How to destroy the EU while trying to save it

The European Union’s democracy deficit has been widely discussed and analyzed over decades and a wide consensus has been reached that the biggest problem is the lack of a public sphere or, in other words, the lack of the politicization that we clearly see in our national and regional democracies (the question for some is if this is possible/desirable to create or not). To solve this deficit, steps have been taken during the last decades. In 1979 the European Parliament was politicized by the first European elections: for the first time a transnational parliament was directly elected by the citizens, a step now followed by other regional organizations like MERCOSUR and the Parlatino. To politicize the other supranational institution – the European Commission – the Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, process was introduced.

The 2014 European elections saw all main europarties present their candidates to lead the European Commission, and the biggest party – the EPP – got its candidate Jean-Claude Juncker elected as President of the European Commission with a majority in the European Parliament. This new process even included internal dispute in some of the parties between proto-candidates: in the EPP between Juncker and Michel Barnier, in the ALDE between Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn and in the EGP between Ska Keller, José Bové, Monica Frassoni and Rebecca Harms. Since then this process has been fortified with proposals made to make it more clear and visible. The European Union is being democratized in an evolution-based process (just like most of our national democracies were and still are).

The eurozone is a problematic case inside the EU. The Euro was created as the currency of the entire Union but at the same time opt-outs were offered to the UK and Denmark. While those two member-states were offered opt-outs, all other member-states are obliged to move from their national currencies to the common currency, even those that don’t want to (Sweden has decided not to join the eurozone and took the wording of the treaties to exercise a de facto opt-out). With the eurocrisis another problem became clear: who takes decisions for the eurozone? De facto the Council system has been the key player on this regard, which for the countries that were most hit by the crisis meant Merkel and Dijsselbloem (if this perception is correct is a different discussion). And to add on to this, since those actors are national actors and answer solely to their national public and institutions, they feel free to think nationally, like when Merkel called Greeks lazy in order to win a regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia or when Dijselbloem said southerners spend money unwisely in order to match the discourse of the Dutch right for him to present himself as the future leader of the derelict PvdA.

Hamon’s view for Europe

Benoît Hamon, the French presidential candidate of PS, EELV and PRG, took this diagnostic of the problematic governance of the eurozone and presented a proposal to democratize it. This should be applauded as it is unique in the French candidates: his two contenders on the Left spectrum are Emmanuel Macron who is presenting himself in a pro-EU empty stance, without addressing the problems the EU has and thus putting it at risk, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon who criticizes the EU for everything but lacks any proposals for change. On the other side of the aisle, there’s the hard-eurosceptic Marine Le Pen and the gaulliste François Fillon.

Benoît Hamon personifies a post-crisis social-democracy that takes the center-left from the centrist “third way” pro-austerity stance to a modern Left, clearly pro-EU and thus with proposals to improve it, critical of the grand coalition and open to plural-Left programmatic coalitions and with a clear ecological perspective. He took his party nomination by winning the primary election against the centrist candidate Manuel Valls and the hard-left Arnaud Montebourg, and while he has little chance of winning the Presidency (I would say zero chance, but if the last years told us something is that surprises can always happen), he picked up the Socialist flag from the worst rated President of the 5th Republic, and still managed to be competitive until Macron received the support of François Bayrou and managed to secure the momentum to be the realistic alternative to Le Pen, something he couldn’t do as a strong Mélenchon was already a player on the Left due to 3 years of Hollande-Valls failed governments.

Hamon’s view for Europe was presented through a keynote speech in Le Havre and a draft treaty “on the democratization of the governance of the Euro Area”. His view is twofold: on one side he has proposals for a EU that challenges the EPP/ALDE-led austerity, in line with the lessons learned from the failed SYRIZA experience and the success of the portuguese Left government, through a deepening of European fiscal and social convergence; on the other side, a view for a reformed Europe, on the context of the Future of Europe debate, that is more accountable and democratic. His proposal for the democratization of the eurozone is based on the creation of a new Assembly composed of up to 400 delegates from the 19 national parliaments and from the European Parliament. This new Assembly would be complemented by a reform of the Eurogroup into a new Council of ministers with different configurations. This is seen as a complement to the EU treaties done by replicating the modus operandi of the Fiscal Compact and the ESM treaty, and thus done in a intergovernmental way outside the EU, with the plan to later incorporate this structure into the Union through a reform of the treaties.

Destroying what you want to save

Hamon’s worry is that the European Union is not democratic enough and that is something that most people can agree on. But his proposal, if put in practice, would actually make the EU less democratic and less accountable. The creation of two new institutions would make the EU even less understandable: the reformed EU would have two Parliaments, three Councils and one Commission. At the same time the new Eurogroup would replicate the lack of transparency and accountability of the Council system (the European Council and the Council of Ministers) by giving national ministers the power to rule the EU without any European accountability. This two-speed Europe would be built in such a way that the slower EU would effectively be overridden by the faster EU.

A timed institution with a specific goal

One of the points of Piketty, the brain behind Hamon’s proposal, in his defense of the Euro Assembly is the argument that in such a body there would be a progressive (anti-austerity) majority. Even not going for how wrong it is to build institutions based on such a short-term vision, it’s very debatable that such a majority exists in this proposed Assembly while not existing in the European Parliament. It’s important to remember that such an Assembly would have a constantly-changing composition: every time there’s a national election the delegation of that member-state would change. Taking into account the point in time when this article was written (as in after the Dutch election but before the Bulgarian election), a Euro Assembly of 400 members would have 49% of members from the Left (as in S&D, Greens-EFA and GUE) and 50% from the Right (as in ALDE, EPP, ECR, EFDD and ENF), while the European Parliament has 43% (-6pp) from the Left and (+6pp) from the Right counting the MEPs elected in eurozone states. The differences between the two are minimal except for two things: the grand coalition forces (EPP, S&D and ALDE) would have 77% of Piketty’s Euro Assembly while in the European Parliament they only occupy 65% of the seats elected in the eurozone; and the parties to the left of the Socialists (Greens-EFA and GUE) are weaker in Piketty’s Assembly than they are in the eurozone part of the European Parliament.

A difficult path to be approved

The probability that such a proposal would be approved is very slim. As an intergovernmental treaty it would need to be approved in all eurozone states, and since it is about politics and not policy, it could only enter in force if all eurozone states approved it (the draft treaty says it would enter into force when half of the states representing 70% of the population ratify it, but it’s difficult to understand how could eurozone governance be changed by a part of the member-states against others, when the eurozone is an integral part of the European Union) . Piketty’s proposal is of a small (up to 400 members, but he has referred the number 100 as the pretended size) proportional chamber with the only corrector of said proportionality being a 1 member minimum. Knowing the big size difference between our member-states, and both the biggest (Germany) and smallest (Malta) are in the eurozone, this would mean that 6 states would have only one member and the four biggest states would have more than 60% of the members.

A Better Proposal

Taking Hamon’s worries on the EU, and mainly the eurozone governance, as valid (and I do believe they are) there are better proposals to solve it. Here are two proposals that are up for discussion and that can be put into practice within the EU’s current treaty reality: Create a de facto eurozone plenary. This can be done through the creation of a super-committee for the eurozone in the European Parliament, composed of all MEPs elected in eurozone states. This plenary would not have the power to legislate, but would decide if a proposal about the Euro would go to a vote in the European Parliament plenary. Non-eurozone MEPs would still get a vote, but this procedure would mean that all eurozone-related legislation has been approved by the directly elected representatives of the citizens of the eurozone. This measure can be implemented by the European Parliament without any treaty reform.

Democratize the Eurogroup. Today the Eurogroup is a informal body composed of national ministers of economy and finance of the eurozone member-states, led by one of those ministers (before it was Jean-Claude Juncker and currently it’s Jeroen Dijselbloem). A President of the Eurogroup without a national mandate would bring equality between the members of the Eurogroup and give it a full-time President. This could be complemented by mirroring the Foreign Affairs configuration of the Council, by merging the President of the Eurogroup with the Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, creating a EU Finance Minister. In any case, the Eurogroup can be democratized by giving the European Parliament the power to dismiss its President. The current President is now being asked to resign by the two biggest groups in the European Parliament, but that power lies with the national governments.

These proposals are easier to get done and actually deliver a more democratic and accountable eurozone, something the Piketty proposal aims to do but doesn’t. One thing we need to remember when we discuss the governance of the eurozone: the Euro is the currency of the EU and the European Parliament is the parliament of the EU. And the way forward to bring more democracy to the continental level is to empower our Parliament.

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