The drive for EU reform is gathering momentum

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Charles Dickens got it right about Europe. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” The opening lines of his novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ were written 160 years ago, and are still spot on.
In economic terms, Europe is recovering well, and despite all the sniping the European Union continues quietly to chalk up cooperation and consensus on innumerable fronts. But politically it’s in trouble. Like wolves, extremist politicians are snapping at the heels of mainstream parties. The EU is overdue for structural and institutional reform, yet radical change carries the risk of it being torn apart by conflicts over its future.
What, then, is the outlook for a mature discussion across Europe that can regain public confidence in the EU and deliver reforms to underpin its solidarity and economic wellbeing in the face of global competition?

The EU is overdue for structural and institutional reform, yet radical change carries the risk of it being torn apart

Analysts are still digesting French president Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech last month, a key element of which was his call for a ‘huge debate’ spanning six months next year to prepare the ground for voting in the 2019 European Parliament elections. His 90-minute address to students advanced an almost bewildering number of reform ideas, many of them doubtless intended to provoke reactions.
Macron set out his thinking shortly after German voters had significantly reduced their support for Chancellor Angela Merkel, and following the annual ‘State of the Union’ speech by Jean-Claude Juncker, in which he proposed the pan-European election of an EU president to head a European Commission transformed into an executive.
So although Merkel’s fourth administration may prove to be weaker and less able to champion EU reforms, the good news is that there’s a more reformist mood elsewhere, with Macron seemingly determined to encourage it.
Nobody knows how the French president’s suggestion that each EU country should hold its own ‘democratic convention’ will pan out. It’s possible an inkling might emerge after EU leaders meet this week for the European Council. That may be over-optimistic, though, as EU reform is so politically explosive that member governments have been sidestepping it for years.
Nevertheless, the EU’s institutional structures are widely acknowledged to be unwieldy. Enlargement of the EU has contributed to a slowing of Europe’s collective responses to globalisation’s challenges.
Most of the policies on Europe that populist parties urge are unacceptable, but their criticisms of the EU are at times justified. A drastic streamlining is needed to restore its credibility and stem the rising Eurosceptic tide.

A first step towards shaking-up the EU’s mechanisms would be to list the ideas to be considered

If Macron’s idea for national conventions to shape a Europe-wide debate is to bear fruit, these arguably should not be held by governments. When it comes to fresh thinking, they are the problem and not the solution. Much the same can be said of Brussels itself. Former Swedish premier Carl Bildt wryly remarked last week at Friends of Europe’s annual ‘State of Europe’ high-level roundtable that there should be a five-year ban on EU-related conferences taking place in Brussels rather than elsewhere in Europe.
A first step towards shaking-up the EU’s mechanisms would be to list the ideas to be considered. Juncker’s proposal for electing a single EU president is just one. Macron’s plethora of suggestions include temporarily sacrificing France’s European Commissioner as part of a drastic culling of the college’s membership to only 10. He’d also like to move towards more MEPs with no ties to national political parties.
Other proposals range from overhauling the way MEPs are elected to restructuring the European Parliament. My own candidate for discussion would be to make it bi-cameral through the election to an upper house made up of regional representatives. In short, a European Senate.

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