10 Aug 2016

Making more from less

Karel Lannoo


Author: Karel Lannoo

Series: CEPS Commentary

However regrettable Brexit may be, the EU needs to move forward. This is no time to be content with the status quo. Doing nothing will condemn the Union to decline. The argument that citizens do not want more Europe is contradictory with the criticism levelled at the lack of accountability of the EU institutions and above all that of the European Commission. The latter stood far too much on the sidelines throughout the Brexit debate, and its leaders often made defeatist statements in the months leading to the referendum. Discussion of change, however, raises the very difficult prospect of Treaty change, but much can already be done without it. The Union needs to move forward by launching an EU-wide debate on the kind of Europe citizens want. Many ideas are on the wharf; let’s roll them out and examine them with an open mind, rather than standing and wringing our hands on the sidelines.

With the accession of new member states in 2004, 2007 and 2013, the EU has almost doubled the number of its member states, thereby strengthening the intergovernmental way of working. The deepening of decision-making, and the functioning of the EU as a truly European structure have not advanced to the same degree, however. Deepening certainly took place at the level of the eurozone, most recently with banking union, but not at the EU level writ large. In many instances, to an almost absurd level, the member states act as the building blocks in European governance arrangements, or European structures function in parallel and in competition with national ones.

With the imminent departure of the UK from the Union, we all of a sudden acutely aware that there are also many truly European elements in the functioning of the EU. We are not only national citizens of EU member states, but we are also European citizens in the EU and beyond. We can move freely throughout the EU, enjoying many European rights and also incurring obligations. So somewhere along the way a profound mismatch developed between the intergovernmental way in which the EU works and the effective day-to-day living of the EU as being much more European, in which the constituent member states matter much less.

The problem is that the decision-making in the EU has not advanced in parallel with the gradual Europeanisation of our way of living and working. The intergovernmental way of working of the EU also prevents it from moving forward in crucial areas such as defence and border security, where citizens expect European initiatives. The more member states act as the building blocks, the less collective European needs seem to be properly addressed. Decisive action is therefore needed.

A first priority is to restore the original role of the European Commission and to reduce the number of Commissioners. At 28, the ‘College’ today is more like a Parliament, where Commissioners act as representatives of the member states, which is the role of the EU Council, rather than taking charge of a certain portfolio. Restoring the original tasks of the Commissioners will also facilitate their effective accountability towards the European Parliament, which needs to be strengthened. On the other hand, the legislative initiative of the Commission should be much more counterbalanced with national and European parliamentary initiatives, or through a tripartite agreement between the EU institutions on an annual legislative agenda.

As the only directly elected EU body, the European Parliament should play a central role in promoting a debate on European reform, as well on the reforms that can be done without Treaty reform and those that cannot. The EP as it is today is not seen as a fully European sovereign entity, but rather as a democratically elected body that monitors the powers given to the EU. Faced with the deadlock that the current EU situation could result in, it should take a more pro-active stance and call for the formation of a new ‘constituante’, or constitution-adopting Parliament. It should agitate for reforms that can be undertaken rapidly, but more importantly, position itself at the forefront of reform efforts to streamline EU decision-making and to strengthen the EU’s security and external border controls.

A more long-term priority should be the direct election of an EU president. The ‘Spitzenkandidate’ of the previous parliamentary election was a first step in this direction, but preparations should start now on how to open the process of appointing the next Commission President and his/her team to a wider European public, with full primaries and agreement on a single candidate per group. As things now stand, the ‘Spitzenkandidate’ process may soon be seen as a mistake by member states and be reversed.

Jacques Delors’ famous analogy that Europe is like a bicycle – allow it to stop moving forward and it falls over – was never more true than now. Only with more deepening can the EU hope to survive.

Karel Lannoo is Chief Executive of CEPS.

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which he is associated.

© CEPS 2016