Every year is special and challenging when it comes to European integration. The highlights of 2017 were a number of high-level strategy papers and speeches such as the European Commission White Paper on the Future of Europe, the State of the Union Address by Commission President Juncker, French President Macron’s Initiative for Europe, and the Future of Europe report by President of the European Parliament Tajani. These papers and speeches all pave the way for the discussions on improving and deepening the European Union in the months towards the European elections in spring 2019. The upcoming EP elections will be different from earlier elections as the current discussions aim to offer political choices to ensure the elections are content-based.

Whereas politicians and policy makers are in the business of finding compromises, this volume, as can be expected from a think tank, aims to stand back from daily negotiations and assesses underlying trends, the implications of initiatives, and possible alternatives. As regards topics, we had to be both selective and pragmatic. One general conclusion emerging from this volume is that the abovementioned speeches and strategy papers emphasise weaknesses and challenges at the EU level, whereas this volume clearly identifies two levels at which action is needed: the EU and national levels. Taking an eclectic look at the chapters, two sets of themes can be identified: (1) the tasks and obligations of the member states, and (2) the added value of the European policies, even though member states differ in many and in major ways on what EU specific steps should be taken.

Starting with the member state level, trends include the important question of ‘the’ (non-)emerging European narrative. As it appears, narratives differ significantly from one member state to another. This differentiation calls for, on the one hand, caution in defending one type of EU over the other – given the danger of feeding oppositions. On the other hand, this volume also offers some new perspectives on thinking on the European narrative. As appears from the contributions on public support and convergence, next to discussions on deepening integration, better European integration cannot be seen in isolation from continued weaknesses in the member states. Therefore, one part of the European narrative has to be connected to the role of member states and to what is expected from them. In addition, as may be concluded from the chapter on rule of law, strengthening national capacities demands bottom-up capacity-building processes whereas the EU’s rule of law policy is mostly top-down. Lessons can be drawn from the successes of building the internal market where different kinds of national and European checks and balances have been created through bottom-up capacity-building initiatives. Similarly, the contributions on social policy and national fiscal councils and productivity boards underline the extent to which a better and deeper union depends on sound national policies and institutions. Here too, a bottom-up capacity-building agenda has to be developed.

As regards the EU level, this volume shows that major differences between member states stand in the way of the EU ambitions for swift responses and, hence, calls for a cautionary approach. The EU is confronted with a ring of instability in its neighbourhood for which it still has neither instruments nor a narrative. Similarly, European irregular migration policies continue to be nationally-driven and caught in an East-West divide as well as preferences for brokering unilateral deals instead of a unified migration policy. Differences in perspectives also characterise the EMU debates as appears from the discussion on the politicisation of the ECB, highlighting that the Central Bank has been forced to act because of continued national differences in the European Council. And the start of the discussions on the long-term EU budget (MFF) is marked by profound differences too. The chapter on the MFF challenges the EU’s emphasis on ‘European Added Value’ and argues that ‘Better Spending’ should be the starting point for the budget discussions. On trade policy, a dilemma has emerged: more trade deals are coming the EU’s way, but more tension between the EU, national governments and EU citizens could be the result. As far as this volume is concerned, the area where better and deeper integration seems to move swiftly is defence cooperation even though, as always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Despite political pressures to exploit windows of opportunities for deepening European integration, 2018 calls for caution. Deeper and better European integration can only be successful if national and European ambitions are in tune and if ambitions are matched by national and European capacities to deliver. The agenda for 2018 therefore needs to result in development of the Union as well as of the member states. Progress is called for at different levels of governance but haste has to be avoided.

About the authors

Adriaan Schout is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator Europe at the Clingendael Institute. He combines research and consultancy on European governance questions for national and European institutions. He has worked on projects addressing issues of the EU presidency, EU integration and Improving EU regulation, amongst others.

Wouter Zweers is a junior researcher at the Clingendael Institute, where he focuses on a wide range of EU-related issues, notably EU foreign policy and the European Neighbourhood Policy.