it’s time to choose – EURACTIV.com
“It is our moral obligation to create what I would call a European Political Community”. The words spoken by Emmanuel Macron, as President of the Council of the European Union, to conclude a year of work by the Conference on the Future of Europe (COFOE) confirm that a profound reform of the EU becomes a moral imperative. They also suggest an idea of a more “political” Union which could even be built alongside the EU we have today, which is intriguing but raises a number of strategic questions for which we still have no no answer.
Francesco Grillo is director of Think Tank Vision.
The conference that Vision (an Italian-British think tank) has convened with the University of Siena next weekend as a follow-up to COFOE, could provide some of the insights the Union needs to change. The conference will bring together around 50 policy makers, journalists, political scientists and intellectuals, as well as participants from the UK, US and China, who could contribute important insights from outside. Most importantly, the five political foundations that act as think tanks for the five major European political parties (FEPS for Social Democrats; ELF for Liberals; Martens for Popular; GAF for Greens and New Direction for Conservatives) will be in Siena and the conference becomes a permanent multi-stakeholder platform for problem solving.
The questions to be addressed are therefore complex: is Macron’s idea of a new Union a good bargaining chip to convince the smaller members of the existing EU to accept the notion of “treaty changes”? How big will the Union of the future be to accommodate the much deeper integration required, for example, by the common defense policy? Is there a mechanism for a more focused partnership involving countries that have left (like the UK) or to admit more quickly those in dire need (like Ukraine)? Is the abolition of unanimity enough? Is the central core of the founding Member States stable enough to form the inner circle of a more integrated Union? To what extent can we continue with an integration method that has been essentially top-down? Should we consider giving member states the possibility to “divorce” or supermajorities to ask certain member states to leave if fundamental principles are not respected (as may have happened in Hungary)?
For decades, the method of shaping the European Union has been characterized by at least three elements: a) the Union has developed gradually and from the consensus of all the Member States; b) the approach was essentially top-down with limited citizen involvement; c) different types of unions (monetary union, single market, Schengen area) were allowed to have different subsets of member states to allow flexibility and yet none of them were complete . A very good example of half-integration was dramatically provided by the pandemic years: Member States joining the same free movement area adopted different restriction policies, which may have contributed to the spread of the virus.
The method was certainly at the root of the most advanced integration between states that had ever been achieved through peaceful means. However, this past success does not seem sufficient to keep alive the greatest dream of a generation in the face of the unprecedented shocks that we are experiencing.
The concept paper which frames the different aspects of the conference (digital, common defense policy, democracy, green and energy) also puts forward a certain number of ideas for reforming the Union. The starting point is to continue to have different clubs for different policies. However, the option is that it should be made much clearer that once a state joins a “policy-focused group” with a select number of union members, it pools with other Member States all the power necessary to achieve the objectives linked to this policy (this would, for example, mean that joining the single market would necessarily imply adopting the same tax rates for companies). However, the conference will also examine mechanisms for leaving the “cluster” (at a pre-established cost) and procedures to regulate the possibility of a qualified majority asking a partner to leave. Finally, the idea of organizing referenda in each Member State before accession will be discussed.
After all, as the following graph shows, out of 56 EU referendums held in member states over the past 50 years, 47 times the cause of further integration has won (although it is true that (there have been some major exceptions, notably France and the Netherlands – two founding members – which rejected the EU constitution in 2005).
Giuliano Amato, who was vice-president of the ‘Convention’ which drafted the EU’s constitution twenty years ago, once said: ‘Treaties must be written in such a way that citizens do not understand them and do not ask for a referendum”. This may no longer be true: when history speeds up, democracy expects political and intellectual leadership to seek out radical new ideas.