The fire-fighting style of reforms introduced by the European Union to deal with the financial crisis has spurred many to reflect upon longer-term reforms for the EU. One high-profile example of this is the Final Report of the “Future of Europe Group delivered in September. The Report of 11 EU Foreign Ministers was summarised by the Polish and German Foreign Ministers members of the group in the New York Times as a “New Vision of Europe”. It is also described as new federalism in other quarters. Remarkably, in the same period as the report was published, the President of the European Commission publicly called for the EU to become a Federation of nation States, as have two prominent Members of the European Parliament. So what then is this particular new vision for Europe? And what makes it new?

By Dr. Elaine Fahey

It is worth recalling that federalism is the existence in a single polity of many levels of government, each with claims to certain authority. The most radical proposals suggested by the new Report are ostensibly “federalist” visions of the separation of powers. For example, the Report contains proposals which would include the election of the European Commission President, giving the European Parliament powers to initiate legislation, the development of a two-chamber system involving National Parliaments and the creation of the position of a double-hatted President of the Commission and European Council. While not all the members of the Report agreed with these proposals, these particular proposals would certainly amount to a more far-reaching politicisation of EU politics. Yet these proposals seem to stop short of fuller federalist vision. For example, how does the Executive alter in the EU? How does the role of the Commission change in this superstructure vis a vis the Member States acting within the Council? Moreover, is asserting a Federal vision of the EU really so “new”? The “f” word (as in federalism) is in fact very widespread and acceptable in contemporary scholarly circles as a description of the state of the EU currently, but arguably in a looser form than in this Report.

Less radical but significant is the recommendation of the Report for simplified Treaty reform for an EU of 28 Member States by a super-qualified majority of Member States and their populations, notwithstanding the range of reforms recently enacted in the Treaty of Lisbon. The likelihood of this proposal receiving support from the Member States seems far from possible. Less clear still would be the legal effects on Member States not ratifying the reforms- are they irrevocably outside? Is this another form of variable geometry?

More specifically, the primary recommendation of the first part of the report is to establish a European Monetary Fund by way of a development of the European Stability Mechanism. This is not necessarily a controversial recommendation but rather one which is favoured readily by German political circles. Democratic enhancements to the EMU are also proposed, including consultation and information rights for the European Parliament and also National Parliaments, but the proposals appear somewhat modest and unambitious in this regard.

Thereafter, the report proposes broader longer-term governance changes. It begins, perhaps illogically, outside-in, with EU external action, and not say institutional structures or policies (inside-out). It proposes reforms to the operation of EU external relations, whereby it suggests that it is critical, to “make the EU into a real actor on the global scene…’. This requires improved priority setting in external relations and improved interactions with the European Council. Moreover, whatever about the merits of its proposals in this regard, the Report indirectly highlights particular political and legal tensions in the relationship between the Council and European Council as regards setting priorities for the EU. Similarly, other suggestions of the Report highlight how embryonic the new European External Action Service still remains and generally, how incomplete the vision of a coherent EU external policy still remains.

Next, as regards EU policies, the Report proposes a strengthening of Schengen external borders, followed by the arguably cryptic call for “more Europe” overall. As regards the functioning of the institutions, the Report proposes certain reforms to the operation of the General Affairs Council as per the Treaty of Lisbon, indicating again, the government-dominant viewpoint that its current functioning is inadequate.

Thereafter, buried at the end of the Report is a short section on democratic legitimacy, proposing several modest reforms, including a proposal that the European Parliament could submit candidates for the position of Commission President. Also proposed are further enhanced powers for National Parliaments, seemingly replicating Lisbon reforms, and a system to police violations of EU values, despite its apparent overlap with existing mechanism.

The Future of Europe Group report did not include the UK within it configuration, which recently ignited a troublesome political and legal situation in respect of the European Stability Mechanism Treaty. The Report contains only one newer eastern bloc Member State (Poland), one non-Euro State (Denmark) and does not include Greece, the most troubled of the so-called PIGS country group. The vision presented thus has a very curious and somewhat varifocal lens, intentionally so one might surmise! Other “federalist” visions of the EU launched around the same time of the Report perhaps go a lot further in their aims and policies than the non-unanimous recommendations of the Report. The Report arguably suggests a surprising desire to revisit many of the legal and institutional changes of the Treaty of Lisbon for small rewards, arguably generating a somewhat limited panoramic vision of a new Europe, even while wearing Federal spectacles.

Dr. Elaine Fahey is Postdoctoral Researcher, Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance; Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 2012/2013. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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  1. You are right — the ‘Future of Europe’ suggestions would only make the lack of democratic legitimacy worse. It would put more power in the hands of a closed-door European Council whose mechanisms including budget and tax discussions are shut from the public and the voters. This is hardly an enlightened approach for the authors who are supposedly democrats.The election of Commission is also retrograde –because it would confine the membership to card-carrying members of the political parties in the European Council — in other words allow only buddies to become Commissioners.
    The treaties are quite clear: the Commission should be INDEPENDENT and that means independent of party political interests (all treaties including TFEU #245). It should be the equivalent in impartiality to a judge in a court of justice. The proposal only reinforces the Poltiburo development of recent years. The treaties (inc TFEU # 223) require a single Europe-wide EP election not 27 ‘fixed’ national elections. Supranational democracy as enviraged by Schuman and the Founding Fathers also requires politicians to allow and encourage elections for organized civil society in the Consultative Committees such as the Economic and Social Committee at that of the Regions etc.

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