Thoughts on the EPP position about EU reform

Concrete proposals are needed

Given the prevailing conditions in European politics, the position of the European People’s Party (EPP) on the reform of the European Union is of particular importance. Their members are established at the highest levels of all the policy-making institutions of the Union: the presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament, and European Council. The EPP has the capacity to mould the integration process to its own liking or, at the very least, to have a decisive say on what gets to be done. Any position paper coming from their side must, thus, be treated as a clear indication of where things are going. One such paper was published on the 15th of February.1 It consists of five sets of proposals, though there is an emphasis on security, defence, and concomitant issues.

In the following sections, I provide some detailed comments on their main themes. I strip away the superficialities or the parts that add nothing to the policy-related field. Suffice to note that I find the document in question to be rather underwhelming in terms of its substance. It is a manifesto embellished with the usual beliefs in freedom, solidarity, and the like, as well as buzzwords regarding innovation, the younger generations, and overall progress. It is not a programmatic take on policy, which is disappointing given that the EPP is anything but a minor political force. One would expect them to actually tell us, in concrete and unambiguous terms, exactly what they want the future EU to be like.

EU legitimacy and the rule of law

The rule of law, arguably one of the four major issues of current EU affairs (together with the euro, migration, and security) is mentioned in passing and further diluted by mixing in matters of enlargement, in particular the accession of Turkey:

At the same time, we are convinced that both the EU and its Member States must strictly comply with the rule of law and European democratic principles. Ethical conduct and the fight against corruption are the prerequisites to regaining citizens’ trust. Our values require the clear conditions laid down in the Copenhagen Criteria and the Treaty of Lisbon to be respected, not only during the accession process, but also as fully-fledged Member States. Member States have to fulfil the conditions set, including the integration capacity of the EU as part of the Copenhagen Criteria. Only countries which mainly belong geographically to Europe can get EU membership. Turkey cannot receive full EU membership because that would be sensitive for the European Union as well as for Turkey itself. We therefore want Turkey to be part of a ring of partners around the EU of countries which cannot yet or will not join the Union.

Over the last few years, the EU has been caught in a crisis of legitimacy. Hungary and Poland are two cases were the ruling party is actively trying to turn the state apparatus into its own instrument, all while driving opposition forces into submission. The phenomenon has been described as “constitutional capture”, though one could easily consider it “proto-fascist” or, more precisely, absolutist ends with majoritarian means.

The Hungarian government has successfully implemented its agenda in spite of a number of attempts to the contrary by the EU level. Currently the European Commission is engaged in a process of evaluating the situation in Poland (the so-called Rule of Law Framework), to assess whether a systemic risk to the rule of law actually exists and needs to be decisively dealt with.

To the present author the Commission’s efforts are laudable yet futile. The only real option is to recommend measures under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. These would have to be voted unanimously in the European Council, which will not happen as Hungary has veto power. The EPP has done its part to effectively disempower the EU over matters of rule of law and democracy. When the case of Hungary was being considered, it preferred party politics over the good of the EU at-large. The Hungarian Fidesz party is part of the EPP and was thus shielded from what was [allowed to be] depicted in local media as ‘leftist’ meddling in internal affairs.

Poland’s ruling party is not a member of the EPP, though it does follow the Hungarian playbook. The precedent is there to be shrewdly exploited with impunity. It is understandable that the EPP does not want to bring up this very topic. It could, at least, mention the changes that have happened over the last few months, in particular the Commission’s Rule of Law Framework and the October 2016 report of the European Parliament on the matter which, inter alia, calls for an EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.2

Reform of the legislature

Coming to the issue of making the EU more democratic, the EPP’s position paper has some interesting, albeit vague and generic, suggestions.

We want to enhance parliamentary democracy within the EU, with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers as the two Chambers. The Council’s statute should be adjusted accordingly. The specialised council configurations should become committees of the Council, meeting in public as an ordinary legislator. The European Commission, as the executive arm, should act more pro-actively as the guardian of the treaties and of the correct implementation of EU rules. We want the European Parliament (EP) to be the guardian of democracy. For that, it has to reinforce its capacity to compel the Commission to take legislative initiatives and to control it. The legal options for EP investigative committees have to become stronger where citizens’ interests are at stake. In order to enhance the results of the European elections and to strengthen the will of the voters we have to establish the “Spitzenkandidatenprozess” as a strengthened permanent practice. We support a single institutional framework for the EU. That means that the parliamentary dimension of the Eurozone has to remain within the European Parliament.

The first issue is that of turning the Council into a legislative chamber. That is a good idea but requires further elaboration. Specifics matter greatly. Would the Council’s voting system remain largely in tact or anyhow contingent on demographics? Or should all Member States have the same number of representatives regardless of their population’s size (e.g. two for Germany, two for Malta)? What about the Eurogroup? This is the Council’s de facto euro-specific committee. Will it become a proper Council formation that also does its meetings “in public as an ordinary legislator”?

The second point is about the Commission fulfilling its mandate as the guardian of the Treaties. This can apply to a number of policies, though as was discussed in the previous section, any failure should not necessarily be attributed to the Commission’s lack of foresight. Intergovernmental or even party politics often hinder its efforts.

The third subject is the capacity of the European Parliament to propose legislation, with the proviso that this comes from the findings of one of its special, ad hoc committees. This is another area that needs much more work and clarifications. Why not broaden the legislative initiative to encompass own initiative reports for areas of policy where the EU is competent? These too are subject to amendments and follow the same voting procedures. The difference is that the preparatory work for setting up a special committee is open to intense party politics and ‘horse trading’ (who gets the chairperson and vice-chairs), whereas own initiative reports are not. Parenthetically, the European Parliament’s July 2012 resolution on Hungary was the product of an own initiative report: the Tavares report.3

The fourth item concerns the Spitzenkandidatenprozess, which is the process by which the Commission president gets elected (starting with Mr. Juncker from 2014). It generally is a sound approach to politicise the EU executive. It makes it more democratic and engaging for citizens. However, the Commission cannot become political yet remain an impartial, ‘technocratic’ guardian of the Treaties. Something has to give. Either turn the Commission into a political entity and outsource all technical functions to specialised institutions and agencies, or keep the Commission apolitical and try to find some other arrangement for governing the Union. While this is subject for another discussion, it again is a pity that the EPP offers no guidance whatsoever as to what its exact vision is. As for the Spitzenkandidaten process itself, perhaps it is time to introduce cross-country lists from where all Commissioners, not just the President, would be drawn from?

The fifth point concerns the parliamentary aspect of Europe’s de facto emerging state: the euro area. In recent times, courtesy of sweeping reforms in reaction to the financial crisis, the euro area has become quite different from the rest of the Union. Its needs are much more specific. Unified monetary policy requires concerted action on the fiscal front, as well as integrity and continuity of policy on matters such as taxation. For the time being, these are covered by the European Semester, where economic governance takes place. Put simply, this is a process of coordinating national economic policies. That is better than nothing, but far worse than having a fully fledged euro area government. The current state of affairs is also suboptimal from a democratic point of view in that it obscures the vertical sepation of powers (between the national and supranational levels). Inter-state economic coordination unfolds at the intersection of national and supranational spheres. This is not the economic policy of the Union as such (the ‘federal’ level), but an exercise in aligning national economic measures and fiscal positions. We may therefore consider it a category of its own. The European Parliament, a supranational institution, does not enjoy sufficient legitimacy because economic policies are mostly formulated and enacted at the nation states. The EPP’s position paper does not consider such fundamental matters, but rather puts forward a generic opinion on not creating new institutional arrangements.

The security union

Perhaps the most pertinent issues are those concerning security, border control, and foreign policy. It would not be surprising to see intensive work over the coming 3-5 years on greatly expanding the competences of the Union in these interlinked areas. The EPP is, for once, clear on what it wants:

The EPP Group advocates establishing a European Defence Union with the EU as guarantor of its own defence and as a security provider. We want a true European Defence Policy which entails the creation of permanent operational headquarters, structured cooperation and exchange of information, and an EU Battle Group, prepared to act at all times. We call for the use of the full potential of the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty on Common Security. The Defence Union needs to strengthen our external action and engagements, be it within the UN, NATO or through coalitions of willing states. Very close cooperation with the USA is essential for the security of the whole of Europe. We have to swiftly build this security union and allow Member States under particular threat from international terrorism to go ahead jointly. We are thus ready to accept a Europe of different speeds in this field in the framework of the Treaties. Our long-term goal is European armed forces.

Given the ongoing situation in Ukraine and the growing anxiety among EU countries bordering or close to Russia, the creation of an EU army of sorts seems inevitable, if not absolutely necessary. Military might is a factor of sovereign authority and overall influence, even in cases where it provides the backbone to otherwise soft power tactics. There is, nonetheless, a certain tension in the EPP’s position between the ultimate ends to be sought. On the one hand, this military capacity is meant to increase the independence of the EU, while on the other the post-WWII Atlantic architecture is to remain in place. NATO is already supposed to provide Europe with a defence umbrela. An EU army would have to offer some added value, rather than attempt to duplicate existing structures.

What is not at all clear is whether a genuinely independent EU foreign policy can complement an outright pro-USA stance. The commitment to NATO as well as the overt support for US foreign policy can potentially hamper any attempt at formulating a truly European view of international politics. The Americans have their own agenda. Its compatibility with European values is not a prior given. Perhaps President Trump will render existing and potential divides readily apparent. Whatever the case, there exists a potential conflict between the objectives of preserving the Atlantic architecture and striving for an independent EU foreign policy underpinned by an EU army.

That granted, it does make sense for Europeans to pool resources within the existing framework. Military spending can be rationalised, bringing much needed savings in the process. A [more] unified representation at international fora also helps Europe reinforce its position. Though the EPP does not elaborate on the specifics, one would assume that any further integration on this front would be in the form of (i) a Europol-like framework where an EU agency brings together the relevant experts/forces from the Member States, (ii) a new set of institutional arrangements in line with the modus of differentiated integration consisting of a core group of states willing to have a unified military capacity, or (iii) some combination or permutation of the previous two options.

Details matter greatly

There are some more items in the EPP position paper that could be mentioned herein, but these are either superficial or too ambiguous. For instance, they suggest that “The Economic and Monetary Union must be complemented by an innovation union”, which is then given a few words on what that means. The same goes for another vacuous snippet: “We put the social dimension at the core of our Social Market Economy”. These are just slogans devoid of substance. What does the introduction of this much-vaunted “innovation union” entail for the governance of the EMU, the policies it promotes, the relationship between the euro area and the rest of the Union, the prospect for an EU Finance Ministry, the next Multiannual Financial Framework, and so on?

The overarching theme of the EPP’s document is vagueness. Save a few exceptions, it consists of the typical laundry list of centre-right politics. There is nothing untoward about that, though it does seem rather unsettling that the EPP is acting as if it has little to no influence on what gets to be done in Europe. Given how their dominant position as a political family empowers them to push forward with their vision for the immediate and future direction of the integration process, it would be to everyone’s interest to know exactly what policies will be prioritised, what their modal features will be, and the like.

With elections in the horizon, it is not surprising that everyone is emphasising their ideological roots. That is a normal part of the political process. Yet the day-to-day events should not obscure the fact that we know very little about the specifics of where the EU is heading to. It would have been a refreshing change of conduct to have the EPP clearly state its intention. National elections are no longer about the nation itself. Europe is a major issue and, therefore, positions on how the EU works or ought to, should be given more attention.

  1. The EPP paper is titled: Making Europe fit for the 21st century: five points for a better Europe. Published February 15, 2017. ^

  2. European Parliament report of 10 October 2016 (2015/2254(INL)) with recommendations to the Commission on the establishment of an EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. ^

  3. European Parliament report of 25 July 2012 (2012/2130(INI)) on the situation of fundamental rights: standards and practices in Hungary. ^

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