The European Union faces both internal and external challenges. The ongoing situation in Ukraine, the debt crisis in Greece, and the rise of populist political movements have revealed a lack of policy consensus among EU member states. The United Kingdom will hold a general election in early May that may pave the way for a referendum on whether the country will remain in the EU. As a result, the future prospects of the EU remain an open question.

Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Shi Zhiqin hosted a discussion with Martin Holland about the EU’s future, as well as the opportunities for, and challenges to, further integration in Europe. These insights shed light on how China can enhance cooperation and develop mutually beneficial initiatives with its European partners.

Discussion Highlights

  • Europe’s Future Trajectory: Panelists acknowledged that the competing interests of the EU’s supranational institutions and the domestic governments of its members have grown more pronounced in recent years, posing a significant challenge to the union’s future. The eurozone debt crisis and the resurgence of populist domestic political parties in member states will continue to test the leadership and multilateral model of the EU. Panelists discussed the possible outcomes of Europe’s future, including a federalized political union, a blended arrangement that would balance national sovereignty and bilateral cooperation, or even a broader reassessment of the current integration model.
  • Elite-Driven Regional Integration: Panelists posited that the domestic populations of some EU member states, such as Greece or Spain, perceive a gap between their own interests and the objectives of the political elites that are advancing European integration. As EU leaders strive for a cohesive, unified approach to external affairs, the domestic views of such EU member states—especially small ones—have at times been downplayed, panelists explained. They suggested that steadily declining voter turnout for European Parliament elections reflect uncertainty among voters about how closely this supranational legislative body represents their domestic interests.
  • Populist Domestic Politics: Panelists agreed that nationalistic political parties are growing increasingly popular in countries ranging from the United Kingdom and France to Italy and Greece. This political trend, and the potential for candidates to appeal to nationalist pride to attract votes, has accentuated the political and cultural differences between EU member states and strained European solidarity. Panelists identified the United Kingdom’s general elections in May 2015 as a critical turning point. Prime Minister David Cameron, if reelected, has pledged to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU and the terms of this relationship before the end of 2017, which may embolden populist movements in other EU member states, panelists explained.
  • Remaining Security Concerns: Panelists identified a number of energy and security difficulties that the EU must address. They explained that differing views among member states on issues of energy security, coupled with Europe’s current dependence on Russia for natural gas, have profound economic and security implications. Concerns in Europe about religious extremism have also been heightened in light of the violent Charlie Hebdo incident in France this past January. Panelists asserted that these challenges demonstrate a need for European collaboration in the search for durable, long-term security. 
  • Implications for China-EU Relations: Panelists noted that a divided Europe might give China greater diplomatic leverage in its bilateral relations with individual EU member countries. A strong, cohesive EU with a shared foreign policy vision, however, would simplify China’s diplomacy in the region and ensure that Europe remains a strong component of an increasingly multipolar global order, panelists added. They identified several opportunities for greater China-EU cooperation, including counterterrorism and diplomatic coordination to promote a peaceful resolution to the situation in Ukraine.

Martin Holland

Martin Holland is the director of the National Centre for Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury. His research interests include EU development policy and EU foreign policy.

Shi Zhiqin

Shi Zhiqin is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and dean of the department of international relations at Tsinghua University. His research focuses on China-EU relations.

Cui Hongjian

Cui Hongjian is a senior research fellow and director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies. His research interests include China-EU economic and trade cooperation.