Imagine European governance and integration by 2050

September 2021

In the context of an ESPON study on spatial scenarios for the Danube and Adriatic-Ionian macro-regions, governance and European integration are also touched upon. Picking from discussions currently ongoing in the participatory scenario processes of this study, we want to highlight some thoughts on possible futures of European integration.

Pathways for European governance by 2050?

European integration needs to be seen and discussed in the light of different governance trends. In the participatory processes, two extreme governance futures take shape:

  • Governing of governance. Taking it to their extremes, trends in the fields of a growing civil society and network governance as well as e-governance point towards an emerging governing of governance. A kind of meta-governance emerges as answer to governance failures. It coordinates one or more governance modes using different means to overcome these failures. EU functions as the ‘governing body of governance’ providing norms on good institutional order and the member states deviate from the rationalist model and are open in the implementation of these norms. The states are no longer the key players, as governance and network approaches take over. NGOs contribute actively in addressing societal challenges, the traditional roles between the state, people and civil society is blurred, while new cooperation frameworks emerge.
  • The end of governance. Taking the starting point rather in the fields of multipolar governance trends, growing autocratic tendencies, illiberal democracy and cybersecurity concerns, the other extreme pictures the idea of governance as increasingly obsolete. The role and acceptance of civil society organisation is decreasing. The nation states are the key players and all authorities are nationally controlled. The role of democracy is reduced and mistrust in governments is on the rise. In many places, media and public speech is controlled, while surveillance mechanisms, censorship and low citizen participation are in place in exchange for more security, cyber security and a stronger rule of law.
Pathways for European integration by 2050?

In rough terms, the participatory processes sketch European integration somewhere between the following two poles running from united in diversity to divided by diversity:

  • United in diversity. Developments towards a united, integrated EU going beyond the Single Market, are supported by trends such as decreasing importance of national borders within the EU and increasing cooperation across borders and enlargement trends linked to Berlin process (EU enlargement discussions in the Western Balkans). When united in diversity is implemented, solidarity brings together all member states and their citizens and promotes economic, social and territorial cohesion. EU integration is high, and so is the trust in the EU institutions and policies, with the national governments transferring their powers to the EU level. Borders are open, contributing seamlessly to cooperation, simplified rules, data exchange and common standards. Integration is also a larger societal project, including equal opportunities for everyone, based on common values and ethics and bridging differences.
  • Divided by diversity. On the other hand, trends related to growing populism and nationalism, increasing awareness and importance of national identities and borders, and the focus of the EU as trade union, point to an opposite extreme. This extreme features increasing social and territorial inequalities which lead to a stronger fragmentation across the EU. Borders gain importance, increasing controls, security and decreasing the facilitation of trade. In many places revived past-time border issues and bilateral disputes, elevate mental borders. and ruin previous efforts to open borders and free access. European integration is challenged by a strong emphasis on national ideas.
The new European order in 2050: Four extreme scenarios

Bringing those four extreme futures together in one discussion, four possible scenarios emerge:

  • Governing European diversity. At the intersection of ‘United in diversity’ and ‘Governing governance’ lies a possible future shaped by an ever-deeper EU integration, which even embraces new member states. National states are losing importance, as the EU guides governance processes for all its members. An active, strong and pluralistic civil society brings the EU closer to the citizens and supports decision making processes. Citizens shape and enjoy an emerging common ‘European way of life’, which helps overcoming physical and mental borders, developing shared common values and making mental barriers become obsolete.
  • EU integration on the shelf. An increasing fragmentation of the European society emerges from ‘Divided by diversity’ and ‘Governing of governance’. Dividing lines and mental barriers between European countries grow in a context of increasingly complex governance arrangements. The trust in the EU and its common values is declining, not at least because the influence of external global powers on the economic and social life in Europe. Furthermore, the difficulty of the EU to become more resilient and address topics like defence, trade, digitalisation, monetary policy etc. opens a Pandora’s box. The dream of European integration is shelfed and has an afterlife as eternal hope.
  • State led EU cooperation. Bringing together ‘United in diversity’ and ‘The end of governance’ leads to a possible European future characterised by strong national governments. The nation states are in control of most powers. However, they understand that it is in their own interest to cooperate along broad lines on major – mainly economic – topics within the EU. Basically, countries have the right not to adopt EU laws, if they do not fit with their national policies and legislation causing often hick ups in the EU legislative powers. The involvement of civil society is declining.
  • Europe driven apart. The combination of ‘Divided by diversity’ and ‘The end of governance’ points at an increasing disintegration in Europe with increasingly stronger autocratic nation states. This comes together with a growing influence of external global powers, implying that various European countries adjust their national priorities towards the global interests of other global powers. This is spurred by an increasing importance of Foreign Direct Investments from global players and a diversification of donors and funds. This has gradually increased the depth dependency of some countries, increasing drives apart European countries.

Certainly, the future will not be like any of these scenarios but most likely lie somewhere in-between these extreme cases. Still, the participatory processes of this ESPON study show that we cannot take European integration for granted, as all of these four extreme cases could emerge from current developments and trends. If nothing else, these scenarios are a call to think about what European integration we want and how to enable it.

By Maria Toptsidou & Kai Böhme

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