TEPSA Newsletter Editorial September 2016: “The European Union is in an existential crisis: how to get out?”, Jaap de Zwaan

The European Union was for a long time a stable organisation. She is now under serious threat.

External challenges affect the stability and unity of the Union. To mention a few: the migration crisis, the tensions at our eastern boarders (Russia/Ukraine), the situation in Turkey, the continuing conflicts around the Mediterranean (Syria, Israel/Palestine, Libya) and terrorism. Vigorous and timely responses are needed.

The Union’s cohesion is also challenged from the inside. The economic crisis is not over yet, several Member States are suffering disproportionally from the influx of migrants, populism is progressing in many Member States, governments of some Member States are involved in discussions about the violation of fundamental EU values and principles, and the citizens of the United Kingdom have voted to withdraw from the Union. Wise and effective reactions are asked for to address all these problems.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated in his State of the Union 2016 speech on 14 September before the European Parliament that the “European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis”. He stressed the Commission’s priorities and presented new initiatives. Certainly good suggestions. However, action is what we need.

The Informal Summit of Heads of State and Government in Bratislava of 16 September in its turn proposed a work programme (the ‘Bratislava roadmap’). Essentially good intentions, but that is not enough. Rather concrete plans and time schedules have to be drawn up.

Having said that, the impression is that the available EU instruments and procedures don’t suffice to overcome the crises (plural) mentioned. New approaches are indicated.

One of them is flexibility. Those Member States who want to go forward on the path of integration should be allowed to do so. The original principles, unity and uniformity, reflected by a situation wherein all Member States act jointly at the same moment and with the same speed, are not appropriate anymore. The world where we live in has apparently become too complicated! A recommendation thus would be to simplify the conditions to trigger enhanced cooperation, the treaty concept according to which a forerunner group of Member States can start acting in a given policy domain, whereas the other Member States may follow later. At present the Treaty texts prescribe a formal Commission proposal to be approved by the Council by qualified majority before enhanced cooperation can be established. Instead, a super-majority (i.e., three quarters) of the Member States should be allowed to start such a cooperation without prior permission when, after a reasonable period of time, it is observed that a common solution cannot be reached by the Union as a whole.

One may even go further. One can think at simplified procedures to amend the treaties. According to the present situation the approval and ratification by all 28 Member States is required to have treaty amendments entering into force. Also in this case three quarters of the Member States should be able to move forward once they have ratified the treaty amendments concerned. Member States ratifying later, will be bound only at that later stage. On the contrary, Member States whose parliaments in the end do not approve the amendments shall not be obliged to respect the new engagements. So, no Member State can be bound against its will.

Last, but not least, ideas like the ones mentioned require treaty amendments in order to be realized. Now, certainly politicians these days do not like to make decisions implying treaty amendments. It may therefore be that the suggestions are considered politically less feasible at this juncture. On the other hand, the discussion regarding the future of the Union necessitates that new ideas are put on the table. ‘Muddling through’ is not an alternative anymore.

A wake up call has to be addressed to our political leaders. It is up to them to be creative and to make the right choices in the interest of a well-equipped and stable European Union.

Jaap de Zwaan

TEPSA Secretary-General