x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Future of Europe: to fix the car, change the gearbox

Jean-Claude Piris argues that if the European Union is to have a viable future, it will have to adopt a "two-speed" model that enables one grouping of member states to function as an advance party while the others catch up at their own pace.

The Future of Europe 
Jean-Claude Piris
Cambridge University Press
The Future of Europe Jean-Claude Piris Cambridge University Press Dh91

The European Union is in a right pickle, and not just because of the beleaguered euro, argues Jean-Claude Piris, one of the Union’s foremost legal experts in his new book The Future of Europe: Towards a Two-Speed EU?

Piris is a stalwart believer in the European Union and has been on the inside track of its dramatic transformations for more than two decades. For this reason, he maintains, the body of now 27 nations has to change radically if it’s going to fend for itself in the rough-and-tumble world of the 21st century.

Of course, Piris begins by singing the union’s praises: peace, reconciliation, the internal market, prosperity, liberal democracy and so on. But then he weighs into the object that he professes to love so much.

The 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which was designed to streamline and reinvigorate the EU’s ungainly structures, simply hasn’t delivered. The union’s post-Lisbon incarnation still isn’t right for an expanding club, which began with just six members and within a few years could have swollen to more than 30. The needs and interests of Greeks and Swedes, Romanians and Irish, Germans and Portuguese, are simply too heterogeneous to fit under one hat. The one-size-fits-all approach to monetary policy that dragged the eurozone countries into their present mess also spells trouble for a whole range of other matters, from migration to justice.

In fact, the closer he looks at its dysfunctional parts, the more convinced Piris – and his readers – become that the whole thing is badly broken and that what is needed is not patchwork repairs but a major overhaul.

The council, for example, which acts as the EU’s collective presidency, is still forced to take its most meaningful steps by unanimous vote. And where “qualified majority voting” is permissible (Lisbon expanded these areas) its steep requirements are still significantly more demanding than those for laws in the individual member states. The simple fact that the number of participants is ever more as the union expands, makes the council’s decision-making process that much more cumbersome.

And the naming of a full-time president, currently the Belgian Herman van Rompuy, as well as a high representative for foreign affairs, which is Catherine Ashton, hasn’t helped much either. Both of these new offices were supposed to strengthen the centre of the EU, as both were independent of the national authorities of any one member state. The EU’s de facto foreign minister, complete with a full-time multinational diplomatic corps, was appointed to enable the EU to speak powerfully in world affairs, so that finally its diplomatic clout would equal its economic gravitas. But this hasn’t panned out and both figures have been undercut by rivals within the union’s structures and in the member states.

As for the commission, the EU’s executive, it is also burdened by the magnitude of its ranks. There are 27 commissioners, one from each state, each with a different portfolio (environment, justice, social affairs, etc). Try as reformers might, they couldn’t come up with a way of cutting back and rotating offices in a way that was palatable to member states. In a nutshell, nobody wants to be left out in a given term, which is what slimming down would have meant. Moreover, Piris rightly laments that the commissioners tend to represent the national interests of their homelands rather than those of all Europe.

And then there is the European Parliament (EP), Europe’s legislature, which Lisbon was meant to buff up in terms of clout and at the same time put in closer touch with European voters, thus narrowing the infamous democracy deficit. But this too has largely flopped. The EP has new powers of democratic control, in an array of fields, but the directly elected “MEPs” are still as distant as ever from the grassroots.

Since 1979, when the EP had next to no power at all, voters have been turning out for elections in steadily decreasing numbers. In 2009 it was just 43 per cent of those eligible. And those who show up at the ballot boxes tend to vote on the basis of national politics, not EU affairs, which most people can’t – or just don’t – follow. Trust in the EU in general, and the EP in particular, is at an all-time low.

For these reasons – and others – the union has failed to live up to its potential in fields including defence, foreign policy, social affairs, energy and even the internal market, which Piris thinks could and should work better.

So what to do?

Obviously a Europe devotee on the scale of Piris would prefer to have the key treaties revamped in a fundamental way to address these shortcomings. But this implies a long, bloody process of ratifications in all of the member states. The bruising battles to get Lisbon passed – with the Irish, French and Dutch “no votes” – are still fresh in the minds of those who were on the front lines. The fact of the matter is that it simply wouldn’t happen.

Another route would be to work with what exists – and to try to take the Lisbon improvements (many of which haven’t been implemented in full) as far as possible. Yet this is simply reformulating the current quandary: if there were the will to do this, the Europeans could and would do it. But they can’t or won’t.

Piris’s choice of remedy is a “two-speed” solution that enables one grouping of member states, perhaps those of the eurozone, to function as an advance party, while the others catch up at their own speed. Different versions of this two-speed Europe idea have been floated for a long time. In the past, it was Europhiles like Piris who shunned the option, not wanting to divide a Europe that had been so recently united, but now it’s simply the lesser of two evils if the EU wants to succeed. And Piris underscores that “two speeds” doesn’t mean “two tiers” or “two classes”. The difference is that “two speeds” means the “development of closer cooperation among some member states, pursuing objectives that are common to all EU member states”. The smaller group would forge ahead immediately, while the others, travelling at their own speeds, would follow and join at a later date. “Two tiers” or “two classes”, on the other hand, implies a permanent and irreversible separation.

In fact, there is already a range of issues on which different clusters of member states cooperate independently of others. Two of the most prominent examples are the euro and the Schengen border regime. But Piris argues that cooperation shouldn’t happen a la carte or ad hoc. Rather the advance group would be clearly defined, perhaps even by a treaty, co-operating on all of the issues it deems appropriate, for example, energy, defence, economic and monetary union, social rights, the internal market, immigration, foreign affairs and others.

The choice, argues Piris reluctantly, is between “the status quo, which might mean a diluted EU, slowly stagnating and becoming irrelevant, and an EU that accepts, as a temporary measure, more differentiation between its member states”. Especially in times of economic crisis, like the present, when the EU is imposing austerity and discipline measures with an iron hand, it has to offer something positive too. This is a wider political project of ever closer integration. Otherwise, the EU’s ambitions of sitting at the table with superpowers such as the US and China will be over before they ever get off the ground.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.