EU enlargement, reform and the missing citizens

SOCIAL EUROPE – Alberto Alemanno discusses the role of citizens in foreseen EU reforms.

EU institutional reform should be about the citizenry. So what happened to the Conference on the Future of Europe?

Flashback to a plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe two years ago—when diverse citizens occupied the seats of Europe’s parliamentarians (Mathieu Cugnot, EP)

Five years have passed since European Union leaders began contemplating, in the aftermath of the 2019 European Parliament election, institutional reforms. It was the first time since the signature of the Lisbon treaty in 2007 that they acknowledged the need for the union to reform itself. Originally pitched by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, through the synchronised publication of an opinion-editorial piece in newspapers across Europe, the idea was to offer citizens the chance to express what they expected from the union.

Rather than opening a formal process of treaty reform, the main EU institutions—the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the parliament—convened an unprecedented, yet little-noticed, transnational democratic exercise, the Conference on the Future of Europe. The CoFoE was populated by randomly selected citizens, as well as local, national and EU politicians.

The new conference was not tasked to prepare treaty changes but to be a preparatory process, creating bottom-up momentum for institutional reform driven for the first time by citizen demand, rather than representing a closeted, top-down exercise. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the pandemic and endless inter-institutional skirmishes, the conference concluded its work on Europe Day (May 9th) 2022 by approving 326 proposals for EU reform.

Little credibility

Where do we stand on those efforts today?

Despite the promise to ‘listen’ to citizens’ desiderata, neither the commission nor the council took seriously their demands. If the commission promptly claimed to have acted on close to 95 per cent (!) of those conference proposals within its competence, the council took 18 months to make a similar assertion. Neither claim carried much credibility.

The commission repackaged its prior political priorities as if novel where they were somehow related to CoFoE recommendations. And both institutions sidestepped the question as to whether, when and how they would follow up on those citizens’ recommendations—from majority voting across all EU policy areas to a harmonised school curriculum—requiring revision of the treaties. The parliament though focused almost exclusively on the latter recommendations, calling (twice, in 2022 and again in 2023) on the council to ‘immediately and without deliberation submit the proposals … to the European Council’ for treaty reform.

Although the council eventually did so, the EU heads of state and government, gathering in mid-December, deliberately avoided considering such a request. Yet, confronted by the new geopolitical realities posed by the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, they found it inescapable not only to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova—as well as with Bosnia-Herzegovina—and to grant candidate status to Georgia but also to recognise ‘the necessary internal groundwork and reforms’ further enlargement would entail.

Taboo-breaking developments

After being put on the back burner for over a decade—with little or no initiative on either front—both institutional reform and enlargement took centre stage, with EU leaders ready to embark upon and unprecedentedly couple these taboo-breaking developments. This sudden urge to reform stems from the experience of the last 15 years, during which the EU had to act and transform itself without formally undergoing treaty reform. If the union has shown resilience when confronted with big crises—including the pandemic and the war on Ukraine—issues such as new EU-wide taxes to fund recovery, joint procurement of vaccines and weapons and an emergency system to welcome Ukraine’s war refugees have revealed the limitations of a system and structures created for another age.

As it stands, the EU institutional framework would prove incapable of accommodating further members without imploding. Given its size and population alone, were Ukraine to join the EU under current rules this would not only further destabilise day-to-day decision-making in Brussels; it would inter alia derail the biggest common policy areas, such as agriculture.

Yet there is still little substantive discussion of constitutional change in the political and public arenas and few ideas are circulating. Two parallel initiatives monopolise this embryonic debate: a report in September from the ‘Group of 12’—a Franco-German expert initiative—advocating structural reforms and another from the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) of the European Parliament, adopted in November in plenary, detailing proposals to amend the treaties. The key themes are accession, the budget, unanimity and institutional reform, EU values and the rule of law, and treaty change itself.

Different logics

On accession, the two initiatives appear complementary, responding to different logics. In the parliament’s vision, all member states must be pressed to integrate more closely or leave the union. The Group of 12 flips that perspective: it envisages four distinct tiers of membership, the last two falling outside the EU altogether. These ‘concentric circles’ would include an innermost loop whose members could have even closer ties than those that bind the EU, moving outwards through the EU itself and associate membership (internal market only) to finally the looser, less demanding tier of the new European Political Community

Such a multi-speed construct would for the first time allow some member states to integrate more deeply in certain areas and prevent others from stopping them. For this, the group proposes to get rid of the requirements for unanimous voting, even if scrapping vetoes entails accepting different levels of commitment to integration. While this might appear anathema to the most orthodox integrationists, it appears a brave and pragmatic response to the different levels of commitment to EU integration among candidate countries and member states.

Today’s tiny EU budget is doubly constrained. The own-resources system caps sources of revenue such as value-added tax or EU-wide taxes at 1.4 per cent of aggregate gross national income, and both this and the multiannual financial framework of expenditure are subject to agreement by unanimity in the council. For the EU to acquire any budgetary autonomy from the member states, a move to majority voting on both is essential. Yet the Group of 12 proposes such a shift only for the MFF, while the AFCO report is surprisingly silent on the issue.

Institutional reforms

As to institutional reforms, the Group of 12 proposes to abandon unanimity but it resurrects the ‘Luxembourg compromise’ of 1966, under which a French boycott of council was ended by an informal arrangement allowing member states to stall decisions by declaring ‘a very important national interest’. But would not this risk perpetuating—as opposed to mitigating—dissent, notably in the most divisive policy areas such as the common foreign and security policy?

The AFCO report proposes instead that the council’s default voting system should be a simple majority (council members representing at least 50 per cent of the EU population). In addition, it would give a majority in the parliament the power to demand an EU-wide referendum, agreed upon by the European Council by a simple majority and organised by the commission. This is one of the most innovative proposals around in terms of democratic renewal, yet possibly a minefield from a constitutional-law perspective.

The procedure to enforce the rule of law on a recalcitrant member state, under article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, requires unanimity and—largely as a result—it has never been put to the test via a final vote. Both reports propose to render it workable by moving to qualified-majority voting and simplifying the mechanism to apply rule-of-law conditionality to the uptake of EU funds.

Finally, the real bottleneck in any attempt to reform the treaties is the requirement for double unanimity—signature and ratification by each member state. AFCO proposes a four-fifths majority in the future, whereas the Group of 12 proposes that the next reform of the EU could be formally linked to the accession treaties which modify the existing versions. While this would not overcome the unanimity requirement, it would pragmatically save member states from a double signature and ratification, thus simplifying the reform journey.

Overall, the proposals on the table appear excessively ambitious (in the case of AFCO) or so pragmatic in nature and scope as to risk failing (Group of 12). The likelihood of a formal treaty revision appears modest today, even (or especially) if it will be coupled with enlargement. Only an incremental, possibly phased accession of new members may over time lead to some reform of the EU’s ‘rules of the game’.

Regardless of the actual reforms that will come to the fore, the original commitment towards citizens’ involvement in EU reform has got lost along the way. Which is a dangerous message to convey to the European public ahead of the elections to the parliament in June.