On refocusing European integration

EU must do more in key areas and leave the rest to the Member States

On January 18, 2018 the European Commission appointed six members to its task force on subsidiarity and proportionality.1 The purpose of this working group is to develop proposals in line with scenario 4 of the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe.2 This is about the EU level being involved in fewer areas of policy, but becoming more effective at its tasks.

The working group will deliver its findings by mid-July of this year. The expectation is that EU policy priorities will be reordered accordingly. Power over certain issues may be re-delegated to the Member States. The resulting resource savings shall allow the Commission to focus its attention on competences that will remain with the Union.

The EU needs focus

Setting priorities and having actionable plans is the safest way to efficiency. Specialisation and the division of labour are prerequisites to economies of scale. Focus delivers results.

But there is another upside, which relates to the Union’s perception as a detached bureaucracy: the EU is all too often depicted as the ‘Brussels’ apparatus that wants to have a say in just about every matter of political interest. While perception may not correspond to reality, it does rest on a kernel of truth. The EU is trying to do too much, even though it sometimes lacks the funds and the appropriate institutional arrangements to deliver to the degree it would like to.

A shift in the approach to policy-making is necessary to (i) fully commit to issues that fall within the scope of exclusive and/or shared competence, as per the principle of conferral, and (ii) provide governments with some extra freedom on phenomena that should not be of an immediate European interest.

Progress is a matter of timing

Apart from the general idea of enjoying efficiency gains from a more considered use of resources, there is the pragmatist’s consideration: not every policy occupies the same place on the agenda, regardless of the circumstances. Some matters come to the forefront, requiring immediate attention, while others go under the radar.

Reforms are all about timing. Think of how much changed in the midst of the economic and financial crisis. The Stability and Growth Pact was complemented with the two-pack and the six-pack, as well as the fiscal compact. The European Stability Mechanism was established. On the monetary and financial fronts, the European Central Bank gained supervisory powers (prudential policy) and the EU developed instruments to better assess systemic risk. In short, the Economic and Monetary Union underwent thoroughgoing reform. Yet as soon as the sense of urgency subsided, the pace of change slowed down considerably. While there still is much to be done, policy-makers believe there are more pressing issues.

European defence and security are the headline topics of our time. Whether we are talking about threats from symmetric or asymmetric actors, or certain elements that pertain to the control of the migrations flows at the Union’s external borders, the EU is clearly facing a series of interlocking challenges that require concerted action.

In the current environment, Europe has a window of opportunity to make considerable advances in heretofore underdeveloped areas of policy. There is some progress on the front of military affairs, in the form of the Permanent Structured Cooperation. While there has already been a breakthrough with the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard. Much remains to be done, including on matters of cyber safety, as well as better coordination between the relevant national authorities and EU agencies in the areas of freedom, security, and justice.

Efficiency is the way forward

Seen in outline form, the EU is gaining more powers, each with far reaching implications. Yet its operational capacity does not seem commensurate with the task. The [ongoing] EMU reform, as well as the attention on security and defence, are additions to what the Union was already doing. This can become unsustainable. The safest longer term option that requires the least amount of structural changes, is the realignment of European priorities.

Europe’s quotidian politics has to have a sense of purpose and direction, without being dragged into issues of lesser importance for the supranational level. Ultimately, this is about having realistic expectations. The EU is neither omnipotent nor has it escaped the constraints of scarcity, concerns on certain aspects of its legitimacy notwithstanding.

Once policy-making is governed by the ethos of efficiency that the Commission wants to engender, then we can indeed expect a Union that does more in fewer issues. Perhaps this will also ease concerns of a drift towards the dreaded ‘superstate’, as it will hopefully become clear that the actual federalist method of bottom-up distribution of powers is being implemented.3 We shall have a better idea once the Commission turns its intentions into concrete policy initiatives.

  1. Press release: Future of Europe: President Juncker appoints members to Task Force on Subsidiarity and Proportionality. Published on January 18, 2018. ^

  2. Policy theme: White paper on the future of Europe and the way forward^

  3. For an analysis of the three principles of conferral, subsidiarity, and proportionality, refer to my seminar Sovereignty and the vertical separation of powers in the EU. Delivered on December 31, 2017 as part of the series Advanced issues of political organisation^