The “Great European Project” seems more like a theatric drama than the colossal political giant it sought out to become.
The “North-South” split
Foreign and Security Policy
The European Parliament
Ireland doesn’t want to tax, Orban doesn’t like refugees, Italy doesn’t care what the Commission has to say, and no one really knows what Merkel wants. The “Great European Project” seems more like a theatric drama than the colossal political giant it sought out to become. At the heart and soul of this drama lies one big question: why are we Europeans so rigid, stubborn and inflexible?
The answer to the question, quite frankly, is easier than one might think. We still live by the naïve illusion that after so much crisis, so much confrontation and conflict, we can still go on in the European Union without changing much.
Former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, once put it very simply: after the financial crisis, US politicians got together and asked, how do we save the economy from collapsing? The EU politicians got together and asked: how do we abide by the treaties?
The question of abiding by the treaties is still one that haunts reform initiatives in the EU. No question, abiding by the treaties is not a choice it’s a necessity, but the European legislator must be able to change what doesn’t work, and it simply hasn’t been able to do so. This rigidity has caused nothing but crisis after crisis. First the financial, then the Euro, and now the populism crisis. How long are we going to continue to go with the same rules, until we realise that they are no longer in line with the “zeitgeist” of our generation?
The “North-South” split
One simple example here is art. 126 protocol 12 of the TFEU. Often also referred to as the: Maastricht criteria. States have bound themselves to keep national debt below 60% of GDP. Since the introduction of the criteria in the late 90’s there has not been a single year where they have not been repeatedly violated by states in the EU. Germany was the first state to violate them and ever since then there has been a consistent ignorance towards the criteria. Be it before or even after the financial crisis. Arguably, the criteria aren’t even worth the paper they were written on. Yet, year after the year the European heads of state stress the importance of these criteria and imply that once every country acts in conformity with them, the financial problems of the EU will be solved. The idea of reforming the criteria, softening them up or even getting completely rid of them hasn’t even crossed the minds of these heads of state.
Coming back to the present times, it is these criteria that Italy and the commission are fighting over. Italy’s debt has reached 133% of GDP, more than double what the criteria allow. Yet Italy wants to increase its budget through increasing debt. The commission has intervened referring to the Maastricht criteria. Italy raising its debt is undoubtedly irresponsible, however, after 20 years of consistently violating the Maastricht criteria, why would Italy start abiding by them now?
No, the union needs a new legislating spirit, getting away from the normative “our rules must implement the highest standard” mentality and getting used to the post-crisis realism.Differing rules for the excelling economies like the Netherlands, Germany or Luxembourg, and the less prospering economies like Italy, France and Greece, must be part of this post-crisis realism. While these two state blocs are economically drifting apart year for year, the Maastricht criteria have not been significantly changed once. They are more of a catalyst to the split than a benefactor for European integration.
Foreign and Security Policy
It doesn’t really matter which part of the EU you look at; all sections have massive deficits and lack the rules implied by simple common sense. Take the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union (CFSP) for example. The goal of this council is, as the name reveals, a common foreign and security policy. The problem of this council however is that it requires unanimity. This means: one council, 28 vetoes. This is not just a theoretical legal problem, in practice this means deadlock after deadlock.
The Ukraine crisis, led to great significance of this council, and at the beginnings of this crisis, the council acted quickly and unanimously and massively sanctioned Russia for annexing parts of the Ukraine. However, many years later in 2018, it is now clear that the council by sanctioning Russia did not only hurt Russia, but also made itself completely useless for future peace negotiations to come. This is because certain countries in the EU, which are traditionally opposed to Russia, have never and will never in the foreseeable future vote in a way that directly benefits Russia. Therefore, a representative of this council negotiating with Russia over peace in the Ukraine is completely redundant. Everyone knows the council cannot take back the sanctions due to its unanimity requirement. So why even talk to it?
The European Parliament
This inflexibility however also exists on a democratic level. The fact that the most directly democratic body of the European institutions, the European parliament, 66 years after its establishment does not have the right to propose new laws is unbelievable.This should not even be subject to debate, why on earth can the parliament, theoretically the voice of the people, not propose new laws? Unfortunately, even such simple changes to our treaties can’t be implemented, once again because the states cannot agree on treaty amendments. This is nothing but a joke, and when arguing for a strong union, this inability surely does not help when it comes to taking the European Union serious as a democratic institution.
Supposedly, after the next European elections, the commission will promise to take over all parliament initiatives as proposals. This just makes the parliament more dependent on the commission however. Indeed, the only logical solution here is the treaty change that the member states, as so often, cannot agree on. Would such a right not exist for the parliament of one of the member states, the people would probably be spending their days protesting on the streets, why do we not have such spirit when it comes to defending the European Union that we EU citizens all benefit from?
Open borders, free markets, the right to live and study everywhere in the EU, abolishing the death penalty, and first and foremost, peace in Europe are just a few of the many achievements of the European Union.We Europeans have a tendency to forget them even though their value cannot even be measured in financial terms.
The union is evidently worth fighting for, it just needs reform in order to thrive. The institutions and member states have become too inflexible to properly reform it unfortunately. The “European Citizens” as the treaties call them, are the only ones able to fix these too technocratic institutions. Are we willing to forget national borders and to push for initiatives in the EU? Are we willing to protest in the streets for strengthening the Union? While this might sound idealistic, simple demonstrations by normal people are fundamentally still the most unavoidable and democratic form of protest. When it comes to working on this great project, we can no longer trust that politicians are good enough to reform it and make it durable, the last treaty reform was in 2009. If the European Citizens want to make this project work, they must give it the priority it requires. Politicians still take every chance they get to put the short-sighted national interest of their member state before the long-lasting benefit of the Union. If this practice is to be stopped, citizens themselves must initiate it.
Written by Danial Nikroo