level, and they don’t happen at all on a trans European level.


Okay, we’ve got a mic in the back and then we’ll come to Kirsty. Hi, I’m


Martin Johnson, eu director for the Scottish Government. Fabian, nice to see you. You said that the the EU remains our best hope to meet the many challenges that you set out the perma crisis challenges. And I mean, I think it’s well understood Scottish Government ministers agree with that, that basic analysis that the EU is the best hope to meet these complex challenges. But you also said the EU needs to change and you give us a bit of a flavour of of that change. You spoke about structural and systemic intervention across a range of policy areas moving away from being reactive to getting on the front foot. And you’ve said a bit there on kind of strategic autonomy and the defence dimension. My question, Fabian, is this, could you just say a bit more about how the EU needs to change, give us a sense of in five or 10 years time how the EU might be different if it responded in the way that you think it needs to in terms of institutional relationships treaty changes. You spoke about the way that member states have had to interact differently with a commission in response to things like COVID. But what would it what would it look like if it was working well, in five or 10 years time? Thank you.


I think this is firstly, I think it’s a question we should all be answering together. It shouldn’t be up to someone like me to say this is where we ought to be going. Because I do believe this is about setting these strategic objectives. saying, what do we collectively want to achieve in the next five to 10 years, and then working back to what does that mean in terms of different policies, but you can already see that in some policy areas. So for example, we have said that within the next time period, whatever that time period is going to be, we are going to accept Ukraine and other countries into the European Union. If we truly mean that, if that truly is a strategic objective of the European Union, what does that have to mean? It has to mean that we change our institutions, because the current institutions aren’t going to function, it means we have to change pretty much every policy area. But also big ones, like agriculture, for example, because of the Common Agricultural Policy will not work with Ukraine on the inside. We have to change our budget completely. If you look at the budgetary debate, at the moment, we are having, once again, the usual budgetary debate, which is all about trying to minimise how much member states pay into the system. If we really are preparing for the future, then we would have a very different debate around an EU budget, we will have to have a different debate around industrial policy. We live in a world where government interventionism is everywhere. There are no more open free markets, there is no more a global multilateral institutions, which can guard us against some of this. So we have to do together. But when it comes to that, the instinct of all the member states is just to go back nationally just to talk about their own firms not about what is happening in other countries. So I can’t answer that question comprehensively, because you can go through every policy area and through policy areas, which are not a competence of the European Union. Now, I think there are many more policy areas where we ought to have a common approach. However, we then do that institutionally. But at the moment, we’re not even having that discussion.


Okay, so can we have the front?


Thanks for an excellent lecture, Fabian. Two quick questions, one about muddling through and one about urgency. I mean, as as you actually said, you know, you you’re criticising muddling through, but in the cases of Ukraine, so far, the response to the conflict, and in the case of COVID, actually, the EU muddled through rather well, perhaps because the challenges were so big and so obvious and so urgent, as part as part of what drove that. And of course, awkward, awkward member states like Hungary, were able to be contained up till now. But I wonder, I wonder, in that context, if if, in terms of one particular issue, the article seven and its inability to be very effective in the case of the rule of law challenges is, do you have any specific suggestions on on that? And my second question on urgencies is really thinking about climate change. And you were saying that, you know, in so many ways the member states are weakens? You know, the EU can sometimes be strong at EU level, while weak member state level. But of course, as you know, the client, the climate challenge is so urgent this decade, these five years or seven years to 2030 is so urgent, and we see this backlash, which isn’t only the far right, you know, when you look at the European People’s Party, opposing the nature directive, and such a small majority that got it through and when you look in the Scottish case, the highly protected marine areas were abandoned for now because of a local reaction. And and so obviously, you talked about political leadership, but and maybe both in Scotland and in the EU, you can’t just do it by from the centre because there’s a reaction against that over centralization. So could you say something more about how, how we begin to rise more to the I’m not saying you used or nothing on climate, but more to that politics of the urgency of climate change?


Just to connect your second question to you first, I think this is exactly where they are the limits of muddling through, yes, you can react to what is happening there. But it doesn’t actually get you to the long term structural changes which you’re going to have to need to address these these issues. Not only today, not only over this weekend, which we have seen, many crisis where we have the heads of state and government coming together over weekend to try to figure things out, but actually setting policy for the longer term, also creating some more certainty in this uncertain world, when we’re talking about issues such as climate change, one of the key issues which, and I think this is a very significant challenge we’re now seeing politically, one of the key issues is that this leads to uncertainty for companies. So it makes it harder for companies to invest into these long, long term transformations if they don’t know whether the political system will support it. And we actually saw that also, with some of the business reactions to EU turns to changes in policies, who said this is extremely unhelpful? Because we are preparing for that future? I think yes, it is true. The European Union has muddled through rather successfully, it has managed to survive a lot of crises, which people said, it wouldn’t survive. How many times you have read in the papers, that this is now the end of the European Union, it’s never been the end of the European Union. Because when the European Union has its back against the wall, it tends to be able to react, also in a way, which in the end helps the member states. But that doesn’t mean we are achieving the long term changes. And you mentioned the issue around decision making the issue of having a country, in this case, Hungary, but it could be a different country for a while it was also different countries, having countries holding up the whole system. And I remember, there was one point when the German economy and energy minister Harbeck, he came out of the meeting of ministers. And he said, Yeah, it’s unfortunate, we couldn’t go any further because one of the Member States wasn’t playing along. But the next sentence was not. So now we need to talk about what is it we need to do so that this is no longer the case. Because that then means making a political commitment starting to talk about either treaty change or using the passerelle clauses or doing things in parallel to the European system. But actually doing something so that a single country can no longer hold up the European Union in those situations. And those are the bits we’re not doing. Those are the bits, which we’re not even talking about, because they are politically very contentious. Because no member state at the moment feels very pro European at home. No member state wants to go and explain why it is actually necessary to do these things at the European level. I don’t know whether I have a solution for that. I think what we need to see is more political pressure. But unfortunately, I think what we are going to see at the next European election is rather the opposite, we’re going to see a strengthening of the more extreme parts, we are going to see, I think, a rather large danger that the European Parliament becomes dysfunctional because of the polarisation fragmentation within it. So we are facing very challenging times. And I’m sorry that I don’t have very good answers for that. But for me, this is also about and this is where I become very normative. I think this is not about necessarily just saying, This is how I see the future developing. But I think this is a call for not only politicians, but for everybody to get involved and to actually try to change how the future looks because it’s essential for the next generations that we have something at the European level, which functions and which addresses also the existential challenges like climate change, which we’re not doing at the moment.


Okay, let’s slot in one last question from Chad.


I’ll be quick. Yes. It’s just a proposal for reinventing Europe right and it follows very closely on from your comments to Kirsty is you know some people talk about differential integration. Right? And I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about that is that a way in which the EU actually could allow smaller groups of member states to move forward integrate, right? And it would prevent individual member states, right, from really holding up the entire system? Maybe that’s a way to address external crises, and even these types of internal crises that you’re talking about? What are your views on that?


The reality is we’ve had differentiated integration for a very long time. Even in some of the core areas of European Union politics, including the single currency differentiated integration can be an effective mechanism. But then always, the question is differentiated integration in what and with whom, very often you have this discussion around a will form a core of the European Union, and that will then drive forward integration, and then the periphery will somehow follow afterwards. But then when you ask people define the core and the periphery, it becomes very difficult, because very often it is some of the country’s people consider core who are much more reluctant on certain policy areas to go ahead. The periphery, at times is driving policy rather than being behind it. So yes, I think it is an instrument which we will have to use, I think we will also see, inevitably that. And this is slightly different from differentiated integration, we will also see much more taking place in parallel to the European Union structures rather than integrated within the European Union structure. But in the end, it still comes down to a question of do we have countries groups of countries which are willing to go forward and do things together, and also do that in a way where they are bound by a common system where they are bound by acting in the common interest, rather than falling back to whenever it becomes difficult to the national perspective and the national interest? And at the moment? Unfortunately, the willingness of that is very low because of the politics countries are facing at home.


Thanks, Fabian. Now, the president of the RSC John Paul to conclude the proceedings


So on behalf of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and I’m sure of you all, let me very warmly thank Fabian for this very impressive and high level analysis of the many sobering challenges that we face in Europe at the moment. Thank you very much indeed. And also, thanks to Michael for sharing