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More than just Brexit: Four critical challenges for the EU over the next five years

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More than just Brexit: Four critical challenges for the EU over the next five years - © Erica Nilsson/Unsplash

Elections for the renewal of the European Parliament took place roughly a month ago, amidst a general climate of concern for the future of a Union caught between the Brexit affair and Eurosceptic movements on one hand, and the polarization around the economic discourse on the other.

Some anxiety has been calmed by the incomplete advance of populist and far-right movements in the Continent (with the notable exception of Italy and France, and if we exclude the UK’s sui generis Brexit Party), as well as by the successful electoral turnout of more than 50%, with positive results of Lib Dem and Green parties. However, the EU has just entered a crucial five-year phase leading up to the next elections during which decisive political choices will have to be made. With the expiry of the 2020 strategy, a new plan is needed not only in economic terms, but also with an outlook to complex issues that are highly likely to have a significant impact for the future of the Union and its citizens. Particularly, four main challenges sum up the urgencies to be tackled in the coming months and years.

  1. The democratic challenge

The peculiar institutional structure of the EU aims at ensuring a balance between the legitimation of citizens and the representation of the Member States, while existing as an independent supra-national authority with its own bodies. Nonetheless, many have underlined the need for more power at the level of the European Parliament, which at the moment is the only direct expression of people’s choice within the Union. This demand comes from a wide range of political parties, including those that see in the shift of functions and competences from the Member States to the EU as a negative process. Another issue is the direct election of the President of the European Commission, even though this topic appears to be more controversial. In any case, this debate revolves around the very nature of the EU and its conversion into a stronger political entity. Since its inception, the Union has gradually transformed from an economic institution establishing a single market towards a political one, and the level of integration of European countries is now facing a turning point: a deeper and stronger Union requires a different type of governance, one which is perceived as having a sound and credible democratic foundation with new levels of dialogue with citizens. It is not a given that popular support for the EU could increase with a stronger and well-recognised democratic structure; however, it is likely that a decisive change in these terms will provide a clear sign of confidence in European institutions.

  1. Sustainable development beyond climate change

Undoubtedly, the EU is on the frontline against climate change as shown by its commitments towards the energetic transition specified in the 2030 strategy, the active participation in the negotiations within the UN framework conventions (the next is being held in Santiago de Chile in December), and financial contributions to developing countries for the implementation of mitigation and adaptation policies. However, the efforts to fight climate change are only one component of the wider concept of sustainable development as drafted in the Agenda 2030 by the UN General Assembly in 2015. Indeed, the Agenda requires an integration of different dimensions, as well a new governance system to monitor and ensure effective policies to ensure not only environmental protection, but also social objectives such as zero hunger, global equality, decent work, access to education for all, and cooperation for peace and justice. EU action should be aimed at complementing climate change policies with a change of paradigm about economic growth objectives, in order to prioritise prosperity over profit, human-centred business models over hyper-financialisation, and fair competition and innovation over practices of social and economic dumping.

  1. Rights and inclusion

The discourse on sustainability naturally introduces another delicate topic concerning rights and, more specifically, inclusion. In particular, there are three aspects that must be tackled. First, the instability of some European countries as far as some basic freedoms are concerned, such as freedom of expression and the press, due to the formulation of less liberal policies. Secondly, the topic of migrations and the key balance to find between imperative humanitarian aid and integration policies on one hand, and protection of external borders on the other, with decisive actions against criminal organisations based on human trafficking activities. Third, seeking remedies to current social crises and discontent (e.g., gilets jaunes), which is associated to many factors, including the shrinking middle class, lack of opportunities, and precarious labour markets. Thus, it is paramount to go beyond existing frameworks, such as the Cohesion Policy, to adopt new complementary strategies based on deeper integration, investments in culture and education, and the strengthening of social rights.

  1. The role of the EU in the world

Finally, what will the role of the EU be on a global scale? Today we are witnessing staggering geopolitical complexity that is leading to a more unstable international arena. Current US foreign policy is mainly dealing with a trade conflict with China, as well as with cracking down on Iran’s objectives in Middle East and in the Gulf. China itself has to manage its new role as global economic power, as well as internal problems, such as the recent uprising in Hong Kong. Furthermore, Russian interests still remain unclear and threatening for Europe in the absence of dialogue. Clearly, the EU should start implementing clear and common foreign policy, as well as making shared choices as far as its external relations are concerned. The main efforts of the EU should be made not only through promoting dialogue with partner countries and ensuring stability, but also with the aim of increasing its capacity to act autonomously to safeguard its interests and uphold its values and way of life.

The EU is faced with meaningful and complex challenges that cannot be thought of as distinct and isolated from one another. Rather, they interact and overlap in countless ways mutually affecting the social, political and economic dimensions they embrace. Therefore, a call for action on a strategic five-year plan is crucial to give shape to coherent and meaningful European policies that allow for a transparent definition of EU’s political purposes and goals.


Matteo Rizzari is a student of Development Economics at Roma Tre University and holds a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics as well as a Master’s degree in Management of Sustainable Development Goals. His main interests are sustainability, the study of social systems and complexity, economic geography and international relations. He’s got experience in street fundraising activities and as a trainee at Centro Europa Ricerche in Rome, but one of his main achievements was to successfully teach Italian card games to foreigners during a semester spent in New Zealand in 2016.

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