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Democratising the European Semester: an open essay for Reinventing Europe

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Note: “Reinventing Europe” is an annual youth conference for the future of Europe. I did attend it last year in the picturesque city of Bruges, Belgium. The organisers are holding an essay competition, though given that I am currently far away and hence unable to take part, I have decided to make my contribution public. My 800-word article follows.

The fundamental flaw of the existing “constitutional order” of the European Union and its Economic and Monetary Union is what I consider a sovereignty mismatch. This concerns the emergent incompatibility between the European level’s capacity to exercise authority over the full compass of the Union in the absence of the corresponding European Demos qua constitutional subject and concomitant democratic legitimacy.

As things currently stand, economic governance is exercised through the European Semester, incorporating an interweaving web of rules peculiar to the Two-Pack and Six-Pack of Community regulations as well as the Fiscal Compact. Though a governance of sorts is in place, there is no government, i.e. a clearly-delineated, recognisable entity that has received a popular mandate for pursuing the policies germane to fiscal and economic policy coordination.

The underlying tenet of this nexus of shared responsibility is of having “common rules without common politics”, so that instead of realising a European, common sovereignty, we witness a framework of joint commitments with partitioned accountability. Qualitative aspects of economic and social policy are determined at the European level, without there being a European government, hence the mismatch between legitimation of the rules and conformity with them.

Though simple measures can provide no solution to complex, multi-faceted phenomena, a first step towards addressing this issue is to proceed with a reform of Europe’s economic governance. The two sources of the problem are found in (i) the absence of a European government, albeit with a limited scope of action, and (ii) the lack of a constitutionally-recognised European Demos as the agency that bestows legitimacy upon its state structures, on the EU constitutional order.

Thoroughgoing reform must therefore unfold on three interrelated fronts:

  • the Eurogroup must be transformed into a European institution that will be tasked with realising the economic governance of the Union in the context of the European Semester, all while its president will have to be elected directly from the citizens in order to enjoy the necessary legitimacy for making Member State governments comply with their shared obligations and commitments;
  • the European Parliament must be provided with the necessary resources and legal right to exercise parliamentary scrutiny over the Eurogroup, including the power to gain access to classified documents or relevant facts peculiar to the formulation of Union-wide economic policy;
  • the Council of the European Union, the legislative body in which Member State ministers and/or permanent representatives meet, must be transformed into an upper chamber in a bicameral system, comprised of elected members, so as to pursue the three-fold objective to (a) avoid conflicts of interests between Council and Eurogroup, (b) ensure that the concerns of Member States are not disregarded by the European Parliament in the democratic control of economic governance, and (c) complete the formation of the European Demos as the entity that outright legitimises both legislative institutions as well as the new Eurogroup.

At first, the added value of this otherwise bold step forward is found in the inexorable drive to address the emergent tension currently found in the EU/EMU’s inter-governmental arrangements, reversing a tendency for heteronomy present in recent efforts for further integration.

Secondly, the indeterminacy of agency will gradually be solved, for it will become readily apparent that it is the European Demos which provides the mandate for economic governance.

Thirdly, the tenet of “common rules without common politics” will decisively become a relic of the past, as “common politics” will be emerging as the new normality. The benefits to such a reinvigorated beginning are manifold and include, among others, an openness as to how Europe is being run; the kind of transparency that is necessary to ease concerns over the Union’s so-called “democratic deficit”, while rendering void the arguments of opportunists on either end of the political spectrum.

Fourthly, democratic procedures will provide a firm foundation on which to pursue more consistent policies. The current inter-governmental order is open to abuse, while it is limited by its own internal requirements for reconciling diverging interests that always coagulate along national lines.

Fifthly, the afore-outlined modalities of common economic policy will prove to be a good template for other areas of policy, so that eventually a fully fledged federal European government will take form, providing the necessary impetus for replacing the present inter-state-treaties-based system with a polity that is predicated on a codified corpus of primary law, a constitution that founds the first European republic.

The EU is a complex architecture which requires elaborate measures to cope with emerging, emergent, and immanent challenges. Still, no technical constraint can provide an insurmountable obstacle where the necessary political will and creativity are present. To address the Union’s most fundamental of flaws, its sovereignty mismatch, is to make a bold step towards overcoming the root to most of its inherent limitations, all while establishing democracy on a broader European scale.