27 Januar 2023

Re:constitution Working Paper: Four narratives on the purpose of European integration

Cover of the Working Paper: Peace, prosperity, self-assertion, and cosmopolitan democracy: Four narratives on the purpose of European integration

Why should we actually pursue European unification? What is the benefit of the states in Europe joining together and establishing common supranational institutions? Which political goals can justify the effort that goes into creating and developing the EU?

The answer to these questions is – of course – contentious. Depending on the prevailing political climate, very different narratives on the purpose of the unification project have come to the fore. In a newly published working paper for re:constitution, I have taken a look at four of the most important of them:

  • the peace narrative, according to which European integration primarily serves to reconcile the participating countries and avoid new conflicts among them;
  • the prosperity narrative, according to which European integration contributes significantly to the economic well-being of the participating countries and peoples;
  • the self-assertion narrative, according to which European integration is necessary for the participating countries in order to resist external threats and play an active role in global politics;
  • the cosmopolitan-democratic narrative, according to which European integration serves the double purpose of promoting individual freedom and collective democratic self-government at a supranational level.

The working paper outlines the historical development and political relevance of the four narratives and critically analyses their respective internal logic. It concludes that peace, prosperity and self-assertion can only legitimize European integration to a limited extent and remain incomplete without the objective of a supranational democracy.

The complete working paper can be found here.

Re:constitution Working Paper: Vier Narrative zum Zweck der europäischen Integration

Deckblatt des Working Papers: Peace, prosperity, self-assertion, and cosmopolitan democracy: Four narratives on the purpose of European integration

Wozu dient eigentlich die europäische Einigung? Welchen Nutzen hat es, dass sich die Staaten in Europa zusammengeschlossen und gemeinsame supranationale Institutionen gegründet haben? Welche politischen Ziele können den Aufwand rechtfertigen, der mit dem Auf- und Ausbau der EU einhergeht?

Die Antwort auf diese Fragen ist – natürlich – umstritten. Je nach politischer Konjunktur standen im Lauf der europäischen Integrationsgeschichte ganz unterschiedliche Narrative zum Zweck des Einigungsprojekts im Vordergrund. In einem neu erschienenen Working Paper für das re:constitution-Programm habe ich vier der wichtigsten von ihnen in den Blick genommen:

  • das Friedensnarrativ, das den Hauptzweck der europäischen Integration in der Versöhnung der beteiligten Länder und der Vermeidung neuer Konflikte sieht;
  • das Wohlstandsnarrativ, nach dem es bei der europäischen Einigung vor allem um den wirtschaftlichen Wohlstand der teilnehmenden Länder und Völker geht;
  • das Selbstbehauptungsnarrativ, demzufolge die europäische Integration für die teilnehmenden Länder notwendig ist, um sich gegen äußere Bedrohungen zu schützen und eine aktive Rolle in der Weltpolitik zu spielen;
  • das kosmopolitisch-demokratische Narrativ, für das die europäische Integration zugleich individuelle Freiheit und Demokratie auf supranationaler Ebene zu ermöglichen soll.

Das Working Paper skizziert die historische Entwicklung und politische Relevanz der vier Narrative und analysiert kritisch ihre jeweilige argumentative Binnenlogik. Am Ende steht die Feststellung: Frieden, Wohlstand und Selbstbehauptung können die europäische Integration nur begrenzt legitimieren und bleiben unvollständig ohne das Ziel einer supranationalen Demokratie.

Das vollständige Working Paper (in englischer Sprache) ist hier zu finden.

25 Januar 2023

Beyond the “Franco-German Motor”? 60 years after the Elysée Treaty

By Manuel Müller
Deutsche und französische Flagge in einer Reihe anderer Flaggen.
Just two among many: An increasingly less Franco-German EU needs new ways to find compromises.

So, did you get well through the 60-year celebrations of the Elysée Treaty? Last Sunday was the anniversary of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty, and of course there was no shortage of solemn words at the corresponding ceremony.President Emmanuel Macron (RE/–) and Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD/PES) published a joint op-ed on “strengthening Europe” and set up a prominent working group of experts to make recommendations for institutional reforms in the EU.

But the enthusiasm didn’t quite take off this year. That’s partly because over the past few months a number of controversies have emerged between the two governments. The joint cabinet meeting that now took place on the occasion of the anniversary celebrations had originally been planned for last October but was cancelled at short notice then, something that had never happened between the two countries before.

Disenchantment of the partnership

Sure: In a way, it speaks for the Franco-German relationship that the two governments still work closely together in such situations. And even in earlier years, it was the rule rather than the exception that Germany and France initially took very different positions on important issues – and then made a decisive contribution to European decision-making precisely because they managed to pull together.

But perhaps this is just where the real disillusionment of the Franco-German partnership lies: unlike in the past, it no longer seems as if an agreement at the bilateral level could already be a breakthrough for the EU as a whole. The frictions between Germany and France only appear as one ier-European line of conflict among others.

The Franco-German alliance was never without problems

The extent to which the European framework of the Franco-German partnership has changed becomes clear in historical retrospect. Sure, the Elysée Treaty was never entirely without problems: when Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed it in 1963, it also served as a replacement for the intergovernmental “European Political Union” that the French government had proposed one year earlier – and that had failed due to the resistance of the Benelux countries in particular, who feared a weakening of the supranational institutions and an emergence of French dominance.

With the Elysée Treaty, Charles de Gaulle succeeded in institutionalizing his idea of cooperation based on intergovernmental consultations, at least on a bilateral level with Germany. This was rhetorically idealised as the overcoming of a “hereditary enmity”, which by 1963 was long past anyway. Certainly, cultural cooperation, for example in the form of town twinning or the Franco-German Youth Office, made an important contribution to bringing the people of both countries closer to each other. Politically, however, the Franco-German alliance never found the unreserved trust of the other member states.

“Compromis par procuration”

The fact that it was nevertheless able to develop into the much-invoked “motor” of European integration was mainly due to another phenomenon that is referred to as “compromis par procuration”. Apart from both being large member states, France and Germany were often on opposite sides in the important policy debates that have shaped European politics for many decades.

While France traditionally favoured an intergovernmental, executive-driven integration model geared towards the European Council, Germany was seen as the advocate of a parliamentary federal system with strong supranational institutions. While France opted for an independent European approach to foreign and security policy, Germany sought proximity to the USA and NATO. While France wanted to complement the single market with a monetary union early on, Germany held on to a strong D-Mark under the control of the independent Bundesbank. Economically, France relied on industrial policy, Germany on regulatory Ordnungspolitik. Regarding enlargement and neighbourhood policy, France was oriented towards the south, Germany towards the east.

Other members could identify with agreements reached by the two

But it was precisely these different starting positions that made Franco-German compromises a good basis for EU-wide agreements: Most other member states were close to either the French or the German position, and whenever the two largest countries were able to find a common line, the rest of the EU saw their most important interests taken into account, too.

For the EU as a whole, the Franco-German partnership therefore meant an important reduction in complexity. It is easier to find a basic compromise between two countries, which then only has to be adapted in the European Council to some special wishes of smaller member states, than to negotiate in a plenary session with twelve, fifteen or even twenty-seven countries.

The UK always remained an outsider

At the same time, this constellation gave Germany and France a special political influence on the EU. As a rule, it was they who jointly set the broad lines, and without them nothing moved. The general thrust of European integration therefore remained shaped by the Franco-German agenda for a very long time.

This was most keenly felt in the United Kingdom, where, after the accession in 1973, many politicians had expected to play at least an equal role alongside the Franco-German tandem. But in the following disputes, for example over the Common Agricultural Policy or monetary union, the UK always remained an outsider. It was able to put obstacles in the way of the Franco-German line, but never develop a real counter-model to it.

Loss of confidence during the euro crisis

But the compromis par procuration only works as long as the smaller member states actually see their interests represented by Germany or France. This model ran into its first serious difficulties during the euro crisis. Here, too, the tandem took opposing positions, representing different groups of countries: Germany, like the northern European countries, demanded austerity and national responsibility, while France, like the southern part of the EU, placed more emphasis on transnational solidarity.

But with France itself in financial trouble and the governments of Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP/EPP) and François Hollande (PS/PES) remaining politically weak, the resulting compromise between the two countries was overly “German”. The costs of the euro crisis were largely borne by the crisis countries themselves – which in southern Europe led to a loss of confidence in the EU in general and in the Franco-German leadership in particular.

Things went better during the corona pandemic, when Germany overcame itself on the issue of joint EU bonds and managed to take the sceptical northern European countries with it. The Franco-German proposal of May 2020, which two months later led to European agreement on a recovery fund, was a prime example of a compromis par procuration in this respect.

Alienation of the NCEE countries

The year 2022, however, brought an even greater challenge for Franco-German leadership: the deep alienation that has emerged between the tandem and the Northern, Central and Eastern European (NCEE) countries. When it comes to dealing with Russia, Germany and France are both seen to be in the “dovish” camp, which, while not allowing Russia to win the war in Ukraine, considers a negotiated settlement to be the best way to ensure a stable post-war order.

In NCEE, by contrast, many consider this approach to be dangerous since a negotiated solution would not be possible without some concessions from Ukraine – and would thus reward the Russian government for its war and provide an incentive for future aggressions. From the perspective of the Baltic States, for example, Germany and France are thus ignoring the essential security interests of their EU partners.

In search of alternative models to reduce complexity

Against this background, a Franco-German compromis par procuration is not something many people in Europe want to rely on right now. Distrust of the traditional “engine of integration” is stronger than it has ever been in the history of the EU. And even if solutions to the current strategic disputes may be found in the medium term, the basic problem is likely to remain: The EU has become so large and so heterogeneous that an agreement between the two largest member states in many cases is no longer sufficient to do justice also to the essential interests of the other countries.

But what other models are possible then to reduce the complexity of intergovernmental negotiations at EU level? In recent years, there have been various attempts to extend Franco-German cooperation to other partners who would be representative of other groups of member states – in particular the “Weimar Triangle” with Poland. However, due to the authoritarian development of the Polish government, this format has lost much of its importance since 2015.

Multipolar minilateralism?

At the same time, there has been an increase in the importance of the so-called minilateral forums: regional groups such as the Visegrád-4 or the Nordic-Baltic 6, whose members try to find a balance of interests among themselves in order to then appear more united in pan-EU negotiations.

This formation of regional groups fits in with a “multipolar” EU that is not only driven by the two largest member states, but in which different actors and groups of actors can be in the foreground depending on the topic. This can help to pre-structure Council negotiations. In the worst case, however, it can also lead to blockades, since regional groups can find it more difficult than individual governments to give up their positions in favour of a pan-European compromise.

This is exemplified by the deadlocked negotiations on burden-sharing in EU migration policy: Here it is mainly the Mediterranean states on the one side and the Visegrád countries on the other that are at odds – and talks on European asylum reform have made little to no progress for years.

Stronger supranational bodies

But there is another way to reduce the complexity of political negotiations in an ever larger and thus ever less Franco-German EU: namely by strengthening the joint supranational bodies.

Due to its institutional position, the Commission has the task to pursue a pan-European interest without leaving any part of the EU unconsidered anyway. And the European Parliament, with its pan-European parties and parliamentary groups, offers a model in which the political debate is not primarily structured by national interests but by ideological positions – and which can therefore bring into view completely different lines of compromise than intergovernmental negotiations.

The “motor” of the EU must be its own institutions

Germany and France driving European integration: This model that has shaped the EU for decades can in certain constellations still be effective today. But in the long run, an EU with 27 member states and 450 million inhabitants (and soon possibly even more) cannot depend on two national governments keeping an eye on the interests of everyone else in their bilateral search for compromise.

Therefore, the fact that Germany and France have now once again committed themselves to the goal of institutional reform may be the most important contribution that the tandem can make to a functioning future Europe. May the Franco-German friendship continue to blossom and prosper: The EU needs its own strong representative institutions to be the “motor of integration”.

Image: Flags: Joshua Fuller [Unsplash license], via Unsplash.

Jenseits des „deutsch-französischen Motors“? 60 Jahre nach dem Elysée-Vertrag

Von Manuel Müller
Deutsche und französische Flagge in einer Reihe anderer Flaggen.
Nur zwei unter vielen: Eine immer weniger deutsch-französische EU braucht neue Formen der Kompromissfindung.

Und, sind Sie gut durch die 60-Jahre-Elysée-Vertrag-Feierlichkeiten gekommen? Am vergangenen Sonntag hatte der deutsch-französische Freundschaftsvertrag seinen runden Geburtstag, und natürlich mangelte es bei dem dazugehörigen Festakt nicht an feierlichen Worten. Präsident Emmanuel Macron (RE/–) und Kanzler Olaf Scholz (SPD/SPE) veröffentlichten einen gemeinsamen Namensartikel über die „Stärkung Europas“ und setzten eine prominent besetzte Expertengruppe ein, die Vorschläge für institutionelle Reformen der EU machen soll.

Doch so ganz wollte die Begeisterung dieses Jahr nicht überspringen. Das liegt teilweise daran, dass sich über die letzten Monate eine ganze Reihe von Streitpunkten zwischen den beiden Regierungen aufgetan haben. Das gemeinsame Kabinettstreffen, das nun anlässlich der Jubiläumsfeier stattfand, war ursprünglich schon für letzten Oktober geplant gewesen und damals, zum ersten Mal in der Geschichte, kurzfristig abgesagt worden.

Entzauberung der Partnerschaft

Klar: In gewisser Weise spricht es gerade für das deutsch-französische Verhältnis, dass die beiden Regierungen auch in solchen Situationen noch eng zusammenarbeiten. Und auch in früheren Jahren war es ja eher die Regel als die Ausnahme, dass Deutschland und Frankreich in wichtigen Fragen erst einmal unterschiedliche Positionen vertraten – und dann gerade dadurch, dass sie sich zusammenrauften, einen entscheidenden Beitrag für die europäische Entscheidungsfindung insgesamt leisteten.

Aber womöglich liegt gerade hier die eigentliche Entzauberung der deutsch-französischen Partnerschaft: Denn anders als früher wirkt es heute eben nicht mehr so, als ob eine Einigung auf bilateraler Ebene auch schon ein Durchbruch für die EU insgesamt sein könnte. Die Reibereien zwischen Deutschland und Frankreich erscheinen nur noch als eine innereuropäische Konfliktlinie unter anderen.

Die deutsch-französische Allianz war niemals ganz unproblematisch

Wie sehr sich der europäische Rahmen der deutsch-französischen Partnerschaft verändert hat, wird im historischen Rückblick deutlich. Ganz unproblematisch war der Elysée-Vertrag freilich nie: Als Konrad Adenauer und Charles de Gaulle ihn 1963 unterzeichneten, diente er auch als Ersatz für die intergouvernementale „Europäische Politische Union“, die die französische Regierung ein Jahr zuvor vorgeschlagen hatte – und die am Widerstand vor allem der Benelux-Länder gescheitert war, die davon eine Schwächung der supranationalen Institutionen und eine französische Dominanz befürchteten.

Mit dem Elysée-Vertrag gelang es Charles de Gaulle, seine Idee einer auf zwischenstaatlichen Regierungskonsultationen beruhenden Zusammenarbeit wenigstens auf bilateraler Ebene mit Deutschland zu institutionalisieren. Rhetorisch verklärt wurde dies als die Überwindung einer „Erbfeindschaft“, die 1963 allerdings ohnehin schon lange Vergangenheit war. Immerhin, die kulturelle Zusammenarbeit, etwa in Form von Städtepartnerschaften oder des Deutsch-Französischen Jugendwerks, dürfte einen wichtigen Beitrag geleistet haben, die Menschen beider Länder anzunähern. Aber politisch stieß die deutsch-französische Allianz niemals auf das ungetrübte Vertrauen der übrigen Mitgliedstaaten.

„Compromis par procuration“

Dass sie sich dennoch zum vielbeschworenen „Motor“ der europäischen Integration entwickeln konnte, lag vor allem an einem anderen Phänomen, das man mit dem Begriff des „compromis par procuration“ bezeichnet. Abgesehen davon, dass Frankreich und Deutschland die beiden größten Mitgliedstaaten waren, standen sie bei den wichtigen integrationspolitischen Debatten, die die Europapolitik über viele Jahrzehnte geprägt haben, oft eigentlich auf entgegengesetzten Seiten.

Frankreich vertrat traditionell ein intergouvernemental-exekutives, auf den Europäischen Rat ausgerichtetes Integrationsmodell, Deutschland galt als Verfechter eines parlamentarisch-föderalen Systems mit starken supranationalen Institutionen. Frankreich setzte auf einen eigenständigen europäischen Kurs in der Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik, Deutschland suchte die Nähe zu den USA und der NATO. Frankreich wollte frühzeitig den Binnenmarkt um eine Währungsunion ergänzen, Deutschland eine starke D-Mark unter Kontrolle der unabhängigen Bundesbank. Frankreich setzte wirtschaftlich auf Industriepolitik, Deutschland auf Ordnungspolitik. Frankreich setzte in der Erweiterungs- und Nachbarschaftspolitik auf eine Orientierung nach Süden, Deutschland nach Osten.

In Einigungen des Tandems fand auch die übrige EU sich wieder

Gerade diese unterschiedlichen Ausgangspositionen machten deutsch-französische Kompromissen dann aber zu einer guten Grundlage für eine gesamteuropäische Einigung: Wenn sich die beiden größten Mitgliedstaaten auf eine gemeinsame Linie einigen konnten, dann sahen auch die übrigen Länder darin meist ihre wichtigsten Interessen berücksichtigt.

Für die EU als Ganzes bedeutete die deutsch-französische Partnerschaft deshalb eine wichtige Reduktion von Komplexität: Es ist einfacher, zu zweit einen Basis-Kompromiss zu finden, der dann im Europäischen Rat nur noch um diesen oder jenen Sonderwunsch kleinerer Mitgliedstaaten ergänzt werden muss, als in einem Plenum mit zwölf, fünfzehn oder gar siebenundzwanzig Ländern zu verhandeln.

Großbritannien blieb immer Außenseiter

Zugleich verschaffte diese Konstellation Deutschland und Frankreich aber natürlich auch einen besonderen politischen Einfluss auf die EU. Sie waren es meist, die gemeinsam die großen Linien festlegten, und ohne sie bewegte sich in aller Regel nichts. Die allgemeine Stoßrichtung der europäischen Integration blieb deshalb über sehr lange Zeit von der deutsch-französischen Agenda geprägt.

Am deutlichsten bekam das Großbritannien zu spüren, wo nach dem Beitritt 1973 viele Politiker:innen erwartet hatten, als dritter großer Mitgliedstaat künftig eine mindestens gleichberechtigte Rolle neben dem deutsch-französischen Tandem spielen zu können. Doch den folgenden Auseinandersetzungen, etwa um die Gemeinsame Agrarpolitik oder die Währungsunion, blieb Großbritannien immer ein Außenseiter. Es konnte der deutsch-französischen Linie zwar den ein oder anderen Stein in den Weg legen, aber niemals ein echtes Gegenmodell dazu entwickeln.

Vertrauensverlust in der Eurokrise

Doch der compromis par procuration funktioniert nur so lange, wie die kleineren Mitgliedstaaten ihre Interessen tatsächlich durch Deutschland oder Frankreich repräsentiert sehen. In erste ernsthafte Schwierigkeiten geriet dieses Modell während der Eurokrise. Zwar vertrat das Tandem auch hier entgegengesetzte Positionen, mit denen sie unterschiedliche Ländergruppen repräsentierten: Deutschland forderte wie die nordeuropäischen Länder Austerität und nationale Eigenverantwortung, Frankreich setzte wie der Süden der EU eher auf zwischenstaatliche Solidarität.

Doch da Frankreich selbst finanziell angeschlagen war und die Regierungen unter Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP/EVP) und François Hollande (PS/SPE) politisch schwach blieben, fiel der resultierende Kompromiss zwischen beiden Ländern allzu „deutsch“ aus. Die Kosten der Eurokrise wurden zum größten Teil von den Krisenländern selbst getragen – was in Südeuropa zu einem Vertrauensverlust in die EU allgemein und die deutsch-französische Führung im Speziellen führte.

Besser lief es während der Corona-Pandemie, als Deutschland in der Frage gemeinsamer EU-Anleihen über den eigenen Schatten sprang und dabei auch die skeptischen nordeuropäischen Länder mitnahm. Der deutsch-französische Vorschlag von Mai 2020, der zwei Monate später zur europäischen Einigung über einen Wiederaufbaufonds führte, war in dieser Hinsicht ein Musterbeispiel für einen compromis par procuration.

Entfremdung mit den nordöstlichen Ländern

Das Jahr 2022 brachte indessen eine noch größere Herausforderung für die deutsch-französische Führungsrolle: die starke Entfremdung, die sich zwischen dem Tandem und den nordöstlichen Mitgliedstaaten aufgetan hat. In Bezug auf den Umgang mit Russland gelten Deutschland und Frankreich beide als Teil des „Tauben“-Lagers, für das Russland den Krieg in der Ukraine zwar nicht gewinnen darf, das aber grundsätzlich eine Verhandlungslösung als bestes Mittel für eine stabile Nachkriegsordnung ansieht.

In Nord- und Ostmitteleuropa halten viele diesen Ansatz hingegen für gefährlich, da eine Verhandlungslösung nicht ohne Zugeständnisse der Ukraine möglich wäre – und damit die russische Regierung für ihren Angriffskrieg belohnen und einen Anreiz für künftige Aggressionen setzen würde. Aus Sicht etwa der baltischen Staaten ignorieren Deutschland und Frankreich damit essenzielle Sicherheitsinteressen ihrer EU-Partner.

Auf der Suche nach Alternativmodellen zur Komplexitätsreduktion

Auf einen deutsch-französischen compromis par procuration will vor diesem Hintergrund niemand mehr setzen. Das Misstrauen gegenüber dem traditionellen Integrationsmotor ist so stark wie wohl noch nie zuvor in der Geschichte der EU. Und auch wenn sich für die aktuellen strategischen Streitigkeiten mittelfristig wohl Lösungen finden lassen, dürfte das Grundproblem bleiben: Die EU ist heute so groß und so heterogen geworden, dass eine Einigung zwischen den zwei größten Mitgliedstaaten in vielen Fällen eben nicht mehr genügt, um den wesentlichen Interessen auch der übrigen Länder gerecht zu werden.

Aber welche anderen Modelle sind möglich, um die Komplexität zwischenstaatlicher Verhandlungen auf EU-Ebene zu reduzieren? In vergangenen Jahren gab es verschiedene Experimente, die deutsch-französische Zusammenarbeit um weitere Partner zu erweitern, die repräsentativ für andere Gruppen von Mitgliedstaaten stehen sollten – insbesondere das „Weimarer Dreieck“ mit Polen. Aufgrund der autoritären Entwicklung der polnischen Regierung verlor dieses Format seit 2015 jedoch stark an Bedeutung.

Multipolarer Minilateralismus?

Eine andere Möglichkeit liegt in einem Bedeutungsgewinn der sogenannten minilateralen Foren: regionale Gruppen wie die Visegrád-4 oder die Nordic-Baltic 6, die zunächst untereinander nach einem Interessenausgleich suchen, um dann auf Gesamt-EU-Ebene geschlossener aufzutreten.

Diese Gruppenbildung passt zu einer „multipolaren“ EU, die nicht nur auf die zwei größten Mitgliedstaaten blickt, sondern in der je nach Thema unterschiedliche Akteure und Akteursgruppen im Vordergrund stehen. Sie kann helfen, Verhandlungen im Rat vorzustrukturieren. Im schlechteren Fall kann sie aber auch zu einer Blockade führen, da es regionalen Gruppen schwerer fällt als Einzelregierungen, für einen gesamteuropäischen Kompromiss eigene Positionen aufzugeben.

Beispielhaft zeigt sich das an den festgefahrenen Verhandlungen über die Lastenverteilung in der EU-Migrationspolitik: Hier stehen sich vor allem die Mittelmeerstaaten und die ostmitteleuropäischen Visegrád-Länder gegenüber – und die Gespräche über die europäische Asylreform kommen seit Jahren kaum voran.

Stärkung der supranationalen Organe

Bleibt noch ein letzter Weg, wie in einer immer größeren und damit immer weniger nur deutsch-französischen EU die Komplexität politischer Verhandlungen reduziert werden kann: nämlich durch eine Stärkung der gemeinsamen supranationalen Organe.

Die Kommission hat schon nach ihrer institutionellen Stellung den Auftrag, ein gesamteuropäisches Interesse zu verfolgen, das keinen Teil der EU unberücksichtigt lässt. Das Europäische Parlament wiederum bietet mit seinen gesamteuropäischen Parteien und Fraktionen ein Modell, in dem nicht primär nationale Interessen, sondern weltanschauliche Positionen die Debatte strukturieren – und damit ganz andere Kompromisslinien in den Blick geraten können, als dies bei zwischenstaatlichen Verhandlungen der Fall ist.

Der „Motor“ der EU müssen ihre eigenen Institutionen sein

Deutschland und Frankreich als „Integrationsmotor“: Dieses Modell hat die europäische Einigung über viele Jahrzehnte geprägt und kann in bestimmten Konstellationen auch heute noch wirksam sein. Doch auf die Dauer kann eine EU mit 27 Mitgliedstaaten und 450 Millionen Einwohner:innen (und bald womöglich noch mehr) nicht davon abhängig sein, dass zwei nationale Regierungen bei ihrer bilateralen Kompromisssuche auch die Interessen aller anderen im Blick behalten.

Dass Deutschland und Frankreich sich mit der Einsetzung der Expertengruppe nun noch einmal zum Ziel einer institutionellen Reform bekannt haben, ist deshalb vielleicht der wichtigste Beitrag, den das Tandem für eine auch in Zukunft funktionierende EU leisten kann. Möge die deutsch-französische Freundschaft auch weiterhin blühen und gedeihen: Europa braucht als Motor der Integration seine eigenen starken repräsentativen Institutionen.

Bild: Flaggen: Joshua Fuller [Unsplash license], via Unsplash.

10 Januar 2023

What lies ahead for the EU in 2023?

Christmas tree with a star in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Let’s have a bit of contemplation now – in a year’s time we’ll already be nominating leading candidates again!

Do you remember? A little more than a year ago, both Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) and European Council President Charles Michel (MR/ALDE) announced a motto for the year 2022. For the Commission, it was to be the “European Year of Youth”, for the European Council President the “Year of European Defence”. In retrospect, it seems that Michel made the better prediction: The Russian attack on Ukraine painfully moved defence issues to the centre of the EU agenda.

For 2023, the Commission has now proclaimed the “European Year of Skills”, while Michel has abstained from giving the year a motto. Perhaps it’s better that way.

War in Ukraine

It is clear that the Russian war in Ukraine will continue to challenge the EU during the coming months, and on very different levels. The most obvious is the dimension of military aid and the debate about a possible end to the war. After the EU’s initially remarkably united reaction to the outbreak of war, internal controversies quickly emerged in the course of 2022. While the “hawks” (especially in the north-east of the EU) are counting on a clear defeat of Russia in Ukraine to deter the Putin regime from new aggressions, the (mostly Western European) “doves” are more open to bringing the war to a quick end by freezing the conflict.

The longer the war drags on, the more pronounced these intra-European differences could become. In 2023, it will therefore be more important than ever to hold a transnational strategic debate – also to prevent the disputes from becoming toxic. In view of the great public interest, this is not only a task for experts and decision-makers, but also for the mass media.

Energy crisis, inflation, recession

Moreover, the EU will also have to find answers for the indirect consequences of the war. In December, the member states finally managed to agree on a joint package of measures to tackle the energy crisis, including the joint purchase of gas and a gas price cap.

But the enormous rise of energy prices is already pushing the EU towards a dangerous combination of inflation and recession. This faces the European Central Bank with the dilemma of either giving free rein to price increases – or raising interest rates, which could curb inflation, but would also stall the economy even further.

MFF review and new deficit rules

Against this backdrop, the upcoming mid-term review of the EU’s multiannual financial framework takes on special significance. The Commission intends to present a proposal for this in the first half of 2023. The European Parliament has already made clear that it sees a great need for revision: According to the MEPs, neither the size nor the structure of the current financial framework are suitable for dealing with the many current crises. Moreover, the Commission is also going to present a proposal on new own resources in the second half of the year.

But in both questions (and as always when a lot of money is at stake in the EU), the Council must decide with unanimity. Which means that we will once again experience the rituals of a vetocracy with its long, harsh, and unproductive disputes.

And not only the EU’s finances will be discussed in the coming months – the budgets and debts of its member states will be on the agenda, too. In November, the Commission presented proposals for a reform of the deficit rules. In simple terms, the idea of this reform is that member states should be given more leeway to borrow, but only within the framework of individual agreements to be concluded with the Commission. More flexibility in debt policy, but only for purposes that the EU approves of: this could transform the deficit rules from a rigid framework into an instrument of (indirect) supranational macroeconomic governance. It will be interesting to see to what extent the member states agree to this.

Debates on enlargement …

Another consequence of the war in Ukraine is the forceful return of the EU enlargement debate. After Croatia’s accession in 2013, a certain enlargement fatigue had set in in the EU. For years, political games by several member states kept the countries of the Western Balkans at arm’s length – to the growing frustration of the population there.

In 2022, however, the changed geopolitical situation brought a new dynamic to the debate. In Ukraine, the war has not only strengthened the national identity, but also the identification with Europe. Only a few days after the outbreak of the war, the Zelenskiy government submitted an application for EU membership, to which the EU responded by granting Ukraine candidate status in the summer. Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo also made progress on their way into the Union in recent months.

As a consequence, expectations in the candidate countries are now high, and the EU can hardly afford to disappoint them again as it has done in recent years. But only the coming months and years, when symbolic declarations give way to concrete negotiations, will tell how serious it really is about turning the tide on enlargement policy.

… and deepening

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to future accession does not lie with the candidate countries anyway, but with the EU itself. Even with 27 member states, its internal procedures are often barely functioning, as the “permacrisis” of the last ten years has shown.

Whether it was the eurozone bailout programme, the migration crisis, the Corona pandemic or the preservation of the rule of law in the member states: time and again, the EU has been doing too little too late, has allowed itself to be blackmailed by individual member states, has had to use legal exception clauses and ad hoc constructions, has taken important key decisions without the elected European Parliament and has generally been lacking clear accountability.

All this would only worsen if the number of national veto players increases from 27 to 30 or 35. Enlargement must therefore be preceded by institutional reform, in particular the transition from unanimity to majority voting, but also a general strengthening of supranational institutions, clearer responsibilities and a new electoral law.

From the Conference on the Future of Europe to a Convention?

And indeed, such a reform catalogue has already been available for more than half a year: On 9 May 2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe adopted its final report, whose chapter on European Democracy contains a number of far-reaching proposals that can only be implemented through treaty reform. The European Parliament therefore called for opening the necessary Convention immediately after the end of the Conference. However, the European Council did not respond to this at all.

The reason for that is the lack of unity among member states’ governments, several of which are very sceptical about the idea of treaty change. Sweden, which has taken over the Council Presidency for the first half of 2023, is not among the supporters of a Convention either. In its presidency programme, the government has already announced that it will “strive to achieve a broad consensus among the Member States” in the follow-up to the Conference – which indicates a slow approach with much consideration for those who want to drag down the process.

But reform needs do not disappear if they are ignored, so this debate will continue during the new year. In spring, the European Parliament will present a detailed proposal on what a new EU Treaty could look like, increasing the pressure on the European Council to take a position. If the heads of state and government decide to open a Convention then, it will become easier to bundle debates. Otherwise, the EU will probably face further months or even years of protracted negotiations on many individual reform dossiers.

Electoral reform: the next blockade

These reform dossiers also include the revision of the European electoral law and the European party statute. Both made great progress last year and could, in the best case, be concluded in 2023. In the case of the electoral law reform, this would also be necessary because, according to the recommendations of the Council of Europe, during the last year before an election no major changes should be made to its legal framework – and the next European election is due in 2024.

In reality, however, the electoral law reform is currently on the brink of failure, as several member states reject the pan-European electoral lists it envisages. Still, it can hardly be expected that the European Parliament will simply resign itself to this, drop the compromise it reached after years of wrangling among the political groups, and renounce one of the most important levers for strengthening European democracy. Here, too, the blockade in the Council will probably only mean that an overdue reform debate keeps dragging on and on.

Rule of law: Hungary isolated

The struggle over the rule of law in the member states will also continue in 2023. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there has been a rift between the anti-Russian PiS (ECR) government in Poland and the pro-Russian Fidesz (–) government in Hungary. The Commission tried to take advantage of this in order to also break up the alliance between the two countries on other issues and further isolate the Hungarian government.

This strategy was only partially successful. In the conflict over the rule of law, Poland and Hungary have not turned against each other. At least, however, Poland has moved closer to the EU’s demands in some points. Regarding Hungary, the Council decided in December to use the new conditionality mechanism to freeze EU funding for the first time. The new year will show whether this measure will also have a practical effect on the rule of law situation in the country.

Parliamentary elections in Poland, Spain and other countries

Beyond the frictions with Hungary, there is another reason why the Polish government is currently not interested in an escalation of the rule-of-law conflict with the EU: the next Polish parliamentary elections are going to take place in autumn 2023. According to the current polls, the PiS (ECR) would once again become the strongest party, but the right-wing government it leads could lose its majority and be replaced by a broad coalition led by the PO (EPP). It will thus be an exciting electoral campaign, after which, in the best case, a new democratic government could restore the rule of law in Poland.

Poland, however, is not the only major member state to hold elections in late 2023. There is also a national parliamentary election coming up in Spain, where current polls suggest a very close outcome between the governing coalition of PSOE (PES) and UP (close to EL) on the one hand and a possible alliance of PP (EPP) and Vox (ECR) on the other. Possibly, this could end in a stalemate (similar to 2019) and a long and difficult government formation. For the EU, this will also be relevant because Spain holds the Council Presidency in the second half of 2023.

Further parliamentary elections are due in Estonia, Finland and Greece in spring and in Luxembourg in autumn. There could also be early elections in Bulgaria – the fifth in three years. Moreover, in early February there will be a presidential election in Cyprus, the only EU member state with a presidential system of government.

In most of these elections, the current governing coalitions have a good chance of maintaining their majority in parliament. It will be close in Finland, where Kokoomus (EPP) expects to replace the SDP (PES) as the strongest party and take over the leadership of the government. In Luxembourg and Bulgaria, the EPP, currently in opposition, is also likely to end up in first place again, although it will have a hard time finding coalition partners. If things go well for the EPP, it could thus win up to five additional seats in the European Council by the end of 2023. In Cyprus, on the other hand, incumbent Nikos Anastasiadis (DISY/EPP) is not running again; the frontrunner to succeed him is Nikos Christodoulidis, who is also a DISY member but is standing in the election as an independent.

2024 European elections: the next leading candidate process

But it is not only in the member states that elections are coming up – the EU itself is also beginning to warm up for the European Parliament elections in early summer 2024. Apart from the electoral law reform already mentioned, the next edition of the leading candidate (or Spitzenkandidaten) procedure will be the focus of attention.

This procedure, according to which the European parties nominate candidates for the Commission presidency before the election, has not been very popular among the heads of state and government. But since the parties do not need the approval of the Council to nominate candidates, they will not be deterred by the reservations of the member states. Following the timetable of past elections, they will nominate their candidates by the end of 2023 or early 2024 at the latest.

In the best case, this means that we will see an increasing transnational party-political confrontation and personalisation of European political debates in the course of this year. In the worst case, on the other hand, it might just lead to a mere repeat of the eternal debate about whether the leading candidates will ultimately be relevant for the election of the next Commission President at all.

Eppur si muove?

Progress or deadlock – that will be the big question for the EU in 2023. In Year 1 after the Conference on the Future of Europe and the much-invoked Zeitenwende, it is evident that there is an institutional reform backlog in many areas. Member states are preventing progress that would be urgently needed to make the EU at the same time more democratic and more capable to act.

There is much to suggest that this will remain the case in the coming months. If, however, the governments manage to swallow their pride and address the necessary reforms, the new year could be the beginning of a relance that tackles both the deepening and widening of the European project at the same time.

For the editor of this blog, the new year will bring some personal changes, too: After a year at the University of Duisburg-Essen, I will start a new position as a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki in January 2023. I will continue to work on issues of EU reform and supranational democracy here, and of course this blog will continue to accompany European policy debates.

A happy and healthy new year to all readers!

Correction note: An earlier version of this article stated that the EPP could replace an EL-led government in the national parliamentary election in Greece. In fact, the EPP has already been governing in Greece since 2019.
Translation: Yannik Uhlenkotte/Manuel Müller.
Image: Christmas tree: © European Union 2017 – European Parliament [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0], via Flickr.