Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

While a lot of people, many of them prime ministers, grumble about the need to ‘reform’ the European Union, no European leader has yet been moved to elaborate on why, what and how to reform. Even David Cameron gropes to give substance to his grumbling: most of what he needs to stem the migrant tide could be achieved by changes to British law, and the rest – the abolition of ‘ever closer union’, for example – is a pipedream. Viktor Orban, alarmingly, yearns after an ‘illiberal Europe’. François Hollande admits to wanting a ‘differentiated Europe’ based on ‘new European architecture’. Mark Rutte wants to do things ‘at European level only when necessary, at national level whenever possible’. Matteo Renzi, meanwhile, needs a reformed EU to be able to govern Italy in a way which seems to defy the capability of the Italian state and its own political class.

Angela Merkel, meanwhile, keeps her own counsel. Not given to sounding off about ‘reform’, she told the CDU faithful that she prefers ‘solide Haushaltsführung mit Strukturreformen und Wachstumsmöglichkeiten’ (sound housekeeping, structural reforms and economic growth) and dreams of the digital single market – an altogether more mundane set of objectives.

However, taken together these contradictory pronouncements leave the new leadership of the EU institutions with a conundrum. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, told the FT over lunch that he is not a federalist visionary (but I think we knew that). The early signs are that he will be more active on foreign affairs than Herman Van Rompuy, leaving more to Jean-Claude Juncker and the Commission the job of pushing ahead with EU reform.

40 Days and 40 Nights

Juncker’s first forty days of his five year mandate have been anything but uneventful. He has become embroiled in a row about tax evasion in Luxembourg, survived a motion of no confidence, over-turned EU trade policy, sacked the Commission’s think-tank, launched a controversial package to galvanise the economy and enjoyed not one but two budget crises.

The next challenge is to set out a work programme for the institutions which will command the respect of the two chambers of the EU legislature, themselves mostly at loggerheads. The man he has put in charge of this law-making exercise is his first vice-president and doorkeeper Frans Timmermans who, as Rutte’s foreign minister, used to champion decidedly eurosceptic views.

Timmermans wants the EU to do less than it has the habit of doing. Because the member states have no money, he argues, it is wrong for the EU to go on a spending spree. He is the advocate of the novel (for the EU) ‘principle of discontinuity’ in which the legislative work of the former Commission could be happily jettisoned by the new college. He is (or was) rather the champion of national parliaments against the European Parliament. My old friend Frans has directed his fellow Commissioners not to come up with any proposal unless it can be shown to contribute towards economic growth.

Legislative austerity

The legislative package that is to be unveiled in Strasbourg next week is likely to be austere in a Frans kind of way. 400 ex-Barroso measures are said to be for the chop. MEPs won’t like it. Neither will the social partners and NGOs. The dissenters will have a point. Although EU regulation is unpopular in the generic, ditching EU rules risks bringing back 28 versions of national rules. De-regulation creates legal uncertainty, even for business. EU law making has been on a long haul to set high standards of health and environment policy and to raise the quality of working life: it would be revolutionary and deeply unpopular to change course now. Unwise politically, such an approach would only bring comfort to those who never voted for Juncker in the first place (and surely never will). And when it comes to the big strategic questions, the Juncker Commission needs the full backing of the mainstream groups in the Parliament, most of whom are activist legislators across the wide spectrum of EU competence.

The logic of the First Forty Days is sound enough: without an end to economic stagnation, the eurozone will not be safe; without a safe euro, the Commission’s credibility will not be restored in Berlin; without political credibility it will be impossible for the Commission to take a lead on the large political issues concerning the future of Europe. These include the reform of the EU’s dysfunctional financial system, the logical progression from banking union to fiscal and political union, the creation of an ‘energy union’, the rectification of some less good features of the Lisbon treaty, boosting the Union’s democratic legitimacy and, oh yes, tackling the British problem. That is a reform agenda worthy of the name.

In the days ahead, Jean-Claude Juncker and his colleagues – now sworn in before the Court of Justice – need inestimable powers of leadership and a lot more good luck to avoid real trouble.

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Andrew Duff’s new book, Pandora, Penelope, Polity: How to Change the European Union, will be published by John Harper in January.

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