September 11, 2019
Every Commission must be judged on how far it has been able to deepen the polity of the Union and widen the scope of European integration. The outgoing college of Jean-Claude Juncker has not had many big successes on that score. There has been no enlargement, no treaty change, and only a stuttering effort at completing economic and monetary union (EMU). Instead, there has been endless scenario building by the Commission and a fairly vacuous ‘strategic agenda’ from the European Council. Of course, Juncker has had many distractions, not least the immigration crisis, Brexit and the breaches of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
Ursula von der Leyen is correct to be more ambitious for democratic and institutional reform. Her prospects are good. She seems to realise that it is not enough to will the ends without the means, and that constitutional developments take a long time to germinate, foster and harvest. The new Commission president is the first since Jacques Delors in 1994 not to have been a member of the European Council; she is also the first German to hold the post since Walter Hallstein retired in 1968. She can afford to be both less beholden to the heads of government than her predecessors and able to adopt more radical positions than those commonly held in Berlin. She should have no obstructionist Brit around the table of the European Council. And Charles Michel, the new President of the European Council, is a natural federalist ally — in marked contrast to the departing Donald Tusk.
A NEW CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE
The main vehicle for reformists is the Conference on the Future of Europe, first suggested by Emmanuel Macron, adopted by the European Parliament and then taken up by Von der Leyen. Specific responsibility for this exercise, which is to start in the summer of 2020 and last for two years, is given to Vice-President Dubravka Suica (Croatia/EPP). She has no track record in EU constitutional matters – which may be a good thing or a bad thing. Suica will need to work closely with Vice-President Vera Jourova (Czechia/RE), whose duties include the electoral reform of the European Parliament. Jourova is charged with making an early start on helping MEPs to re-launch legislative proposals to introduce transnational lists for the next elections in 2024 (and to salvage the bruised Spitzenkandidat concept).
The key figure in inter-institutional relations will be Vice-President Maros Sefcovic (Slovakia/S&D) who has drawn the long straw of managing relations with Parliament and the General Affairs Council (which is supposed to prepare and follow up decisions of the European Council). He is also tasked with the unenviable but rather important job of attending all law-making trialogues with MEPs and ministers. Sefcovic had a similar, if less highly charged job in the Barroso II Commission, 2009-14. No doubt he has learned a lot about the constitutional complexities of governing a Union which is part confederal and part federal. He will be busy.
These three Central European vice-presidents form the team that will lead the college’s institutional reform agenda. Treaty revision is not mentioned in Von der Leyen’s distribution of portfolios, so one assumes she intends to look after this herself. The President will also have oversight of whatever budgetary reform can be conjured up by Johannes Hahn (Austria/EPP).
It is reassuring that Paolo Gentiloni (Italy/S&D) should be able to drive the political agenda on EMU and taxation. His is a portfolio ripe for a reformer. He should be able to accelerate the introduction of a European bank deposit insurance scheme and to trigger a change in the decision-making procedure from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) over tax policy. He would be wise to reverse the current slide of the European Stability Mechanism into irrelevance and prepare it instead to becoming the proto federal treasury of the Union. Gentiloni should prove to be a heavy counterweight to the conservative Valdis Drombovskis (Latvia/EPP) who has been recycled by Von der Leyen as one of three ‘Executive Vice-Presidents’. The Conference on the Future of Europe should be an interesting place to challenge the fiscal conservatism of the Germans and their hangers-on in the ‘Hanseatic League’.
Other Commissioners are resourceful and well informed about the federal project. Sylvie Goulard (France/RE) is a founding member of the Spinelli Group. Didier Reynders (Belgium/RE), Nicolas Schmit (Luxembourg/S&D) and Janez Lenarcic (Slovenia/RE), to say nothing of Josep Borrell (Spain/S&D), are all fluent in the debate about EU constitutional matters.
As a first step, it is critical to establish the mandate and organisation of the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is expected that the tireless federalist Guy Verhofstadt MEP will chair the Conference. Some will dismiss the Conference as nothing more than a talking shop. That is wrong on two counts: first, talking is good — especially about complex issues that are only dimly understood. Secondly, the Conference has a serious purpose, which is to prepare the ground for the next Convention that will be called to revise the treaties. The Conference is where those who will sit in the Convention should train themselves for the difficult political and intellectual task ahead. Bad ideas can be eliminated early on, and better ones worked up into serious proposals. The Conference must ask the questions the Convention is to answer.
The central question for the Conference and the subsequent Convention is to know whether the EU is ready to install a tier of effective government up above that of the member states. They will need to demonstrate how the emergence of federal governance can protect the interests of the smaller states and respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Measures must be proposed to ensure that increased executive authority goes hand in hand with greater parliamentary accountability.
The Conference is bound to be as open and consultative as possible, exploiting the arrival of the age of social media. The EU must work hard to persuade its states and citizens to approve a centralisation of power in exchange for good governance delivering public goods efficiently and convincingly. In this debate, many EU citizens who are despondent at the declining capacity of their old nation states will find themselves far in front of their national politicians and officials. The reluctance of national governments to transfer relevant powers upwards to the EU, or to endow the EU with appropriate assets, looks increasingly archaic and counter-productive.
There is a lot at stake when it comes to the government of Europe. Ursula von der Leyen and her team have a good opportunity to drive its reform in the direction of federal union.