The Future Agenda of the European Union: The need for more Differentiation and better Communication

On 25 March 2017 we celebrate that sixty years ago the EEC Treaty was signed. That same day the European Council will discuss in Rome the future agenda of the EU.

Since 1957 the EU has become an ever-growing area on the European continent where generally speaking human rights are respected and democracy and the rule of law have been installed. A huge achievement concerns the enlargement of the EU, from originally six to now twenty-eight Member States. As to substance, the Union has developed an internal market, in fact its core business, and a number of complementary policies, such as agriculture, transport, environment and climate change. The Maastricht Treaty introduced the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the single currency, the Euro. Other areas where the Union is entitled to act concern justice and home affairs as well as foreign policy and defence.

On the other hand, EU cooperation has its deficiencies. The Union is in fact an abstract construction. It presents itself to the citizen essentially through big office buildings in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. Also for this reason the EU is suffering from a lack of transparency and, more and more, from a serious lack of support from the ordinary citizen. The division of competences between the Union and its Member States is often difficult to assess. Eurosceptical political parties and groups do exist in several Member States and even Eurosceptical governments have emerged.

In the meantime the European Union and its Member States are facing serious threats and challenges, both externally and internally. The external threats are largely located at our external borders: in the East the conflict between Russia and Ukraine; in the Middle East the civil war in Syria, the unrest in Iraq, and the apparent eternal Israel/Palestine problem; the restrictions of the rule of law in Turkey; the lack of stability in Northern Africa; migration; and terrorism. However, since a couple of months concerns are also raised about the relationship with the United States after the coming into office of Donald Trump as its 45th President.

The internal challenges are well known: the economic crisis which certainly is not over yet; the impact migration has on national societies; populism and Euroscepticism; and of course ‘Brexit’.

Most of the substance matters mentioned concern crucial but politically highly sensitive issues. In fact they concern policy matters touching upon the roots of national society. The responsibility over these policy matters has not been transferred to the European level. On the other hand, the problems refer to issues which individual states are not able to handle alone.

Therefore, our political leaders have to make choices in Rome: how to cope with the global threats and challenges or, to put it differently, how to organize the future agenda of the European Union? Do we want more Europe or less? In other words, do we want to tackle the global problems jointly, or alone?

In view of the nature of the problems the second option –acting alone– doesn’t look very promising. With regard to the first option –joint action– essentially two modalities are available: either a conferral of new competences to the European level or, at least, an intensive coordination of national policies.

Because of the general political climate in Europe, the option of new competences to be handed over to the European level seems not very feasible. On the other hand, the chances for intensive coordination are not very positive either. As daily practise shows, Member States often differ in opinion.

How can this dilemma then be solved? Best would be to look for a third option, which is differentiated cooperation.

In fact, models of differentiation do already exist in practice, for specific substance matters: the Euro cooperation, Schengen and the cooperation in the framework of the area of freedom, security and justice. However, time has come to look for more structural approaches. In that respect, enhanced cooperation, the principle introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty, in fact provides a wrong approach. According to the present arrangements small groups –composed of at least 9 Member States– are allowed to start enhanced cooperation. On the other hand, acts adopted are not regarded as part of the acquis. The focus, however, should rather be on larger, more representative, groups, whereas the results of the cooperation should be considered part of the EU acquis.

Therefore, an idea for the future could be to enable coalitions consisting of a clear majority, say three-quarter of the number of Member States, to act as fore-runner groups. Three quarter indeed represents a sufficient ‘critical mass’. Out of the at present 28 Member States, that means 21 Member States. Another proposal, closely connected to the first one, is to allow the same majority of three-quarter of Member States to negotiate treaty amendments.

Obviously those Member States not being part of the coalition of three quarter, would not be bound by the results of the cooperation in the smaller circle. They, however, can always join later, once they are ready and willing to do so.

Certainly, life at EU level will become complicated once structural formulas of differentiated cooperation will be applied in practice. Such complications can manifest themselves in the functioning of the institutions as well as with regard to the consistency of policy making at EU level. However, problems are there to be solved. In this respect we must realise that the international environment that we are living in also has become extremely complicated.

And what about the citizen? To win the support of the citizen for EU cooperation is to a large extent a matter of proper communication and accountability. Here a number of stakeholders bear a special responsibility: national politicians, the EU institutions, education at national level; the media and the citizen him/herself. Indeed, also the last category, the ordinary citizen, is responsible, because with the help of today’s communication opportunities, such as the internet and social media, information about the EU is easily accessible.

So, let’s certainly not underestimate the communication problems with the citizens, but let’s not overestimate them either. Adequate and complete communication regarding EU policy developments is the best remedy to obtain the support of the citizens.

Prof. Jaap de Zwaan

TEPSA Secretary-General