EU could be reduced to just the single market, European Commission white paper reveals

Vision of union’s future shows consumer and environmental protections could be at risk if this option is followed

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The Independent Online

The European Union could be reduced to only the single market, a white paper outlining five options for the bloc’s future has revealed. 

Setting out potential scenarios for the union’s future after Brexit, the European Commission document shows that the single market could be the main reason for the remaining 27 EU countries to stay tied together.

It would mean easy agreements on shared policy relating to the free movement of capital and goods, the Commission said, though risks a “race to the bottom” in terms of consumer and environmental standards if EU-wide regulation dissolved.

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Co-operation on security and defence – one of Theresa May’s 12 key points for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU – could also be at risk, the document shows. But European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs on Wednesday that "our darkest day in 2017 will still be far brighter than any spent by our forefathers on the battlefield".

Looking ahead, the white paper said that by 2025: “Given the strong focus on reducing regulation at EU level, differences persist or increase in areas such as consumer, social and environmental standards, as well as in taxation and in the use of public subsidies.

“This creates a risk of a ‘race to the bottom’. It is also difficult to agree new common rules on the mobility of workers or for the access to regulated professions. As a result, the free movement of workers and services is not fully guaranteed.”

While the single currency might facilitate trade deals, “growing divergence and limited co-operation” between member nations would be "major sources of vulnerability", the Commission feared.

The same would apply to other positions on which the bloc currently presents a united front, including climate change and the fight against tax evasion.

That is the paper's second option.

The first is that the European Union simply carries on – “implementing and upgrading its current reform agenda”. The bloc would step up investment in “digital, transport and energy infrastructure” as well as the fight against terrorism.

The paper suggests also that by 2025 “member states [would] decide to pool some military capabilities”.

The paper makes no recommendation of which route Europe should follow, though Mr Juncker said he personally rejected the option of reducing the EU to a free trade area when he presented it on Wednesday.

Unveiling the document to the European Parliament, Mr Juncker said: “However painful or regrettable Brexit may be, it will not stop the European Union as it moves to the future. We need to move forward, we need to continue.”

The white paper “is the start of the process, not the end, and I hope that now an honest and wide-ranging debate will take place,” he added. “We have Europe’s future in our own hands.”

The paper’s third option would entail some EU member states deciding to step up and “do more”, creating “coalitions of the willing” to work in specific policy areas on top of the current functions of the EU. It would not diminish the status of non-participating states, which would be allowed to join in further down the line.

The fourth option envisions a more nimble EU, that chooses fewer policy areas on which to focus but acts more quickly to implement the collective will in those arenas. This scenario would see a “strict minimum” standard for health and safety, the environment and consumer protections, with flexibility for member states to “experiment in certain areas”.

The paper’s authors said this would help “close the gap between promise and delivery” on the part of the bloc, and also allow citizens to better understand how it functions.

The final scenario involves “doing much more together” – and looks something like the so-called EU “super-state”.

It would mean “cooperation between all member states [going] further than ever before in all domains,” stronger protections for the Euro and the bloc being represented by a single seat in most international fora.

The Commission said that by 2025: “There is much greater coordination on fiscal, social and taxation matters, as well as European supervision of financial services. The European Parliament has the final say on international trade agreements. Defence and security are prioritised. In full complementarity with Nato, a European Defence Union is created.”

But they added: “There is the risk of alienating parts of society which feel that the EU lacks legitimacy or has taken too much power away from national authorities.”

Additional reporting by agencies