European View

The European Council, careful of the elephant that prowls Brussels

by Sergio Fabbrini

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On Saturday, the European Union (EU) will celebrate its 60th anniversary. In Rome (where its founding treaties were signed on March 25, 1957), the European Council will meet, convening the heads of its 27 member states, members of the Commission, the European Parliament and community institutions.

It’s appropriate to celebrate the EU, because it has accomplished much to be proud of. For the first time in the history of the continent, nearly three generations of Europeans have never known war, famine, lack of liberty, or social deprivation. Through the common market and by cooperation among states, Europe has managed to control its demons. So those who speak badly of this experience should first count to ten.

However, the EU that will convene in Rome still has many unresolved problems. Its health is worrisome. So it’s not enough to affirm, as does a declaration set to be approved at the anniversary, that, “It is necessary to move forward together, as much as possible, at the different rhythms and intensity necessary.” To use Timothy Garton Ash’s medical metaphor, the formula of a Europe of different speeds is like trying to cure bronchitis with an aspirin. In reality, the EU’s ills are due to divisions over the aim of the integration process.

If that’s the case, then another cure is needed. And that is starting a strategic negotiation to establish what (limited) policies should be shared on a supra-national level, leaving the rest to national democracies. And, at the same time, to define a supra-national institutional system distinct from that of national democracies. Until now, it’s been the opposite, silently transferring powers to Brussels and entrusting them to the governance of hybrid institutions, that are at once supra-national and national. Like the European Council. Let’s focus on organization as an example of the confusion upon which the EU was built.

Since Maastricht in 1992, the EU entrusted to the European Council the role of overseeing policy (like economic policy, security and defense, foreign policy and issues like immigration policy) that was traditionally strongly tied to national sovereignty. Since the success or failure of immigration policy, or of the banking crisis, or of the battle against terrorism, can determine the outcome of a national election, it follows that the heads of national governments haven’t wanted to relinquish the management of them to supranational institutions (like the European Commission or European Parliament) that they can’t control. Certainly, through the decisions of the European Council, it was possible to take steps forward in the process of integration in areas that were of particular political relevance.

But the functioning of the European Council has shown clear limitations. Despite rhetoric on the consensual nature of relations among heads of national governments, in times of crisis, those leaders are inevitably divided, bringing the European Council to a decision-making stall. Think of the third pillar of banking union, the system of deposit guarantees, that is still held prisoner by the division between nations from the north and south of the Eurozone.

To emerge from decision-making stall, leaders of the strongest national governments have taken unilateral action to manage challenges that threatened their internal consensus. Think, in the case of immigration policy, of the agreement between the EU and Turkey, promoted by Angela Merkel, who needed to reduce the inflow of political refugees to regain her popularity, and then approved by the European Council. And all this was completely self-referential, since the decisions of the European Council not binding and balanced by other EU institutions (led by the European Parliament).

Individual leaders may also be controlled by their respective national parliaments, but when they deliberate they become a group and not a collection of individuals. The functioning of ties between national and European politics has further paralyzed the European Council.

But let’s try to imagine what would happen if, within the Council, an anti-European majority was formed (perhaps led by Marine Le Pen)? At least Trump has Congress to control and balance him. Who would control the European Council then? Twenty-seven national parliaments?

You can’t build a union by pieces and small bites. A strategic vision is necessary, one that can find (above all) a democratic system for that elephant (the European Council). It’s an elephant because it represents national governments, with their citizens and their identities that cannot be abolished with an article in a treaty—despite what supporters of the European Parliament think. They propose, in fact, abolishing the decision-making role of the European Council and say it should be headed by the president of the European Commission (a possibility not precluded by the current Treaties).

The primacy of the president of the Commission is justified by its parliamentary legitimacy (which started with the spitzenkandidaten). But while this possibility is understandable, it is unrealistic. It is understandable because it reflects the parliamentary logic of many European states. But it is unrealistic because it’s difficult to imagine that the heads of national governments would let themselves be led by leader elected by the European Parliament (as the president of the Commission is). And that’s not even considering the fact that the central role of the European Parliament would institutionalize the political subordination of small and mid-sized states to the larger ones.

If it is also unrealistic to reduce the heads of state to a notary function. The role they are playing is incompatible with the criteria of democratic legitimization.

A post-parliamentary strategy, that is, one based on the separation of executive and legislative power, can reconcile democracy with a union of states that are demographically asymmetrical and possessive of their various national identities. Two options are possible.

The first option consists in the popular election (through national electoral colleges that represent the smallest states) of the president of the Commission, who, at that point, could also preside over the European Council. The candidates might also be chosen in party primaries, as Matteo Renzi recently proposed. What counts is that the president of the Commission would not be dependent on political support in the European Parliament.

A second option, instead, recognizes the dual nature that is by now evident in the EU’s executive power, constituted both by the European Council and the Commission (and their respective presidents). The faces of Janus (in terms of executive power) should be related, but not overlapping.

The president of the Commission should serve as a sort of Prime Minister of a semi-presidential government. The president of the Council would become the political representative of the Union. In that case, the latter would be elected by popular vote (still through national electoral colleges) and the European council would retain a role in the choice of president. Whether unitary or dual, executive power should be balanced in all decisions relevant to the union by a separate legislature, in order to guarantee balance among the state.

Let’s leave aside the details (even if it’s details that make the difference when building institutions). The point is that the construction of a union of states, as Alexander Hamilton would say, should come about through choice and not necessity. It’s important to wisely choose policies pertaining to a union and deliberately design institutions to manage them.

In doing this, ambiguous formulas for a two-speed Europe are not helpful. If the EU does not prove itself capable of reflecting on its inadequacies, and doesn’t show the courage to consciously face them, then it will be hard to fend of the onslaught of national sovereignty. So what goes for the EU is what goes for each one of us. Awareness of one’s limits is a necessary condition to overcoming them.