The European Union is gearing up for another bout of prolonged, agonising and internal soul-searching.
Reflection on Europe’s future, its identity and role in a rapidly changing world is certainly necessary. But the European landscape has become increasingly complicated, making it imperative that even as it ponders over its future, the EU deals with the many crises on its borders — and beyond.
Also, at a time when unity is a compelling necessity, many of the 28 EU countries often appear to be headed in different and often contradictory directions.
There is no denying that triggered by demands by Britain’s newly re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron for an across the board overhaul of key EU priorities, the bloc looks set to enter another period of deep introspection on its future direction, main concerns and general raison d’etre.
Britain will hold a referendum — probably next year — on whether it should remain in the EU. But London is not alone in envisaging a withdrawal from the Union.
There is also dangerous talk of a Greek exit from the Eurozone as Athens struggles to meet its massive financial obligations vis-à-vis its international lenders.
Meanwhile, Poland has elected a conservative new president, Andrzej Duda, while Spain seems to have voted in the opposite — leftist — direction in recent regional elections.
In addition, the European economy remains mired in stagnation. Jobs remain scarce across the bloc while the debate on immigration and reception of refugees becomes ever more toxic and complex.
Ironically, even as Europeans wring their hands in despair over their many interrelated problems, countries outside the bloc can’t wait to get in.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have joined the long list of countries which want a so-called “road map” leading up to membership of the EU.
They are not going to get any such thing. At a meeting in Riga last week, the EU made clear that while it wanted closer relations with the three countries — and despite the growing influence of Russia in the region — EU membership was not on the cards.
Also in Europe, the leaders of six Western Balkan countries have told the EU that they are becoming impatient with their long wait to join the bloc and needed EU funds to keep up reforms.
The prime ministers of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, all hoping to join the bloc, have said their cooperation should be rewarded with projects like new road and rail links.
Slovenia and Croatia are the only countries in the region to have joined the EU. The others have lagged behind because of conflicts with neighbours after the break-up of Yugoslavia and a failure to achieve reform.
And then there is Turkey which is still waiting on the sidelines, anxious to become an EU member but unlikely to become one any time in the future.
For the moment, all eyes are on Britain and Prime Minister Cameron’s calls for a renegotiation of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon, the latest version of its constitution.
Many EU countries are sympathetic to Britain’s demands for an overhaul of the EU — but do not want another long, difficult and complicated treaty negotiation.
Details of what Britain really wants are still deliberately sketchy. But, some salient demands stand out.
First, Cameron wants Britain to opt out from the EU ambition to forge an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe.
He wants to restrict access to the British labour market of EU migrants.
And he would like to free business from red tape and “excessive interference” from Brussels and providing access to new markets through “turbo charging” free trade deals with America and Asia
Finally, he says Britain would resist any move towards a European army and has ruled out Britain joining the euro.
Controversially, Cameron has said that while British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK will be eligible to vote, nationals from other EU countries residing in the UK will not.
Very few EU leaders would like Britain to leave the bloc. Britain’s membership of the EU is good for both Britain and other European states.
But many in Brussels and other EU capitals are becoming increasingly frustrated with the tone and content of the toxic British debate on Europe.
As a result, many are warning that Britain may have to leave in order to ensure the survival of the EU.
The prospect of a Greek exit from the Eurozone is equally problematic, with many worried of the repercussions of such a move on the credibility of the single currency.
Still, while things may look very complicated for those inside the EU, membership of the club remains a goal for many of the EU’s neighbours. As Turkey has learned, however, getting a seat at the EU table is not easy. It requires hard work, time and effort — and a great deal of patience.