Thoughts on the White Paper about the future of Europe

The decision should not be just between states

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In preparation of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of the European Union.1 The document is specifically about the EU27, with Brexit considered a done deal. It reflects on five scenarios about the shape of European politics by 2025. These namely are: (1) persisting on the current path, (2) focusing on the single market, (3) multi-speed and multi-tier integration with coalitions of the willing leading the way, (4) a clearer, yet narrower role for EU policy action, (5) the EU27 does more as a whole.

In itself, the Commission’s paper is interesting and fecund. It invites reflection on the specifics of the integration process at a time when so much seems to be at stake. It calls upon the Member States to put forward their vision for Europe and to iterate on it. What the Commission is not doing is propound its own arguments on what should be the direction. It does not express any particular preference, at least not overtly. That is to be expected given the role of this institution as the Union’s implementing executive. It will ultimately turn into policy action whatever plan the European Council—the deciding executive—agrees to.2

And therein lies the main weakness of this document. It does not really tell us anything new. It just reminds the Member States of what they already know: that the integration process is moulded intergovernmentally. EU institutions are there to ensure that the collective will of the Union’s constitutive nation states is fleshed out. The future of Europe is, in this context, about the bigger issues. Not the details of policy, the particularities of legislation and nuances of implementation, but the items on the agenda that set the parameters of European politics. These are the domain of intergovernmental decision-making, which can culminate in the drafting of a new Treaty or agreement with similar implications on primary law.

To this end, the Commission’s White Paper could not have been anything other than a technocratic overview of the various options available. One cannot know in advance what the outcomes of intergovernmentalism will be. Time and again we have witnessed European leaders settle on a suboptimal agreement due to political expedience, opting for whatever compromise could be achieved under the circumstances while “kicking the can down the road”. It is why the economic crisis in Greece is yet to be resolved, or why a rational and humane policy on asylum and migration remains largely elusive.

A federal government could do more

The EU does not have a federal government that would set out its own work programme for the years ahead. It has to bring together and to blend an array of national interests and potentially conflicting agendas from 27 Member States. The Commission can only act as the mediator. That is one of the peculiar of the EU system.

Nevertheless, this does not excuse the Commission from not adding some much-needed normative substance to its White Paper. Given the spitzenkandidaten process this has to be considered the most politicised Commission to date. And it ought to act in a manner commensurate with what effectively is a broadened mandate. Instead of trying to adopt a neutral position, it should clearly and unequivocally commit to a minimum of necessary policy initiatives for the foreseeable future. For example, the economic governance of the euro area is in urgent need of reform, especially on the accountability front. Equally pressing is the need to refashion the entire architecture that pertains to matters of democracy and the rule of law. The Union has to be able to uphold its much-vaunted values. And so on for a range of issues.

While the White Paper is a welcome contribution to the debate on Europe, it is one that falls short of the desired output. The Commission’s leadership is partly to blame for this. It willfully consents to this role playing game of pretending to be both technocratic and political. It should chose one over the other, otherwise its position remains weak and not robust to a range of challenges. When it seeks to apply the standards it is accused of being political and of overreaching (e.g. with the rule of law in Hungary and Poland). When it has to indeed engage in politics and fight for certain principles, it withdraws into the shell of a seemingly indifferent entity that purposefully does not mention the potentially deleterious implications of certain policy choices. This is a suboptimal state of affairs.

Not all scenarios are actionable

Indicative of the Commission’s unwillingness to assume responsibility is its position on the five scenarios for the future of Europe. The claim is that these are more or less equal choices and that they can be combined in a variety of ways. Yet upon closer inspection it is hard to see how that can be the case. Rather, it appears that not all five scenarios are equally good or indeed realisable under the circumstances. Consequently, not all should be presented as an equally fair bargain between various sets of pros and cons. Allow me to elaborate, one scenario at a time:

  1. Business as usual. Persisting on the current path means failing to acknowledge the shortcomings of the status quo. The EU as it currently stands cannot last long. The EMU does not work properly. Police cooperation and everything pertaining to security remain largely inadequate. Democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law are still not guaranteed by the supranational level. This EU hinders its own potential. Its failures contribute to the recrudescence of nationalist sentiment and provide grist to the mill of the xenophobic juggernaut. If not thoroughly reformed, the EU will implode under the pressure of its own contradictions and pretenses.
  2. Back to technocracy. Reverting to the single market means undoing all the reforms that were implemented over the last few years, including whatever positives they introduced. The idea of Europe as a single market is a relic of the past. It even had a formal name: European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union. As we can better understand from the ongoing debates on the trade agreements with Canada and the USA, free trade is not just about trade nor some decontextualised ‘economy’ with no connection to social issues. Trade touches every area of quotidian life and thus raises questions of legitimacy and accountability. Trade agreements outsource these issues to a technocratic layer above the parties to the agreement. They depoliticise a range of policies by turning them into technical matters with no normative underpinnings whatsoever. The EEC was the caricature of “Brussels”. A detached bureaucracy with little connection to day-to-day politics. A faceless apparatus that could not be voted out of office or anyhow be influenced from below. One would assume that celebrating the Treaty of Rome would also mean recognising the progress in political thinking that has been achieved in the meantime.
  3. Europe à la carte. Differentiated integration is the path Europe is on at least since the Treaty of Maastricht in the early 1990s. A coalition of the willing created the euro and—more recently—went on to eventually turn the euro area into a proto-state. The major downside of this approach is complexity. The bigger picture is of a European Union that consists of multiple tiers, within which there are groups of states that advance at different speeds. This makes it hard to communicate the idea of the EU without becoming pedantic. Still, differentiated inttegration has proven to be the most realistic modus operandi for getting things done. The potential of, say, a fiscal capacity for the EMU or the first iteration of a European army are most likely to be realised by means of enhanced cooperation between certain Member States, rather than concerted action from the EU as a whole. Achieving consensus is difficult, especially when the states involved effectively are at a different point in the integration process. Perhaps then, the idea of Kerneuropa (core Europe) should be given proper attention.
  4. Less is more. The scenario of an EU that has a narrower mandate but greater capacity of acting on it seems appealing at first. This could indeed improve the vertical separation of powers between the Union and the Member States as well as strengthen the accountability of EU institutions. It does, nonetheless, rest on the assumption that areas of policy are discrete and independent from each other, so that e.g. a Union focusing on macroeconomics does not have to worry about the climate or social welfare. Such a narrow conception of state competences—indeed the arbitrariness of not recognising the continuum of policy—will engender asymmetries. Some issues will be properly addressed. Others will suffer from inherent inefficiencies. Eventually, what seemed to be a minimalistic setup will actually be exposed as an incomplete one (minimalism presupposes completeness). Besides, the EU has already gone way beyond the paradigm of a detached bureaucracy. Rolling back the integration process in an effort to turn the EU into a regional UN-/WTO-like replica, or some vivid incarnation of quasi-minarchist fantasy, does not address any of the flaws in the existing model, nor does it provide credible responses to present and near-future challenges.
  5. United as one. Finally, the scenario of the EU27 acting as one on every area of policy has to be dismissed at the very outset. It is a purely theoretical option that is inconsistent with realities on the ground. The EU27 is not a coherent whole. Look no further than the crucial divide between euro and non-euro countries. There can certainly be instances where all of the EU speaks with one voice and pursues a single agenda, but this cannot be a universal rule. Because of the material effects of several years of differentiated integration, different groups of states have diverging needs and priorities. This is the reality we are confronted with. The euro area is in desperate need of a European Treasury as a counter-party institution to the European Central Bank. That is not the case for countries whose currency is not the euro. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that widespread consensus will be reached on hotly contested issues such as migration and asylum and security policy. So while it would be nice to have the EU27 consistently act as a happy family, the chances of that happening are slim.

The Commission should ask for more

The White Paper is not the only contribution to the debate. The Commission promises to publish a series of documents on some key areas of policy over the coming months. Judging from the content of this paper though, these too will attempt to remain generic and devoid of any concrete proposal.

While it is understandable that the Commission does not want to play politics in an election year, it still has the duty to safeguard the Treaties. This implies a responsibility to only stand by the policy proposals that objectively contribute to the betterment of the Union. There is no point in entertaining unrealistic notions, especially when these are falsely presented as sensible alternatives that would benefit the Union.

Politics is about making tough choices in line with certain principles. The Juncker Commission is the most political one to date. It cannot pretend to be a mere technocratic body aloof from the fray. Its role is to promote the good of the Union, not be the apologist of intergovernemntal horse trading.

The scenarios for the future of Europe should be placed in two groups. Those that represent a step backwards and the ones that take us forward. The Commission ought to expressly support the latter in order to remain consistent with its mandate. For now it caters to the agenda of the European Council. Perhaps it will make up for this lapse of judgement in the reflection papers it intends to publish in the months ahead.

Whatever the case, the future of the EU should not be left entirely up to the Member States. Intergovernmentalism has more often than not been to the detriment of the interests of the system at-large. Those at the supranational level with a political voice have a duty to make best use of it.

  1. The document was published on March 1, 2017 with the title White Paper on the Future of the EU, Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025. [^]

  2. For more on the distinction between the Union’s implementing and deciding executives, refer to my book: Little Guide to the European Union. Published on May 9, 2016. [^]