28 Februar 2023

The return of the reforms: In the midst of all its crises, the EU is discussing its institutional future again

By Manuel Müller
EU flag, photographed against the sun
“There are many debates on the future of European governance taking place in parallel. Bringing them together will be a central challenge of the next years.”

When the Treaty of Lisbon came into force on 1 December 2009, an era of reforms ended for the European Union. Over two decades, the European treaties had undergone several rounds of fundamental revision. This deepening dynamic was accompanied by a huge enlargement of the Union, which grew from 12 to 27 member states between 1995 and 2007.

The reforms were never entirely trouble-free, however, and over time the signs of fatigue increased. In particular, the ratification procedures became a sticking point: Several national referenda on the reforms were only successful on a second attempt. In 2005, the Constitutional Treaty failed even completely, even though its core contents were later revived in the Lisbon Treaty and implemented after all.

Looking back: A decade without treaty reforms

As a result, further institutional reforms became more and more of a political risk for European governments – especially since changes to the EU Treaty are only possible with the consent of all member states and the number of veto players had more than doubled due to the successful enlargement rounds. A new generation of European ‘pragmatists’ was less and less willing to invest political capital in such a venture.

In any case, the prevailing mood after the Lisbon Treaty was that it was time for the EU to stop “navel-gazing”. After all the reform years, wasn’t it time to let the new structures work in practice before taking new steps towards deepening the EU? Subsequently, the wave of accessions came to a standstill, too: Croatia was the last member state to join in 2013, while the admission of the other candidate countries was delayed further and further.

Afraid of “Pandora’s Box”

The calm that the pragmatists might have hoped for did not materialise, however. In 2008, when the Lisbon Treaty was still under ratification, the global financial crisis broke out and soon revealed structural problems in the European Monetary Union. The euro crisis confronted the EU with the toughest ordeal in its history – and yet it was only the beginning of a decade in which one existential challenge followed the next, far-right parties celebrated record results, one member state declared its withdrawal and the EU in general never got out of crisis management mode.

But even though numerous inadequacies in the EU’s institutional structure became apparent during this period, the European treaties remained unchanged (apart from a miniature reform in 2011). The more crisis-ridden the situation became, the less the European Council felt inclined to convene a Convention to open up the treaties. To engage in fundamental debates on the future of the EU was seen by most national governments as a “Pandora’s box” that would only complicate matters. Instead, muddling through was elevated to a point of principle – even though in many cases it led to democratic accountability structures becoming blurred, measures remaining incomplete, and problems not being solved but merely postponed.

Looking around: New reform debates

Recently, however, the mood seems to be changing again: Reform ideas that have long gone unheard are once again attracting more attention. In 2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe, an ad-hoc assembly of representatives of the EU institutions and randomly selected citizens, adopted a wide-ranging final report with numerous recommendations, including treaty changes. Subsequently, the European Parliament formally called for the launch of a Convention and intends to present concrete proposals for a new treaty in the spring. The Commission supports this goal. Also the German and French governments have set up a joint group of experts to develop reform suggestions by this autumn.

Of course, this does not yet mean that a new European Convention is really around the corner: Many national governments still view treaty change with great scepticism. But even they seem more and more resigned to the idea that at least a serious discussion of it is inevitable.

Where is this new dynamic coming from? It is noteworthy that it is not fed by a single source. Instead, several reform debates are taking place at the same time, driven by different actors in different policy areas and with different motives, but intertwined and mutually influencing and reinforcing each other. At least three different strands of discourse can be observed at present.

First: More European democracy

First, there is the old debate about the democratisation of the European Union. Especially in the circles of the European Parliament, there are many actors who never considered the Lisbon Treaty to be a sufficient culmination of the path towards an effective and democratic EU.

For example, the Spinelli Group, a network of federalist MEPs, presented a draft “Fundamental Law of the European Union” as early as 2013. In 2017, the Parliament adopted the Verhofstadt and Brok/Bresso reports, two detailed wish lists for the further institutional development of the EU – with or without treaty changes. In parallel, the Parliament advocated for the leading-candidates procedure for European elections, for a new European electoral law with transnational lists as well as for better financial resources for political parties at the European level.

Conference on the Future of Europe

Most of these reform efforts initially fell on deaf ears with member state governments. However, after the 2019 European election, the Parliament successfully pushed for setting up the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Conference not only triggered an intensified discussion on participatory democracy at the European level, but also supported most of the Parliament’s other institutional reform ideas and in some cases even went beyond them.

The Conference did not attract the hoped-for interest of a broad public. But since not only the Parliament and the Commission, but also the governments in the Council had declared in advance that they would follow up on its proposals, the EU institutions are now under increased pressure to deliver. Simply ignoring the demands for reform would damage the credibility of the entire participatory process – and make a constructive involvement of citizens in European policy even more difficult in the future.

Second: A changed crisis perception

A second, gradual change of recent times concerns the perception of crises in the EU. In the 2010s, the prevailing view was that the EU was in an extraordinarily complicated phase, but that this would eventually end. In this situation, it seemed to make sense to act cautiously and to put comprehensive reform projects on hold until conditions would calm down.

By now, however, the European “polycrisis” has turned into a “permacrisis”: Many problems of European governance have become chronic and are likely to get even worse in the medium term. With this perspective, the “Pandora’s box” argument loses its persuasiveness: If the crisis is not going to pass, the best possible moment for institutional reform is not at some point in the future, but as soon as possible.

Risk of erosion

In fact, the crises of the last years revealed many deficits that were only incompletely remedied by the immediate emergency measures. The banking union envisaged during the euro crisis remained incomplete, and the new economic governance in the form of the European Semester largely left the European Parliament on the side-lines. The deficit rules of the Stability Pact have long been considered in need of revision and are in suspension since the beginning of the Corona pandemic. The credit-financed reconstruction fund NextGenerationEU provided the EU budget with a kind of “Hamilton moment”, but has so far been conceived as a one-off intervention only.

While every year around two thousand people continue to drown in the Mediterranean while trying to flee to Europe, the long pursued reform of the EU asylum system has not yet been achieved. At the same time, it is almost eight years since the last time there were no border controls at any of the Schengen area’s internal borders. And the climate crisis not only poses enormous material policy challenges for politics, but also raises questions of cross-border and cross-generational justice.

Finally, the decline of national democracy and the rule of law in various member states, especially Poland and Hungary, touches the very foundations of European integration. The question of whether the primacy of European law is still recognised by all national courts, which at first glance appears to be a matter of legal technicalities, also harbours a great danger of disintegration. All this puts the EU under pressure to act: the longer the erosion of the community of law and values continues, the more difficult it will become to reform its institutional structure in the future.

Third: Return of the enlargement question

Finally, a very special role is played by the most recent of the big European crises: The Russian attack on Ukraine not only led to an intensified debate on the EU’s role in defence policy and on a reform of the largely unanimity-based procedures of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Ukrainian membership application of 28 February 2022 also brought the question of enlargement back on the agenda.

Which countries can and will the EU admit in the coming years? Are the accession procedures still fit for purpose? And above all: How must the EU change to be able to function with 30, 35 or more member states? A possible new Eastern enlargement is also of great interest to many Northern, Central and Eastern European countries, which are otherwise rather reserved when it comes to institutional changes. The link between deepening and widening is therefore the third and probably strongest force that drives the current discussion on European reform.

At the same time, however, it also raises questions for the future power structures within the EU: What role can the “Franco-German engine” still play in an eastward shifting Union? How is the relationship between small and large countries changing? Does a larger and more heterogeneous EU require more differentiated integration – or stronger supranational institutions to manage the growing disparities among the member states?

Looking ahead: Bringing together the threads of debate

There are thus many parallel but interrelated debates about the future of the European governance system taking place at present. The EU is seeking a new balance: between deepening and widening, unity and differentiation, capacity to act and consensus, member states’ self-responsibility and transnational solidarity, European parties and national governments, national sovereignty and supranational law.

Having to answer so many open questions at the same time can be paralysing, but also liberating – if it is possible to find cross-cutting package deals that open up new avenues for agreement. Bringing together the individual threads of debate in which the future of European governance is being negotiated will therefore be a central challenge of the next years. A European Convention could be the appropriate forum for this.

In the coming months, the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform” will shed light on the European crisis and reform discourses outlined here. Experts from German and international universities and think tanks will examine specific issues and developments and reflect on them in the context of European policy research.

The contributions will appear simultaneously on the blog “Der (europäische) Föderalist” and on Regierungsforschung.de, the academic online journal of the NRW School of Governance at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Duisburg-Essen. Stay tuned!

Picture: EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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