Europe in 2020: what’s the prognosis?

Richard Laming

By Richard Laming

It is not possible to talk about Europe in the year 2020 without first looking at the world as a whole. I think there are three trends on the global scene to point out.


The first is a rise in interdependence. Whether you look at economic, environmental or social considerations, decisions and events in one part of the world will inevitably affect us all. The twin deficits in the American economy are one such example, global warming another, the spread of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis a third.

Changing distribution of power

Secondly, there is a change in the distribution of power around the world. Specifically, there is the rise of countries such as Brazil, China and India. These are big countries.

To put this into some kind of context, there are seven Indian states and eight Chinese provinces each with a population larger than that of the UK. China and India are big places: Europe as a whole is comparable; individual EU member states on their own are not.

Europe will represent a smaller proportion of world trade and economic activity than it does now, and that’s a good thing. What that means is that the gap between rich and poor around the world will be shrinking.

Anyone who knows anything about economics knows that it is not a zero-sum game. There is a great misunderstanding that if someone else is getting richer, that it must mean that someone else is getting poorer. That’s simply not true. Even if Europe’s share of world trade declines, Europe and Europeans will still be getting richer.

Multipolar democracy

The third conclusion about the future multipolar world is that democracy will be more widespread. Emerging powers such as Brazil and India are also democracies. This is welcome, of course, but it has an important implication for the trans-Atlantic relationship.

During the cold war, when there was a contest between a democratic America and an anti-democratic Soviet Union, it was natural and right for Europe to look to America for leadership. It was the biggest, most powerful democracy and Europeans would always want to be on its side.

In the future, America will no longer be the only democratic power. When disagreements arise between America and India, or between America and Brazil, it is not obvious that Europe should seek to follow America any more. This doesn’t mean that Europe and America should become enemies, or even rivals, but rather that Europe will have to start taking its own decisions.

Disagreement between Europe and the US is already quite pronounced in the field of trade, and the disastrous American invasion of Iraq shows how it has started to spread into other military aspects of foreign policy. I think this process has some distance left to run.

Europe in 2020

If those are three features of the global scene in 2020, what do they mean for the European Union? I am going to look at three distinct areas: the size of the European Union; the powers of the European Union; and the way in which it takes decisions.


Why should countries join the EU? Bear in mind that in a world of increasingly free trade, the economic difference between membership and non-membership of the EU is going to shrink, but the political difference between membership and non-membership is going to grow.

The EU is going to be less a tool for solving economic problems – most of the solutions lie either globally or within individual member states – and more of a tool for solving political problems. If we want to get a new environmental policy started, such as REACH for the testing of chemicals, it will take a power the size of the EU to get the world’s chemical companies to comply. All around the world, the chemical industry is looking at the EU policy and preparing to adapt to it.

We could discuss the details of the policy if you like, but the point is that if Europeans want any kind of policy like this, they have to do it together. The taxation of airline fuel is a good example of where something could be done. The EU as a whole would be big enough to force changes in the 1944 Chicago Convention, whereas no individual member state could possibly do so on its own.

So, the reason for joining the EU is to get a hand on the levers of power, particularly at the global level.

By 2020, my prediction is that Croatia and some other western Balkan countries will have joined, possibly Norway and Iceland, but not yet Switzerland or Turkey.


The EU has an extensive range of powers in the economic field, and there is not much to add. There will be some kind of European corporate taxation by then, particularly in the environmental field – there is a long-term shift coming in taxation moving from good things – income, value added, profits – to bad things – pollution, and the use of non-renewable resources. To preserve the integrity of the single market, these will need to be set at European level.

On agriculture, the CAP as a means of funding farmers will have come to an end. Individual member states or regions might wish to continue funding farmers for social or environmental reasons – to preserve the landscape, for example – but that will be a national or regional decision and not a European one. Again, to protect the single market, these payments will have to be limited, so the CAP will turn into a limitation on farm subsidies and not the basis for them.

Defence cooperation will develop by stages, because it’s a sensitive area and different countries have different traditions of neutrality. But the crucial realisation is that our security does not depend on fighting them on the beaches and on the landing grounds any more. The threats to our security originate around the world, and any response to those threats needs to do the same.

If we want the capacity to act out of area, we have two choices: either as the American foreign legion, or as part of a European collective effort. The advantage that the European option offers is that it is collective and equal; no such reciprocity is on offer from the Americans.


More powers in Brussels also requires more democratic input, and that in turn depends on a sense of legitimacy and identity.

I think that the president of the Commission in the year 2020 will have assumed the post having won the election in the summer of 2019. The incipient model of parliamentary democracy – the alignment of the terms of office of the European Parliament and the Commission (the Commission originally served only a four year term) – will come to fruition. The Council of Ministers will meet in public and vote by majority, and regions will be represented in their own right on issues where they have the legislative power within their national constitutions. I think this is an exciting and radical vision of European democracy for the future.

It has taken time for this European model of parliamentary democracy to develop because it takes time for the people of Europe to get used to it. It is not enough to have the rules, there must also be a sense of ownership of the rules. Not only a kratos, but also a demos.

The crucial question for the British – and I accept that it is not yet settled – is whether they will be part of this European parliamentary democracy. The crucial question, as I said earlier, is not an economic one but a political one. Will the British feel European?

Do the British wish to live off the 1940s dream of a special relationship with the United States, do they wish to hide and simply hope that the rest of the world will pass them by, or do they wish to exercise responsibility and influence in the world around them?

If they choose the last of these options, then participation in the European Union is the route to choose.

Based on a talk given by Richard Laming, Director of Federal Union, to King’s College London European Society on 29 January 2007. The opinions expressed are those of the author, who may be contacted at [email protected], and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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