Do we really need EU reform? Or just different policies?

The most annoying feature of the EU debate these days is the claim that we need “EU reform” – and this widespread belief that a well developed reform agenda actually exists is some hidden drawer. (This post is not about the question whether there is a need for reform but it deals with the rhetorical phenomenon called ‘reform’ which is becoming a useless catch-all phrase)

Unfortunately very few ask the right questions  (journalists in particular don’t seem to be interested in the fine print) and wonder what “EU reform” actually means. Does it mean we need a new ‘reform treaty’ or do we simply want to change existing policies? Is it about the Eurozone or the EU? It is also telling that most commentators and politicians who enjoy talking about “EU reform” or the EU’s “identity crisis” fail to say what exactly needs to be changed. The underlying “analysis” often boils down to something like “everyone knows it is not working at the moment so I don’t need to explain it”. And instead of giving concrete examples of what is not working and how it can be fixed, all we hear – at least in the UK – is a series of superficial statements (something about national power, immigration and repatriation).

The reform debate is also a rhetorical trap. It is impossible to say “I am against reform” as this would imply that everything is just fine, so many just go along  hoping that they can support one aspect of “EU reform”. Even if you agree with one specific reform idea, it is almost impossible to argue “I am against EU reform but I would like to change X”.

David Cameron’s ‘reform’ rhetoric is exactly designed to have this effect. We don’t really know what he means, nobody challenges him, his analysis is guided by the referendum pledge and based on what his backbenchers want to hear:  ‘strengthening  national parliaments’, ‘stop immigration’ and remove ‘ever closer union‘.  He cleverly mixes policy and structural issues and does not make a difference between Europe, the EU and the national level. Simply put, Cameron’s EU reform is not about the EU. However, the danger is that slowly but surely the British version of ”EU reform” is becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

But let’s have a look at three core claims that are often used to make the case for “EU reform”:

1. “We need to reform the EU because the EU is not working”

Usually this statement never includes any details about what *exactly* is not working – but nobody seems to care.  Rhetorically, the claim is often linked to declining trust in EU institutions, the missing European demos and an apparent malfunction in the system. I don’t want to argue that these things don’t exist, but I think we can only approach those rather complex issues by talking about concrete ideas – and not by using a term that is neither defined nor filled with any content.

Another dimension of the claim (especially in the UK) is the idea that the EU is a ‘one size fits all’ organisation that somehow bullies member states into projects they neither support nor want. But looking at institutional realities this is simply not true. We have enhanced cooperation and a series of agreements and treaties that do not include all EU member states. The Fiscal Compact, the ESM and the EFSF, the Schengen zone and the Euro. Of course one could argue that these constructions are not perfect and a lot of things can be improved – but it is simply not correct to argue that the EU should be more flexible to accommodate the wishes of certain member states. We effectively  already have a two – or even three – speed Europe!

Last but not least, there is  an issue of policy and policy competence when we talk about the “EU that is not working”. We often hear arguments about “growth” and the missing “competitiveness” of Europe. But what exactly would be the role of the EU in this?  Do we need to change policy? Would that mean better rules to make the single market work better?  If yes, in which sector? And does this change actually concern the European level – or can we achieve improvements by changing how we deal with EU issues on the national level? These are important questions – but if we continue  to hide those issues behind “EU reform” we lose the ability to discuss different policy ideas.

2. “We need a bigger say for national parliaments/governments”

I would like to see evidence why the current system is not sufficiently developed. National governments can effectively veto every EU law.  The Lisbon Treaty strengthened the European Council by making it a fully fledged institution with  a full time president. During the euro crisis there was a clear power shift towards the member states.  So what exactly was it that you want to “reform” – and would it help to change anything?

Another debate is the role of national Parliaments.  (and there is an important debate whether strengthening national parliaments would automatically improve EU legitimacy) But also in this case it is worth looking at what we already have. Yes, it’s the yellow card procedure – but it is hardly been used. So instead of talking about introducing a new ‘red card’ procedure maybe we should think of how to fix the current system first. If hundreds of yellow cards had been issued (with minimal effect on EU institutions) it might be easier to argue for a new system. Interestingly, the only successful yellow card procedure in 2012 (latest report available) actually resulted in the withdrawal of the EC proposal. I am also intrigued by the absence of national parliamentarians in this debate: What do they think about the potential additional workload? Do they think they need to replicate the work of MEPs? Are we talking about  the role of national Parliaments in EMU issues or the role of national Parliaments in scrutinising EU policy? And above all, why do we, the citizens, vote for MEPs that are supposed to work on EU legislation – if this is now an issue for national parliaments?  The logic is simple: Many who  advocate a “strengthening of national parliaments” are effectively arguing against the idea of having a European Parliament. (and again, this essentially boils down the argument of low turnout, missing  EU demos, etc). Prime ministers and heads of governments also seem to enjoy talking about this issue (probably because they think they can use their parliamentary EU committee as an additional veto mechanism).  Funnily enough they never talk about  the Danish model where MPs give ministers a clear mandate for negotiations in the Council..

The point I am trying to make is this: By simply talking about “EU reform” we miss some of the essential questions about the future of EU democracy. And don’t be fooled, it is a framing issue:  A debate on “EU democracy” will be different  to a debate  that focuses on “EU reform” as it allows us to discuss different ideas – instead of having to argue about whether we need reform.

3. “The European Parliament Elections showed that people want reform”

This is also an interesting claim. The European Parliament elections are (unfortunately) second order elections. It is an opportunity for people to  vote against their government. It is often used as an opportunity to cast a protest vote. Most analysts would agree with that statement – but when it comes to this abstract “EU reform” the same people would argue that “the people” wanted this or that to be changed on the EU level. This is disingenuous and simply inconsistent.

In most countries the majority of people voted on national issues – so how can you claim that they want “reform”? Most parties that campaigned did not  propose any wide-ranging reforms of the EU (and if they did the ideas were very different and can’t be summarised with one word) – so how can you claim that people want your kind of “reform”? The claims that the European Parliament elections should be analysed as a “political earthquake” are also grossly exaggerated. The radical/eurosceptic vote is only marginally larger than in previous elections (and most eurosceptics basically want out of the EU – not to “reform” it) – so how can you claim that those people want “reform”? 60 %  of European did not got to vote – do they really want “reform”?

If there is anything people want it is  better – or different  – policies (although many are confused what is EU and what is national policy). Arguments about institutional reform  don’t usually feature very high on the public agenda. Of course there might be a case for a “more democratic EU” or a “more competitive EU” –  but it is far from obvious what actually should be done. And yes, a clear division between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU would be desirable. But is it politically possible?  There might be a case for institutional reform but we should also be clear about what exactly needs to be reformed and – more importantly – we need to distinguish between institutional changes (that could even be implemented under current rules) and policy changes (that require political will to change existing directives and policies).  We should not forget that the last “Reform Treaty” (the provisional name of the Lisbon Treaty!) has not been around that long and it seems to me that there is still potential to use current rules to change things.

PS: The ‘reform’ crowd often underestimates treaty ratification dynamics. Any new treaty would need to be ratified (also via referendums!) by all 28 Member States. It is very difficult to win referendums on institutional questions (as some might remember from Lisbon and Nice) and if a new treaty is simply seen as a vehicle to give  concessions to one member state (ie UK) it is destined to fail.

tl;dr

A rambling blog post on why we can’t continue talking about “reform” without saying what *exactly* needs to be reformed.

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