Institutional imbalance

A very good article written by Isabelle Durant MEP in the context of this week’s Budget Summit (“Van Rompuy’s Silent Coup d’Etat“) touches on a theme which is close to the hearts of those of us who feel that the institutional balance in the European Union is off kilter; namely, the overweening power of the Council. As @eurocrat astutely observes, perhaps this is an area where there is some common ground between EU federalists and eurosceptics? (Perhaps, though our common distaste for what we see as a democratic deficit leads us in very different directions.)

In 2004, I was asked to give a talk to students at Concordia University in Montreal on the topic of EU enlargement (the ‘big bang’ having only just occurred). This gave me an opportunity to explore some of the big questions: widening versus deepening; the community approach as opposed to supranationalism; and what the EU is actually for.

I’m posting the text of the talk I gave below. To summarise, my conclusion was that things had gone to the dogs since Maastricht, but perhaps that didn’t matter as the EU had already done what it was created to do: make Europe a secure and peaceful continent.

Also on the panel with me was the Dutch Ambassador, who was not happy with the talk I gave. He tore up his own prepared text and used his slot to tear into mine; but I think he kind of made my point for me.

Anyway, here it is.

It can be difficult for non-Europeans to appreciate quite what a new thing the European Union is on the international stage. When people think of the European Union, sometimes they see it as a kind of souped-up NAFTA, a free trade area on steroids. Or, they see it as a mini-United Nations, a force for international law and stability in the region. The truth is that the EU is both these things, but it’s also much more than that.

To understand today’s European Union, we really need to go back and appreciate the motivation of its founding fathers. They had grown up in a Europe almost constantly at war with itself. Millions had died, economies had been shattered, Europe’s leadership in world affairs had been given away to the United States and the Soviet Union. Europe had to find a new way of living with itself. The European Economic Community was not just about rebuilding economies – it was about surviving in a new world.

I make that rather dramatic observation because I think it’s fundamental to the understanding of the way the EU has evolved, and continues to evolve. The members of the EU have all been prepared to sacrifice part of what it is to be an independent country in order to safeguard the security and prosperity of their citizens. The EU plays a direct role in the everyday lives of nearly half a billion people. In an increasing number of areas, policy is made at the European level, not in national capitals. European governments have voluntarily given away their powers, pooling sovereignty in exchange for peace, prosperity and global influence. It’s multilateralism taken to its logical conclusion.

The history of the EU’s evolution also needs to be seen against this backdrop. If World War II was the shock that Europe needed to embark on the road of political union, then the Cold War was the constant threat that kept the European project on the rails. I think that this is something that we’ve only really been able to appreciate in hindsight. With the end of the Cold War, we saw two developments in Europe which have arguably changed the path of European integration:

The first development was the disappearance of the obvious external threat on our doorstep, and the demilitarisation of the continent. The second development was the realisation, if you like, of the European dream: war between the nations of Europe was no longer imaginable. It is simply impossible for a European of my generation to imagine one Member State of the EU going to war against another. As a result, European security was no longer the driving force behind European integration. A new generation of Europeans was no longer bound by the post-war taboo against nationalism. With the success of the EU, so resentment against the encroachment of the Brussels machine in daily life has grown, not only in traditionally “eurosceptic” countries but right across the EU.

My own view is that future generations may see the late 80s and early 90s as the high tide mark of European integration. With the Single European Act of 1985 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, we finally saw a comprehensive economic union, going even beyond the level of economic integration seen in many sovereign countries – Canada being one example. We also saw a significant step towards political union, with EU Member States deciding to work together also in the fields of foreign policy, security policy, justice issues and home affairs (what we call the second and third pillars of the EU – with the original European Community remaining as the first pillar).

But the Maastricht Treaty also saw the first major watering down of the ‘Community’ approach. Traditionally, the European Commission had always played a central role in European policy making. As the executive, the European Commission was the originator of policy proposals, which then went to the Member States (acting as the European Council) and to the European Parliament for amendment and approval – often by a majority vote. This is known as the ‘Community’, or ‘communautaire’, approach. Now, with the Maastricht Treaty, the European Council itself is the executive branch of government – at least, for foreign policy and security policy issues, and most justice and home affairs issues: that is to say, second and third pillar issues. The role of the other institutions, the European Commission and the European Parliament, is sharply reduced. In addition, the EU can only take decisions in the field of foreign and security policy by unanimity. This ‘supranational’ approach is an entirely different kettle of fish to the really unprecedented level of integration which exists in the First Pillar.

Hang on, you say. Didn’t the EU launch its own single currency a couple of years ago? Aren’t you debating a new Constitution that would create an EU Foreign Minister? Hasn’t the EU undertaken its own military operations for the first time in its history? Haven’t you just admitted ten new members? Yes, those things have happened, or are happening. They are momentous developments. But while we’re widening the EU, both geographically and politically, talk of deepening the EU has dropped right down the agenda.

The terms “widening” and “deepening” are commonly used in EU circles to represent two different, and often opposing, visions of Europe’s future. The wideners advocate a looser association of sovereign Member States, with membership extended across Europe and even beyond, to reap maximum economic benefit from a huge Single Market while safeguarding the independence of its constituent countries. The deepeners want to see further political integration, more pooled decision making, leading to a federalised form of government for the EU.

Over recent years, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, after Maastricht, the debate in Europe has between those who advocated rapid enlargement of the EU to bring in former Warsaw Pact countries, and others who argued that any enlargement – any widening of the EU – without first reforming our structures – without first deepening our integration – would damage the special character of the European Union. This debate was effectively resolved during the last two Treaty revisions, in Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003), where European Heads of Government failed to agree on any significant reform to the way the European Union functions, but where they nevertheless agreed to proceed to admit ten new Members. As you will know, those ten new Member States joined the EU on 1 May of this year.

This brings me then, finally, to an analysis of the factors behind this most recent enlargement. Why did the existing fifteen countries agree to admit the ten new members? Why did those ten new members want to join? I can only give my own personal reflections on these questions. Certainly, there are economic motives on both sides. All EU members will greatly benefit from a vastly bigger internal market of half a billion consumers. The experience of newly joined Member States in the past has been very positive – countries like Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece have benefitted enormously from EU membership, and the ten new members can expect to benefit to a similar degree. Then there are other, political factors. Both for the fifteen and for the ten, there is the security question. Better to tie these new democracies into the EU family than to let them find their own way outside. Again, the experience of former admissions, notably those of Spain, Portugal and Greece, has shown us the way. Then of course there was almost a moral imperative to bring our European siblings into the family. Just as German reunification was arguably driven more by a sense of moral inevitability than any other single factor, so European reunification has had a moral dimension that few would deny.

But, underlying these factors, I think that this most significant enlargement of the EU in its nearly fifty year history is also an expression of the kind of Europe that most Europeans want in the 21st century. It may not be the “United States of Europe” that Churchill foresaw; it may not always speak with one voice; but it is a diverse Europe, a rich Europe, and an inclusive Europe.

Nine years and one Treaty change later, I think this holds up pretty well. Indeed, I think the euro crisis has shown that I was right to point to Amsterdam and Nice as lost opportunities, for which we’ve since had to pay dearly.

4 thoughts on “Institutional imbalance

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » The Week in Bloggingportal: Show me the money, Jean Monnet and Margaret Thatcher!

  2. french derek

    Thanks you for posting this: it aptly sets out my own feelings.

    National leaders have hijacked the EU. But how do we get a ‘new’ EU? – one where national parliaments again review and comment on Commission proposals but also one where the EP has a more powerful role too. Impossible without national leaders agreement ……

    1. ottocrat Post author

      I think change comes when the need becomes so pressing that it outweighs the disadvantage to the decision-maker. As I was arguing in my talk, in the past the pressure came from internal and then external security threats. I think the current euro crisis could force national leaders to reset the EU on a more communautaire path, but I think some of the momentum (which was there a year ago, with the Westerwelle group) has been lost as the threat of Grexit has receded and as the UK has begun to threaten to hold treaty change hostage. But we are not at the end of the crisis – so we may still see the pressure build again.

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