What is EU reform?

Early in my career, with a group of other like-minded young officials, I launched a pressure group which we called “EUreforme” because we were frustrated with our staff unions’ obstructive attitude towards perfectly sensible reforms such as meaningful parental leave for fathers. We felt that, if the Commission did not reform itself, the Member States would impose reforms on us, and these were unlikely to be so constructive.

Our group attracted a great deal of hostility. “Reform” is a dirty word for some people. Neil Kinnock, as European Commissioner responsible for administrative issues and human resources during the late 90s/early 00s, did eventually push through a series of reforms which substantially eroded eurocrats’ employment conditions – it is no longer the highly attractive prospect it used to be for a talented graduate (though I’m not complaining). But la réforme Kinnock (a phrase to give a certain kind of fonctionnaire nightmares) did not do much to improve working conditions for staff and promote efficiency, focusing instead on cutting perks and reining in salaries, responding to political pressure from Member States in the EU Council. An opportunity for real reform was lost, caught between obstructive denialists in the staff unions, whose mantra was “ne touche pas à mon statut!“, and populist politicians in Member States, who saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters by going after everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Brussels fat cat.

We are seeing something similar happen today. David Cameron, trapped by his unwillingness to confront the relentless anti-EU narrative of his backbenchers, pushes his agenda of EU “reform” – against him stand other EU leaders who prefer to preserve the status quo, reluctant to reopen the Treaty because of the referendums it would trigger in their own territories. Stuck in the middle are the rational voices saying yes, the EU could do with reform, because there are many things which could be done better than they are at the moment.

Cameron calls his agenda “reform” but this is a euphemism for “retreat”. He wants to repatriate powers, scale back ambition, play to the gallery on migration, and defend narrow national sectoral interests such as the financial sector. He does not offer a vision for how the EU tier of government should operate efficiently in sync with the national and regional tiers of government with a view to delivering good governance. For further background on this, see my post here dissecting the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech of January 2013, and take a look at this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad.

So what should reform look like? Let’s begin by stating some first principles: we take it for granted that we see the need for a European tier of government, and our objective is to achieve clarity on what that European tier should do; and then to make sure that it can do those things efficiently and effectively; and to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances exist in line with the principles of a modern, representative democracy. We need intellectual honesty and clarity here. If you don’t want a European tier of government, then say so and leave, don’t say you want in but then sabotage it from the inside so that it doesn’t work effectively. Intergovernmentalism is not an effective way of governing a complex political entity. If you want effective government, you need strong, functioning institutions. If you want accountability, then you need to achieve it at that level. If you think this sounds like federalism, well that’s because it is. It’s not a dirty word. Intergovernmentalism is a form of denial and a dead end.

So I’m arguing for reform which would make the EU a functioning, effective, federation. That means dismantling the apparatus of intergovernmentalism which has slowly swallowed the EU ever since Maastricht. We do away with vetoes and extend QMV (qualified majority voting) into all areas where the EU is competent; and we extend EU competence into all areas where it makes sense to govern at the EU level, including monetary policy and taxation. There are other areas where it makes little sense for the EU to be involved, and so we need clarity also on where the national or regional tiers of government are competent. We need reinforced subsidiarity. Where the EU is competent, it should have the tools it needs to be effective. This means, for example, pulling foreign policy into the Commission. There should be no exceptions to the communautaire approach for all EU policies; anything else is ineffective and compromised. And for that communautaire approach to be implemented effectively we need institutions which work. This means a best-in-class civil service with strong leadership, where managers manage people not to-do lists. As for accountability, I think the EU already does pretty well on this front. But we do have a problem with public engagement and that needs more work.

So this is my rather non-specific and non-exhaustive list of areas where reform is needed. None of this is on the table right now, and the Cameron-driven “reform” negotiation actually propels us in the other direction. Realistically, I know that true reform is a big ask at the moment, and I am not optimistic that we will achieve it; but I do believe that it is necessary if we are collectively to achieve our full potential in Europe.

2 thoughts on “What is EU reform?

  1. mal

    It seems to me that while your proposals don’t seem that radical to me, they imply a pretty radical thing in the minds of the policy makers of this country – that nation states would need to shrink if they no longer need to handle the big ticket issues of taxation and foreign policy. There’s no party currently in the UK suggesting we do that, and the general tone of media reports of the EU are about small wins and massive inefficiencies.

    I think the only hope is for the EU to double and continually redouble its efforts at public engagement. The amount of my taxation that goes to fund the EU is tiny compared to the amount going to the UK government, and it’s hard to argue for that to change while people still view the EU with suspicion.

    I’m not personally even that sure of the best way to argue for increased EU powers. Sure, it’s stopped any of its members going to war with each other again thus far, and improved the quality of the things we buy, but it’s impossible to argue that wouldn’t have happened without just the US becoming increasingly safety conscious over the latter half of the last century, and general improvements in manufacturing reproducibility which might have happened anyway.

    There’s a lack of empathetic stories of derring do in the EU. The stories created by the UK government are hardly very dramatic much of the time, but it feels less hard to get to know some of the characters involved. General communications from the EU are a bit anodyne and faceless, and the TV coverage I’ve seen of the parliament does seem a bit stilted, although the translators do do incredible work there.

    I do think streamlining the decision processes might help, although it’s fair to say the complexity of the many passes of legislation through the UK parliament is not really widely understood, although the media has found a way to focus on the final passage of legislation through the house of commons, and tell that story. I guess it could tell the same types of stories with the EU parliament, but it rarely does. Perhaps the less adversarial nature of the parliament building itself makes TV coverage less impressive, although it feels a little disloyal to say the braying that goes on in the HoC has anything to favour it.

    I’ll just note here thanks for the recent increase in long form communication from you. Is this something you intend to keep up, or just a temporary blip? I guess the UK’s attempts at renegotiating it’s relationship with the EU means there’s perhaps more to talk about just at the moment.

    1. ottocrat Post author

      Thanks Mal. I think on the whole that you are right, even though I kind of wish that you weren’t. It becomes an increasingly tough sell. Although I firmly believe that a European tier of government makes sense because there are decisions which need to be made at a European level, and because I do believe that it has given us peace in Europe (it wasn’t NATO, it was the EU), it’s still hard to make the argument for “more Europe” except to say that the Europe we have right now is not working as well as it could or should and rather than pull back we need to push forward. But that is a tough sell. Success at the European level is simply not very interesting; it’s failure which attracts headlines and comment.

      About the recent up-tick in blogging, I think it’s a blip but I would like to do more of this. Thanks for the positive encouragement, much appreciated. 🙂


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