Who can change Europe?

EU reform is a complex, multi-faceted series of tasks

In certain pro-Europeans circles there is this recurring theme of identifying the statesperson who will spearhead the thoroughgoing reform of the European Union. For many, this figure currently is French President Macron, probably with German Chancellor Merkel being his closest ally.

Changing the EU is a proposition many agree with. How to go about it and what to pursue is where things get complicated.

Incremental reforms happen within the ordinary legislative procedure. There the focus has to be on the right coalitions within the European Parliament and the Council, as well as ambitious action by the Commission. But these are not the major issues that can remake the Union in the image of what the most fervent pro-Europeans would like.

When it comes to the architectural aspects of the EU, the collective will of the Member States is what matters the most. And so, while the talk of a charismatic leader is not without merit, it does tend to underestimate the structural aspects of the EU, as well as the way the integration process unfolds.

A leader is not all we need

At first, the quest for a decisive pro-EU persona assumes a high degree of homogeneity among Member States. It treats the EU as a centralised architecture, where the figurehead can make all the difference between competing courses of action. While there are moments in history where that is the case, it is not the norm. The perceived homogeneity and uniformity of the system downplays the manifold perspectives on policy among the numerous groups of EU countries. When it comes to nations, the emphasis is on the Franco-German tandem, either on its own, or closely supported by the Benelux. Other states are seen as peripheral to this core, even if only tacitly so.

The multitude of opinions on key policy areas is not given enough attention. As such, southern countries, like Greece and Portugal, are lumped together with, say, the Netherlands and Finland, courtesy of their broadly Europeanist outlook. While that kind of grouping makes sense in a given context, it leaves much to be desired when it comes to the holistic rethink of the EU. Those states stand for completely different things on such central issues as fiscal and financial affairs. That they are all pro-European means little in terms of actually implementing a reform plan.

There needs to be a more granular understanding of the diverse views on the content and objectives of policy. Governments form coalitions on the basis of common interests. And they compromise only once their demands are satisfied, at least to a certain degree.

Secondly, the whole narrative surrounding the quest for a leader underestimates the complexity of inter-governmental politics. Amending the Treaties and pushing forward with major reforms, are no mean tasks. Policy makers have to successfully pass through what seems like a minefield of conflicting positions, blocking minorities, or outright threats to exercise veto rights. Decisions are made in a spirit of consensus and compromise. Each government has its own sensitivities and priorities. All want to maximise their gains. And that is without accounting for divergences in outlook, which would further diminish the chances of broad-based, far-reaching reforms.

In the inter-governmental context, a leader in the mould of Macron or Merkel is still standing for the interests of their own country. They answer only to their voters; their accountability is limited to their national domain. Whatever claims on promoting the general good of the Union are couched in those terms and cannot escape that reality.

This ultimately reveals the EU’s inherent mismatch of policy formulation scopes. Each government pursues its national interest as is expected of it, while there is no single body—the equivalent of a fully fledged European government—that represents the interests of the EU at large. What is derived as the European good is but a compromise between competing agendas. Such output all too often falls short of the most desirable course of action. Examples are the much maligned Common Agricultural Policy or certain aspects of economic governance and the rigidity of the Multiannual Financial Framework.

And thirdly, the belief in the knight in shining armour who will only defend the interests of the EU, makes the brave assumption that all Europeanists have the exact same demands. When, in fact, pro-European views cover a spectrum with quite diverse sets of beliefs. There are federalists who trace their roots in leftism and cosmopolitanism. Other federalists are pro-EU because it is a catalyst for open markets. While not all pro-EU folks are in favour of a fully realised federation. And so on.

Yet it is not just on the purely theoretical level where Euro-enthusiasts have disagreements. Even the EU modus operandi reflects persistent differences in opinion. The integration process has multiple speeds which point at different directions. Which is an expedient method of partly forwarding the plan of a “core Europe” (Kerneuropa) while still preserving the sense of togetherness among all Member States.

It is no surprise that every kind of forward thinking document that is published by the Commission tends to have this menu of options for Member States to choose from, which range from a more faithful Kerneuropa model to the opposite of widespread consensus with incremental changes on the margins of policy. All are pro-EU approaches in the broader sense, yet their qualitative features vary considerably, to the point where they are mutually exclusive.

Do not ignore the specifics

Having a charismatic leader is definitely a net positive. Perhaps it is necessary, but certainly not sufficient. This discussion needs to encompass other topics for the sake of completeness. The primary objective should be to develop a clear vision of what a pro-European’s version of the EU would be like. Add to it a corresponding plan for concerted action. The rest follows from there.

In this light, informal initiatives such as the Southern EU Summit are steps in the right direction. It is not just about forming an opportunistic coalition of states. Rather, to have a platform for an ambitious agenda on every area of policy that is of immediate interest to the Union.

At any rate, we should not dismiss the crucial work that happens on a daily basis at the three institutions involved in law making. The cumulative effect of multiple [new or updated] pieces of legislation is a broader shift in the qualitative aspects of policy. Think of how the two-pack and the six-pack have informed the governance of the Economic and Monetary Union. Or how the European Central Bank expanded its prudential powers over the last half decade or so. These are major yet often underrated reforms.

To this end, MEPs themselves should not underestimate their role in the process. They are people with lots of influence, who should offer guidance rather than casually wait for a saviour to show up. Each of those willing could, among others, organise conferences in their own constituency to discuss the future of the EU. The time is right, with European elections on the horizon.

The Union’s current design, as well as Europe’s cultural plurality, are not suitable to an outright top-bottom mode of governance headed by a strong leader. It is the bottom-up work that can yield the greatest results over the longer term, because that is the only method that can convince people of the actual merits of European togetherness.

This combined with greater empathy of the differences in perspective between the European nations is the safest way forward.