European Parliament, Strasbourg, February 15 2017. EP Audiovisual Service for Media
Europeans are living times of disturbing uncertainty and the feeling is palpable. On the 31st of January, the European Council’s President Donald Tusk assessed the future of Europe in a letter sent to the 27 heads of State or government, where the Polish head of the Council identified three main threats currently undermining the stability of the Union: the transformation of the geopolitical scene, the rise of nationalist and xenophobic sentiments and the doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy.
As for the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, he has proposed different plans to bring back the popularity of the EU, or, at least, to save it from crumbling apart. Focusing more on a political way of conducting the EU institutions, which is highly linked to the current lack of attractiveness of the Union, Juncker unveiled a “White Paper on the future of the EU” to be implemented by 2025.
Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Google
“Stop bashing the EU” said Juncker during his speech to MEPs in the European Parliament. The Commission’s leader appeared rather irritated with the recurrent assaults to the EU’s core after Brexit and the rise of an anti-European rhetoric across the bloc. Presented on March 1, in Brussels, the White Paper put on the table five proposals offering different solutions for the feeble European Union (EU). Hence, the five scenarios are as follow:
- Carrying On - The EU27 focuses on delivering its positive reform agenda
- Nothing but the Single Market - The EU27 cannot agree to do more in many policy areas beyond key aspects of the single market
- Those Who Want More Do More - The EU27 proceeds as today but allows willing Member States to do more together in specific areas
- Doing Less More Efficiently - The EU27 focuses on delivering more and faster in selected policy areas not acting in where it is perceived not to have an added value
- Doing Much More Together - Member States decide to do much more together across all policy areas
Overall, Juncker said he would not favour any of the five proposals, but he said he rejects the idea "that Europe should be reduced to a free trade area" which the Commission would be administrating.
Nevertheless, some, including Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist group in the Parliament, received these proposals with considerable criticism. “We would consider it a clear political mistake to simply present five options concerning the EU’s future without pointing out a clear political preference,” said Pittella.
After Juncker’s announcement, the Visegrad Group – Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – warned for a possible “disintegration” of the EU. "Any form of enhanced cooperation should be open to every member state and should strictly avoid any kind of disintegration of the single market, the [passport-free] Schengen area and the European Union itself," the EU leaders expressed in a joint statement.
The Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä revealed disagreement as to a multispeed Europe, where Members follow different goals. “The European Union should not be split into groups of states that increase their cooperation at different speeds,” said Sipilä.
“Many of the proposed changes would require the re-opening of the EU Treaties. This would mean a multi-year negotiation process with no certainty about its results. The Union cannot afford this,” Finland’s PM went on.
Contrary to Finland’s position, Germany and France seem to endorse a “multi-speed” Europe, where different actions are taken from different Member States in different subject matters, hence ensuring a distribution of efforts in an uneven way. However, French President François Hollande said in an interview in Le Monde that the multi-speed option is the only choice to avoid the “explosion” of the bloc.
Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s deputy prime minister, backed Juncker’s analysis that EU members are too quick to blame Brussels for their problems. “Many EU member states have used the EU as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in their country and taking credit for everything that goes right,” she told the Guardian shortly before Juncker’s speech.
Leaders of the 27 states will discuss the scenarios outlined by Juncker when they meet to celebrate the bloc's 60th anniversary in Rome on March 25.
However, the EU summit in December will be the peak of the process to forge the “new vision” for Europe for the next decade. The Commission foresees that other scenarios will arise between March and December, such as a scenario focusing on defence, another one supporting the liberal approach, and one from countries opposing a common EU response to the refugee crisis.
The other aspect that has created a surge of populism throughout the Union is the lack of understanding of the functioning of the European institutions. Indeed, some Member States have accused the Commission of being extremely bureaucratic (which in fact, it is) and pointed out the democratic deficit tainted in the decision-making process.
As a reaction, in February, Juncker vowed to change the comitology process of the EU, meaning the decision-making process of the Union. Juncker’s idea is to give Member States more responsibility over important and often controversial decisions (such as pesticides and genetically modified food) taken at EU level.
Indeed, over his first two years as president, Juncker blames the comitology process of the EU as a toll that has been undermining the credibility of the Union as a whole. As a reaction, Juncker has come forward with four options to reform the comitology process:
- Changing the voting rules so that abstentions are not counted when calculating the qualified majority needed in a committee;
- Refer decisions back to the Council of Ministers if national experts fail to reach a conclusion;
- A proposal that would require a positive majority only in sensitive areas surrounding health and food safety;
- A scheme in which countries would vote multiple times until a conclusion was reached.
The latest controversial example is the famous glyphosate case. Glyphosate is an active substance used as a plant protection product, commonly known as a pesticide. Back in June 2016, in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals and Feed (an official meeting where Member states cast their votes on important issues mainly related with health and food safety), Member States did not reach a qualified majority on a voting decision to ban the use of the pesticide. Hence, the final decision was shifted to the Commission, which decided to prolong the authorisation of the pesticide in the EU until the end of this year amidst growing concerns from NGOs and public manifestations against the use of glyphosate.
Yet, several trade associations operating in the food and pesticide industry believe that this move may undermine a science-based decision-making process and are contesting Juncker’s move.
The comitology proposals were transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council for discussions under the co-decision procedure. Until the plans are adopted, the current rules remain in force.
60th Anniversary Treaty of Rome
Celebration of the Treaty of Rome, March 25, 1957. Google
Immersed in a political drama which outcomes may define the future of the Union, EU leaders will convene and debate the challenges facing the bloc on the occasion of the celebration of the 6Oth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
According to Daniel Guéguen, Professor at the College of Europe with 40 years of experience in EU public affairs, “celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome can only go hand in hand with a feeling of revolt against all those at EU and national level who have replaced the old Community method with intergovernmentalism and abandoned their political power to the bureaucracy.” Even though the Commission’s chief has announced his intention of not running for a second term, Guéguen claims “the first thing that needs to be done right away is the replacement of Commission President Mr Juncker”.
The expert in EU affairs further states that the EU must not be “a head control by civil servants” and highlights the importance of making EU agencies like the European Food Safety Agency, the European Medicines Agency and the European Chemicals Agency independent of the Commission, in order “to confer an objective role to science in food and plant health regulation” and also to “challenge the subjective exploitation of science for particular interests” which often raises ethical suspicions between legislators and stakeholders.