Brexit and the EU’s 5 scenarios

Unveiled this week amid much interest, the EU Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe attempted to provide clarity on the options for the EU in the post-Brexit era. Five scenarios were envisaged[1]:

  • ‘Carrying on’
  • ‘Nothing but the Single Market’
  • ‘Those who want more do more’
  • ‘Doing less more efficiently’
  • ‘Doing much more together’

These scenarios are not overly new or imaginative and each faces its own set of challenges. ‘Carrying on’ indicates a Union without changes despite the referendum vote. ‘Nothing but the Single Market’ maintains the four freedoms – movement of goods, people, capital, and services – but leaves neither pro-Europeans nor Eurosceptics satisfied. Meanwhile, the third option opens the possibility of a two-speed Europe, potentially resulting in countries who remain outside certain EU policies. This could also be with matters like Sweden and Denmark opting out of the euro (1992 and 1995 respectively), feeling increasingly peripheral and cut-off from decision-making, this marks the consequences over opt-outs. Scenario four, ‘doing less more efficiently’ opens questions regarding what will be done less, and how will it be done more efficiently? Which “selected policy areas”[2] would the EU continue to play a role in? And more importantly, which would it not? Answers to these questions are bound to raise opposition, particularly amongst the Euro-federalists. The opposite is the case under the fifth scenario, which would greatly suit Guy Verhofstadt and his colleagues in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the European Parliament. Yet with hostility towards the EU rising across the continent and protectionist mentalities more evident across the globe, such a scenario seems unlikely to happen without being strongly challenged.

What is clear is that the EU is seeking to be proactive in advance of Britain’s departure. Though as option three suggests, potentially not proactive in unison. With eastern states, such as Poland and Hungary, showing more defiance towards the EU’s liberal norms and wishing to restrict the power of Brussels, a cohesive policy involving 27 actors appears hard to envisage. This has been a traditional obstacle for the Community, which was much more prevalent prior to the introduction of the Single European Act introducing Qualified Majority Voting in 1987.

Should scenarios three, four, or five emerge, treaty changes will most likely be required. Lisbon was eventually passed by all member states, despite the Irish public rejecting it initially. However, a decade on the landscape of Union has greatly changed.

In determining the future course of the EU, Juncker and his colleagues in the Commission aim to centre the debate on five topics. Developing the social dimension of Europe, deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, on the basis of the Five Presidents’ Report of June 2015, harnessing globalisation, the future of Europe’s defence, and the future of EU finances. Relating these to the five scenarios and the context both inside and outside Europe is a necessary exercise to determine the shape of the Union’s future. Trump’s election in the US has made defence a more pertinent issue, particularly given his rhetoric on NATO. Economic difficulties in the south of Europe continue to make the EMU a topic of significance, while the migration crisis and an ageing population across the continent bring the EU’s social and financial aspects into focus.

The EMU is the obvious area where the third scenario ‘those who want more do more’ could prove to take effect, while defence would be a key facet if the Union chose to follow scenario five. What appears absent is discussion over, arguably, the defining issue of the Brexit campaign, immigration. In keeping this topic off the table, the Commission appears to be unwilling to countenance this being an aspect in any of the five scenarios.

As the Rome Summit approaches and the Union readies itself for sixty years of cooperation, the future prospects for integration are becoming increasingly prevalent in Brussels. For the Commission the paper “marks the beginning of a process for the EU27 to decide on the future of their Union”[3], but it appears increasingly likely that decisions on the future of the EU will be made in Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin rather than Brussels in the coming months. With elections approaching in the Netherlands and France, as well as in Germany later in the year, 2017 is shaping up to be a defining year for the Union.

Despite covering five possible scenarios, one remained noticeably absent. The idea of the EU disintegrating remains difficult for members of its institutions to comprehend, but could this white paper be a case of too little too late? Only time will tell, but Brexit appears set to be just as central to Europe’s future as it will be to Britain’s.

Author Bio: Rory Foye.  Full-time master’s student in European Studies at University of Leuven.

[1] European Commission Press Release, 1 March 2017, ‘Commission presents White Paper on the future of Europe’, European Commission, Accessed at:

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.