Since then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supposedly asked ‘who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ in the mid-1970s, the meaning of Europe has remained intensely contested. Can Europe be equated with anything deeper or more transcendent than the institutions of the European Union whilst remaining a valuable concept? Is Europe – as a landscape, a political theatre, a set of ideas – increasingly irrelevant in today’s world? If so, how should self-described Europeans respond? Is this a time for hard-nosed realism, or utopian thinking? 

These are questions few can ignore. In May, the European Union leadership launched the Conference on the Future of Europe, a project intended to “reach conclusions and provide guidance on the future of Europe” by Spring 2022. And yet, this comes at a time when the EU’s internal divisions have been laid bare over such matters as recovery funds, vaccine passports and distribution, and relations with China. Beyond the bloc member-states, the meaning of Europe is no less contested. 

As the continent – tentatively, unevenly, unequally – hopes to emerge from the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic over the next months, the Blue’s Global Affairs editors explore and offer their takes on five issues that appear likely to shape the debate about the future of Europe in the 2020s. 

European Identity – Dan Hubbard

Since the end of the Second World War the issue of pan-European identity has always been important for those pushing for a more integrated Europe. Within the European Union, Brussels has long taken active measures to foster this sense of identity by making their actions directly relevant to the lives of everyday citizens. Part of this has been through the creation of symbolism like the EU flag and adoption of the Ode to Joy. However, the introduction of the Euro single currency in the early 2000s acted as a direct, tangible example of European integration. As well as aiming to ease trade, the Euro was always intended to further a sense of collective identity. We can see the effects of the Euro’s introduction from Eurobarometer surveys that show a 3% reduction in those who identify exclusively with their country in states where the currency was adopted. While this may not sound like a lot, one only needs to remember the fact that Britain left the EU with a majority of less than 2% to see its significance. The symbolic attachment to the Euro as a marker of pan-European identity can also be seen across the Union, notably in the construction of the (previously fictional) bridges that appear on Euro banknotes in a Dutch housing development

We can also suggest that feelings of pan-European identity, at least within the EU, have increased as the organisation’s prominence has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Eurobarometer survey, trust in the EU rose to nearly 49%. This trend was particularly apparent in Portugal whose citizens had the highest trust in the EU, climbing 22% on 2020 to reach 78%. Even in countries whose governments have been hostile to further integration, trust in the Union is high, reaching 59% in Hungary and 50% in Poland. Coming in the midst of the pandemic this may reflect confidence in the EU’s ability to handle a supranational crisis, with the organisation taking the lead on vaccine procurement and economic aid. Therefore, within the European Union at least the sense of a pan-European identity remains strong despite the recent rise of far-right nationalism and the strain of the pandemic.

Outside of the European Union, it becomes harder to gauge a sense of pan-European identity. Montenegro’s recent efforts to join the Union, with 80% of the country supporting accession, suggests that European identity has roots in the former Yugoslavia (with Croatia and Slovenia already having joined). Elsewhere though, Turkey’s pivot away from Europe in recent years suggests the influence of any pan-continental identity there is weak. Instead of progressing with Turkey’s decades-long quest to join the EU, Erdoğan’s government has instead shifted towards a “neo-Ottoman” stance, trying to resurrect former Turkish hegemony in the Middle East. 

Bordering Europe – Elliott Cocker 

In many ways, the acceptance of the free movement of the EU’s Schengen area has always been dependent on establishing a tough border on the Union’s periphery. As freedom of movement has been framed as a fundamental tenet of the EU, often as an achievement of human rights over and above economic principle, its external walls have been raised, and its patrols militarized. The vision of European integration and the dismantling of barriers between states has been enabled politically by violent defence of the frontier, most famously with Frontex, the European border agency, repelling migrants crossing the Mediterranean. With attention to Mediterranean crossings peaking around 2016, as the so-called migrant crisis coincided with Brexit debate and hyperbolic imaginaries of asylum seekers ‘flooding’ the EU unimpeded, emphasis on pushing back against immigration offered a means to appease the European right. But this wall-raising was more than just a temporary fix; maintaining the exclusivity of the Union’s territory has remained central to its migration policy to date, and ongoing suppression of migrant crossings continues to serve as the forceful underpinning of the post-border EU, at the expense of human rights violations and lives lost.

A pro-refugee demonstration in Bonn, Germany (Photo: Mika Baumeister)

While some have revived the term ‘Fortress Europe’ to describe this border securitisation, this betrays implicit exclusions in the idea of Europe itself, largely shaped by the constitution of the EU. The EU stakes its borders across the continent itself, not just against migration from North Africa and the Middle East. Albeit partly as a response to asylum seeker transit routes through the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, the EU erects its barriers also in the face of European non-member states. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s border with EU member Croatia is policed as such, migration suppression leaving Bosnia to tackle a humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers stranded in its territory. This is not to mention similar measures across the Union’s eastern land borders firmly placing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Turkey and other (at least partly) European states on its periphery as outside the vision of European integration.

Even within the EU there is splintering, as certain groups of EU migrants are categorised as undesirable. In Western Europe in particular, the right and far-right point to migration from Central and Eastern Europe as a problem, situating who belongs to an authentic, unquestioned Europeanness which enables unproblematic movement, and whose movement must be checked. There emerges a kind of nested hierarchy of Europeanness and desirability. While free migration in the rich Western European states is rarely problematised, the status of Central and Eastern Europeans in the European vision is still contested by some prominent voices in the EU, and those falling outside the member states are firmly established as beyond the scope of European integration.

In summary, the far-right of many of the EU member states has pushed against Schengen, calling for reestablishment of internal borders. We see scepticism, or outright rejection, of the ideas of European integration in these campaigns. But it is important to remember that while EU leadership frames itself as the inclusive alternative to these narratives, it continues to violently suppress movement from its outside. As militarized Frontex patrols continue to push back against migration over the Mediterranean, the intensive bordering in the Balkans, Turkey and Eastern Europe remind us that the post-division European imaginary championed by the EU extends only to those in the Union.

The European social model – Clara Malling Strømsted 

When the European Union (EU) was established, it was intended to bring peace and prevent wars, but today, the EU’s aims and influence span much wider than that. The EU pioneered the social welfare model, which aims to reduce poverty and increase equality. This approach to social rights is reflected in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, which was adopted in 2000. It highlights the EU’s focus on workers’ rights, right to social security and assistance, among other welfare policies. Most member states are ‘welfare states’ that follow this charter by protecting and promoting the wellbeing of citizens based on equitable welfare distribution and equal opportunities.

However, globalisation has increased since the establishment of the EU, which has put competitive pressure on workers rights, challenging one of the cornerstones of the European social model. The welfare state as we know it now may therefore not be a viable option for the foreseeable future simply because it may no longer be affordable for all member states.

The differences in systems and priorities among EU members made the EU’s welfare systems vulnerable following the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis forced member states to reduce the spending on the welfare services due to austerity measures. Yet due to the uneven effect the financial crisis had on the member states, the various welfare states were struggling in different ways. Those in good financial shape ahead of the crisis came through with an advantage, while those that were not possibly had to compromise their social model more. The austerity measures meant that spending on welfare services had to be cut in most states, for example on public pensions, healthcare, housing, et cetera. However, some member states such as the Nordic countries managed to keep their social welfare model more intact compared to others, and so the long recovery from the financial crisis has led to larger differences in welfare models across member states.

Seeing the effects that the financial crisis had, it is difficult to not worry about the effect that the pandemic will have on the future of the European social model. With the pandemic not having revealed its full effect yet on government spending, unemployment and general citizen wellbeing, it is difficult to imagine that the member states will not have to make any serious priorities of spending in the coming years to recover. The pandemic, however, has made us aware of the gaps in welfare services and highlighted the social division of labour. The pandemic could therefore bring with it a rethink of the social model that could sustain it in the long run, even though it has put pressure on the economy, and may have to lead to changes in government spending.

The member states do seem to share the same attitude towards the social model though, which lends some hope for the future of the European social model. Without doubt, the focus on social rights reducing poverty and generally improving quality life can be said to be a good thing. However, if it becomes impossible  to maintain such spending, the story might be completely different. It will therefore be very interesting to see the effects of the measures taken to recover from the pandemic on the European social model moving forwards. 

Europe’s Politics of Population – Jacob Grech

For decades, the populations of roughly half of all European countries have been falling and ageing. The causes are manifold, but the most prominent is undoubtedly that of human capital flight – often dubbed the ‘brain drain’ effect.  European policy-makers increasingly speak of ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ regions to describe the major imbalances in the provision of skills and competences across the EU. The picture is not a uniform one, however, with population decreases significantly more pronounced in the rural Europe of country villages and towns. Vibrant, expanding capital areas can often disguise the reality further afield. 

Part of the story for this trend can be told with reference to longstanding economic inequalities between European regions, notably the north-south and east-west divides, the roots of which it is necessary to go back often hundreds of years to uncover. Internal EU migration, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, has driven millions of younger people, notable educated professionals, to become expatriates. The result is an increasingly vicious cycle. Regions with rapidly shrinking populations develop larger and larger gaps in the provision of social services and infrastructure, disincentivising return migration or investment, public or private. 

Population decline has gradually risen up the agenda in European politics, but remains a somewhat subsurface issue. Nevertheless, it has invited a range of responses from national political figures, which in character reveal its intersections as a question of economic, but also cultural, resonance. For Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the steady decline of the country’s population since the early 1980s presents a serious threat to the “survival of our culture and our civilisation”. His response has been to focus on encouraging native-born citizens to have children through a range of financial incentives, dedicating 5% of GDP to these efforts and providing 10 million forint (£27,000) interest-free loans for families. A very similar approach (€2,000 for every child born) has been adopted by Greece’s government since 2019, with a particular focus on the remote island communities that have experienced a mass departure of younger working-age people. 

The explicitly cultural concerns lying behind many programmes to encourage population growth have sparked controversy on multiple counts. Accompanied as they are by assumptions regarding appropriate family structure, they promise to impose additional social pressures to conformity. For instance, by applying further stigma to single people or childless couples by suggesting that their individual choices are, at best, egotistical; at worst, unpatriotic. Subtler but not less relevant are the links to the conspiracy theory of a concerted process of cultural or ethnic population ‘replacement’ of ethnic Europeans by outsiders. This is an idea that Orbán has expressly referred to, positing that a country such as his might simply disappear, remarking that “it’s not hard to imagine that there would be one single last man who has to turn the lights out”. 

He is far from the only major political figure in Europe to have built their brand on a combination of hostility to immigration and concern to boost native population figures. Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have also spoken of the perils of demographic change, and presented programmes based on a blend of economic interventionism and exclusionary communitarianism with mantras of national identity and survival at their core. Salvini went so far as to confidently proclaim his far-right party the heir to Italy’s once-mighty Communists because of its approach to labour issues. His claim was met with general ridicule in Italy, but Le France’s Front national can lay a more solid claim to a leftist inheritance. It has been gaining rapid ground in the formerly staunchly left-wing regions of the north and east, which its leader Le Pen has dubbed ‘Forgotten France’ as well as consolidating its base in the traditionally conservative Midi (Mediterranean France). 

In stark contrast, a range of often local or regional politicians have responded to population decline and its economic impact by bucking the conventional labels of left and right and expectations of policy solutions more broadly. Southern Italy, for instance, is a region blighted by rural poverty for centuries from which millions emigrated to the United States in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, has experienced the depopulation of hundreds of small towns and villages. In the Calabrian hilltop town of Riace, local authorities, with state support, have repurposed hundreds of abandoned residences for the accommodation of refugees. As the mayor puts it, “the multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionised what was becoming a ghost town.” 

This approach is not the magic solution to decades-long trends of decline. The town still faces high levels of unemployment and the social deprivation typical of its region more broadly, and the arrivals have been met with hostility from some residents. However, by facilitating these new citizens in learning local trades as well as developing language skills, Riace’s authorities have made concrete advances in bringing the area back to life – quite literally – and in the process managed to challenge, through encouraging cooperative interaction, generational and cultural divides.  

Albarracín in Spain’s Teruel Province (Photo: Angel Santos)

In Spain, where the term la España vacía  has been coined the sparsely populated 70% of the land area that is home to just 10% of the population, the much-discussed rise of the right-wing populist Vox overshadows the growth of regionalist political movements like Teruel existe. Teruel is a sparsely-populated inland province in southern Aragon whose residents have long considered themselves forgotten by the national government – and indeed by most Spaniards. Infrastructure is a primary concern. As activists there point out, until just over twenty years ago, the area possessed no motorways. Frustrated by inaction on promised investments, the long-standing Teruel existe fielded candidates for the first time in the November 2019 election, and placed first in the province.  

In the face of nativist responses to questions of demography, it is increasingly local politicians that are taking on the mantle of the pluralistic European ideal. Mayors such as Palermo’s Leoluca Orlando, who began his career as an anti-mafia campaigner, have emerged as champions of refugees and asylum seekers in the face of widespread hostility from national figures. Orlando has campaigned for the abolition of the residency permit and sought to foster a sense of inclusive Palermitan citizenship to engage the new arrivals. Despite the high unemployment and poverty rates of his own city, his internationalism and idealism have seemingly struck a nerve with locals. The veteran politician was reelected for a fifth term in 2017. The late mayor of Poland’s northern city of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, occupied a similar position as the face of his country’s progressive tradition, throwing his support behind the banners of multiculturalism and LGBTQ rights in the context of state-sponsored discrimination.

Population is a keenly contested subject in European politics, and, as this overview will have suggested, it is here to stay. In some parts of the continent, it is already a central question in national conversation; in others, it remains a subsurface subject, one which politicians are keen to put on the backburner, whether on account of its cultural sensitivity, economic intractability, or sheer magnitude. As Europe’s population continues to age, and fundamental questions about its place in the world continue to be asked, we can expect to see it emerge as a major faultline in politics over the next decades. 

Europe in the World – Duarte Amaro 

Gui Minhai was a Chinese-born Swedish writer living in Thailand, the author of more than 200 books highly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, who disappeared from his home in 2015. He quickly appeared under Chinese custody, and it was only in February 2020 that he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, despite Swedish diplomats’ best efforts to secure his release. Systematic human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet have also been criticised by many European officials. But European policy regarding China is still toothless, and Sweden is one of the few hawks left in the Union.

Many have ascribed Europe’s lethargy to significant Chinese infrastructure investment in many Central and Eastern European countries. However, Chinese investment often turns out to be something of a poisoned chalice, even in economic terms. Far from the advertised financial succour, “what we [Eastern and Central European countries] got instead was a very low amount of investment, and from the commercial perspective what has mostly grown is the trade imbalance in China’s favor”, says Hungarian researcher Tamás Matura.

Beijing’s real leverage is tied not to its investment in Europe, but to European – and particularly German – companies’ investment in China. Germany’s economic ties to China have swelled ever since Helmut Kohl first travelled there in the fall of 1984 to oversee the ground-breaking of Volkswagen’s first Chinese factory. Last year, China was once again Germany’s largest trading partner, with exports and imports together worth more than 200 billion. The size of the Chinese market means that German firms find it essential to keep Sino-German relationships on a good footing. This shapes German and, consequently, European foreign policy vis-à-vis China, constraining how critical the 27 can afford to be in regards to China.

The German stance has changed in recent times, especially after German industry reconsidered their relationship with Beijing given intellectual property risks. While most SPD and CDU/CSU officials remain committed to increasing business ties, the opposition Greens have placed China at the forefront of the agenda. Jürgen Trittin, a senior Green MP, stated on the floor of the Bundestag that “China is not a strategic partner. China is a difficult partner”.

Europe’s relationship with China is intricately linked to its relationship with the US, as it tries to balance independence from both with strong business ties with China and traditional transatlantic cooperation with America. Believing Europe should follow its own narrow path between the two increasingly hostile powers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell argues the Old Continent shouldn’t blindly follow the New: “We have to be like Frank Sinatra, no? My way”.

One of the few topics on which there is even greater dissent among the 27 is perhaps Russia. While Beijing begets a debate between greater or lesser engagement which ultimately traces back to Europe’s relationship with the US, the Eastern Front is seen from hopelessly different angles from each European capital.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron (Photo:

In his constant pursuit of European sovereignty, French President Emmanuel Macron hasn’t shied away from moving closer to Moscow and cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. If Europe should build its own security architecture, it must engage with Russia and disengage with the US: “If Europe doesn’t express its own voice toward Russia, […] then we will not be able to move forward”, he said in Poland last year. Aiming for a long-term shift in the EU’s weight, the view from the Elysée is measured in decades. Other European leaders may not be quite so forward-looking – or patient.

As with China, Berlin’s Russia policy is fundamentally based on business, especially Germany’s energy needs, which have increasingly been satisfied by Russian gas. Such a transactional stance is arguably less doveish than France’s, since it allows for some confrontation on the political stage as long as the cheques clear. But it has contributed to increasing uneasiness among Eastern member states, like Poland and the Baltic countries, as profitable projects like Nord Stream 2 still go ahead despite intolerable behaviour from the Kremlin.

With memories of Soviet control vivid, former Warsaw Pact nations are the most hawkish concerning Russia. The Baltic is a regular playground for NATO troops, and the Atlantic Alliance has four combat-ready battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, totalling over 4.6 thousand troops. Recent developments have made even states further away from the Russian border fearful of Moscow’s intentions. Allegations that the Kremlin was behind a 2014 explosion at a Czech ammunition warehouse led to the expulsion of diplomats from both countries, culminating in Russia designating the Czech Republic as an “unfriendly state”.

This disunity leaves the Union immobilised, as Borrell personally found out when, earlier this year, he, like other Europeans before him, travelled to Russia in the winter only to be humiliated. In a joint press conference with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, just days after the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Borrell stood by while Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner”, before getting goaded by a Russian journalist into condemning the US embargo on Cuba. Before Borrell’s trip was over, Russia expelled three European diplomats for taking part in protests condemning Navalny’s arrest. MEPs were quick to condemn Borrell’s ineptitude, but many also highlighted how internal European divisiveness made the High Representative’s job much harder.

Europe’s position on Africa is perhaps more consensual than that on China or Russia, even if national rationales differ. France has taken the lead in the Sahel, with a significant military presence of over 4,500 troops across Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad as part of an anti-jihadist contingent. But other countries also play an important role across the continent. With more than 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP of over €2 trillion, the growing African market is an attractive target for German business interests, which in turn lead Berlin to push Central and Eastern European states to support a renewed focus on the Union’s southern neighbours. On the other hand, Spain and Italy are committed to reaching an agreement with African nations for the return of unsuccessful asylum applicants.

Europe’s ties to Africa were sporadic at best until the von der Leyen Commission took a bold new step in strengthening links between the two continents. Upon taking office as President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced Africa would be one of her main priorities and, after a flurry of visits and summits, she travelled to Ethiopia with 22 European Commissioners to meet their African Union counterparts at its Addis Ababa headquarters. This reflect not just the growing commercial interest of the Germans, geopolitical ambition of the French or migratory concerns of the Spaniards and Italians but the efforts of more committed EU officials, like President of the European Council Charles Michel, and global shifts that have forced the EU to look away from the Atlantic to find new allies. As a senior European but non-EU diplomat told Politico: “I think in some ways the European Commission, when it looked at the world, had nowhere else to go. I don’t think von der Leyen, when she looked at the U.S., Russia, China or Latin America, will have been very tempted. Africa is basically all Europe has left as a partner”

As candidate for President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen addressed the European Parliament in a wide-ranging 2019 speech, promising to act on climate change, ensure gender equality and uphold the Rule of Law everywhere. On foreign affairs, she emphasised the continuing role of NATO while underlining the importance of strengthening European capabilities. She paid homage to all diplomats, development aid workers, police officers and servicepeople, and proposed to take foreign policy decisions not by unanimity but by a qualified majority. And argued that “the world is calling for more Europe”. The question now, however, is whether Europe can heed the call.

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