Year LXI, 2019, Single Issue

 

 

The Run-up to the 2019 European Elections:
a Battle Over
the Future of the European Union

 

 

The forthcoming European Parliamentary elections are increasingly assuming the character of a clash over the future of Europe. The deepening political divisions betwee

The new European Parliament and new European Commission face a great task and bear a huge responsibility. The new legislature has been handed a strong mandate by the citizens, who rose to the challenge represented by the various nationalist and populist parties by coming out in defence of the European project, while nevertheless demanding a clear change of pace from Europe. In short, this legislature cannot afford to proceed along the old “business as usual” lines, which is essentially what the previous one did, despite Juncker’s initial promise, on taking over the presidency of the European Commission, to promote a “constituent legislature”. Over the next five years, the European Union must exploit the opportunity it has to renew and re-establish itself, genuinely addressing the citizens’ concerns and acquiring a new global standing; otherwise, it faces inevitable decline and the loss of its guiding values and political compass. Europe, primarily because of the current global scenario, now has no time left to wait. Never has the warning “Europe must federate or perish” rung truer than it does today; never has it been more essential for Europe to federate in order to be able to defend its model and spread its influence in the world.

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The latest European elections saw several important developments, three fundamental ones in particular.

The first is that Europe’s citizens proved ready to stand up to the forces that denigrate Europe and would like to see it destroyed. Irrespective of the final results of the elections, the increase in voter turnout — seen everywhere except Italy, significantly — is a clear indication that the citizens considered it important to make their voices heard, and regard the European elections as a true democratic opportunity.

The second is that, on this occasion at least, the “sovereignists” did not win. Their numbers were contained almost everywhere (again with the exception of Italy, and in this case the UK, too); even in France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, despite managing (just about) to be the top party, ended up a couple of seats down on the total it recorded in 2014. Overall, the anti-European forces gained about twenty seats, but, weakened in part by their inevitable fragmentation, they do not have sufficient numbers to really influence the future balances within the Union.

The third element is that the crisis of the traditional parties, more or less marked in the different countries, has been accompanied by a rise of pro-European (even federalist) forces in the liberal and “environmentalist” mould. There can be no doubt that the moral victory in these elections was won not only by the Greens, but also by the various liberal forces, which saw a considerable increase in their political weight, especially where they were advocating a political relaunch of Europe. This is a positive sign for those who believe there is now an urgent need, in Europe, for deeper economic and political unity among those countries ready to embrace this. There can be no concealing the fact that the two traditional political alignments paid dearly for their failure to respond to this need.

The elections have therefore created a new situation and set the stage for a new political season that offers the European Parliament the possibility to act on the popular mandate and bring about profound changes in the structure of the European Union. In the new framework it has become possible to fuse, in a single front, the positions of the various pro-European forces, meaning the positions not only of those in government (particularly in France and Spain) who recognise the need for a stronger and more united political Europe, but also of the members of the pro-European parties present within the European Parliament. The Commission, too, must play its part, and the choice, albeit difficult, of Ursula von der Leyen as the new Commission president suggests that it will do so. Indeed, von der Leyen won her majority with plans for Europe and guidelines on EU governance that were developed on the basis of in-depth consultations with the pro-European political families, and she has made clear her own unequivocal support for a strengthening of EU policies, greater EU cohesion, and greater European democracy; all of this translates, first of all, into more strength for the institutions elected by the citizens of the EU, i.e. the Parliament and the Commission itself.

In this regard, one of the key elements in the European Commission president’s agenda, supported by the pro-European parties but, strangely enough, little remarked upon, is the proposed Conference on the Future of Europe, an idea that was first put forward by Macron and now looks certain to take place. The impact of this forum for public debate, meant to tackle the problems of the EU’s current weaknesses, is bound to be explosive; after all, it can hardly lead to anything other than a reform of the Treaties, and as such it will open the way for a process of genuine revision of the existing European structures and mechanisms that currently suffocate the ambitions of the European Union and are the cause of its impotence.

However, it has yet to be decided how the Conference should be formulated, and there can be no doubt that the ambitions underlying it and the formula eventually adopted will decisively influence how it unfolds and the results it achieves. In the speech given at her investiture, the new Commission president mentioned the Conference in terms that seem to indicate a still minimalist vision. She spoke of a conference that would “run for two years” (too long a time frame if this is meant to be an operational Conference), in which there would be “a significant role for young people, civil society and European institutions as equal partners” (a formula that makes no provision for involvement of national and regional/local institutions, and is too vague to allow a real debate on the political and institutional foundations of the European Union); on the other hand, she went on to specify that the Conference should have “a clear scope and clear objectives, agreed between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission”.

Therefore, the first crucial step in efforts to concretise the prospect of a European renaissance will be, precisely, the organisation of this Conference, which should be modelled, as closely as possible, on the Conventions envisaged in the Treaties — this was also specifically requested by Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament in a letter sent to von der Leyen ahead of the vote —, and should aim to prepare, in substance, a true constituent assembly.

In parallel, an ambitious agenda needs to be built for the work of the Conference, and it should be the European Parliament that dictates this. After all, even though von der Leyen’s speech in Strasbourg was certainly passionate and stirring, what it, like her comments in subsequent interviews, clearly shows is that the Commission remains the guardian of the Treaties, and thus the custodian of the current system. Accordingly, while it would certainly like to improve this system, it is not in a position to take a direct role in changing it. It therefore falls to the European Parliament, as the assembly directly elected by the citizens and given a mandate to make Europe change pace, to highlight  and exploit the irreconcilable contradiction that exists between the current European structure and the ambitions, in terms of real and effective action, that the newly elected Commission president harbours for Europe. One obscure point in her ambitious political agenda for Europe — it is obscure because it is impossible to clarify —, is precisley how, moreover in the absence of adequate resources, it will be possible to secure the necessary consensus between the divided governments that still control European politics.

The first debate that will need to be had within the Conference will thus be a primarily political-cultural one between the two different visions of the world and of politics, and therefore of Europe, that coexist in today’s variegated pro-European camp. Some commentators have suggested that it comes down to a contest between 21st century versus 20th century Europeanism.

Twenty-first century Europeanism is, by far, the more political of the two, its aim being to go beyond the 20th century European vision that was constructed, in the wake of Maastricht and German reunification, during the first phase of globalisation; these were years in which we all wanted to believe that international stability had been rendered permanent by what was thought to be the definitive victory of the liberal-democratic model that guaranteed open markets and the new international division of labour. In this setting, the European Union, largely under the leadership of Germany, although a crucial role was also played the United Kingdom, was conceived as the ultimate model of market integration, to be presented as an example to the world; and the thinking was that politics (in the sense of the capacity to decide and act) should remain within the confines of the nation-state, so as to allow the forces of free economic and commercial competition to continue playing their part on the global markets, albeit within a framework of cooperation between European partners. The role of politics, on the other hand, was, primarily, to develop the competitiveness of the national system and ensure a solid national welfare state. This form of Europeanism completely eschewed (and still eschews) everything relating to politics understood as power, meaning the capacity of a player to enter the international scene in a bid to shape the framework according its own global geostrategic vision, as opposed to merely seeking some room for manoeuvre within a system governed by others. We now live in a world where it is universally acknowledged that Europe must seize control of its own destiny, where democracies are in decline and market openness is under strain as a result of power politics, and where our societies are suffering the effects of a model that failed to make politics sufficiently responsible for guiding and controlling — and therefore also offsetting — the new processes that are  now stripping the West of its hegemony and ushering in profound changes linked to the technological revolution. In this world, 21st century Europeanism is calling upon Europe to become a sovereign entity capable of doing politics, of deciding and of acting. The crux of this vision — which still tends to be expressed in forms that are confused, and which often struggles to identify the instruments necessary to achieve these European ambitions — is that Europe is the only level of government at which Europeans can now take back control of the ongoing historical, political and technological processes; Europe is the only level of government through which the role of politics, of the state, and of identity can be re-established in strong and positive terms. This last aspect (a sense of identity) is certainly crucial for recovering social cohesion, since this is a reference that democratic politics has abandoned, allowing the resulting void in our communities — already disoriented by the profound and sometimes penalising changes taking place — to be filled by nationalism, with all its negative connotations. Only at European level is it now possible to recover a profound sense of belonging to a community and of sharing a collective identity, and importantly we are talking about a sense of community and identity stemming not from fear and closure, but from the ability of democratic politics to govern the current processes and defend the citizens’ universal values and interests by strengthening democracy and freedom for everyone, as opposed to sacrificing these values.

This 21st century Europeanism is built on the same foundations as the federalist idea, and it is only by fully grasping Europe’s desperate need to assume a federal structure (and by fighting for this objective) that it can hope to achieve its ends. Therefore, the Conference, to be useful and successful, must be used as the setting for bringing to the fore the various proposals on how the European Union might assume a federal structure. This must be done with due respect for the various national sensitivities, but in the full knowledge that unless this issue is resolved, the Union is destined to remain stuck with a line of action far too weak for the current global framework.

The decisive issue, to be addressed as an absolute priority within the debate, is therefore the need to re-structure the European Union according to two different levels of integration, reflecting the will of the member states to participate (or not) in a supranational political union. It is a question that must be addressed without delay, in order to be able to define adequately the institutional and political reforms necessary to strengthen Europe and equip it to act effectively and democratically. Unless this is fully appreciated, it will be impossible to dispel the fears and ambiguities that are currently making exchanges on this topic so complex and confusing. It is simply a matter of establishing that the process of reforming the Union will not be bound by the unanimity rule, and that as long as a country is unwilling to join EU 2.0, it will remain subject to the rules of EU 1.0. Under this formula, there is absolutely no risk of weakening the framework or cohesion of the European Union; all that is envisaged is the possibility of anchoring it, through the closer union between those states wanting deeper integration, to a federal centre of political gravity that will have the effect of strengthening and stabilising it — a federal core group that will remain open to all those countries that might wish to be part of it, now or in the future, while at the same time preserving the present acquis for those countries that choose not to go beyond the current EU framework.

Having established that reforms deemed to require the consensus of all the member states must be discussed separately from those designed to cater for the political ambitions of a sovereign Europe, it is easy to see what should be, in this latter context, the priorities to be addressed in order to strengthen European democracy and the capacity for action of the EU’s most integrated core group of countries. The reforms that must be decided collectively are those concerning the market, the current EU budget, and also the creation of transnational lists and the parliamentarisation of the procedure for appointing the European Commission, which will mean strengthening the Spitzenkandidaten system and giving more power to the Commission president in choosing its members. On the other hand, political powers will have to be transferred to the core group, and this development will need to be accompanied by the creation of new instruments: first and foremost, full codecision must be established between the European Parliament and the Council (acting in an appropriate composition that will need to be defined) on all matters within the jurisdiction of the supranational level, and the European Commission must be attributed full executive powers. In addition, the European Commission, to be able to implement its policies, will require the following: a federal budget (financed by genuine European fiscal resources), decided and controlled at European level by the Parliament and the Council (again in an ad hoc composition that will reflect the membership of the more integrated group); the creation of a European Defence Union; and a clear time frame for the transformation of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy into a European foreign affairs minister, abolishing the national foreign ministers. The seemingly tricky question of how to regulate the relationship between the two different levels of the Union should not actually represent an obstacle, providing there is the political will to respect, fully, the prerogatives of each level, and also bearing in mind the wealth of creative experience acquired by the EU in the course of the development of its model and legal system.

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In view of all this, it is clear that the launch of the Conference will see the Europeans presented with an extraordinary opportunity to make the political transition capable of transporting our Union towards a much more stable and promising future, and of playing a key role in shaping the future international order. In many ways, this can be seen as the last chance our continent will get in the present historical phase. Last May, the European citizens showed that they want Europe to make this transition. They therefore deserve parliamentarians, and a Europe, that can rise to their expectations.

30 July 2019.

The Federalist

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