It is the “mother of all problems” for the EU: as before, it can only decide unanimously on the most important issues. The Union must now drastically improve its ability to govern if it wants to be on an equal footing with the enormous challenges, but also with the other big players such as the USA and China, and be able to react better to crises such as the Ukraine war.
If you want to better understand the current problems of the European Union (EU) and find the only right solution, you should study the history of patent protection. Already at the beginning of the 1970s it became clear that there would be no way around an EU-wide unitary patent in the long term, and initial negotiations were held. But it was only half a century later – on January 19, 2022 – that EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton was able to give the go-ahead in Brussels with a sense of relief.
Now save articles for later in “Pocket”.
Certainly a particularly blatant example of the EU obstacle marathon on important reforms. There are many reasons for this, but the decisive obstacle to an agreement for decades was the principle of unanimity, according to which each member state can use a veto to prevent reforms or decisions that it considers undesirable.
Prof. Dr. Klemens Joos teaches at the Technical University of Munich and is the founder of the internationally active Munich-based EU policy and management consultancy EUTOP
Only the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on December 1, 2009, initiated the turning point, because the instrument of “enhanced cooperation” could also be used in the area of the internal market and thus in patent protection. It stipulates that EU member states form a “coalition of the willing” (minimum number of participants: nine) and may only introduce a legal act in their countries if, despite all efforts, not all EU states can agree on it.
What I mean to say is that the principle of unanimity, which still exists in part, hangs around the EU’s neck like a millstone on its way to the future. The major crises of the EU – Ukraine, refugees, euro – have severely damaged its image among the citizens and strengthened the importance of the member states. And it is precisely on these issues – foreign and security policy, external borders, budget/currency – that the EU can only decide unanimously, i.e. with the consent of all members. However, it is obvious that 27 EU member states can usually only agree on the lowest common denominator, if at all.
This “mother of all problems” will continue to cause problems for the EU in the coming months as it deals with the consequences of the Ukraine crisis. The partial failure to agree on an urgent oil embargo against the aggressor Russia offers only a foretaste. When it comes to oil, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán gave way, and the Germans are not prepared to impose an embargo on natural gas for the time being – the dependency is too great. The EU states have not even found a common position on the question of whether it is still possible to telephone Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And should the euro crisis actually return, as some economists fear, because over-indebted euro member states such as Italy or Greece cannot live with massive interest rate premiums for new loans, then the EU or the euro group would again be overwhelmed.
From all of this follows: The Union must drastically improve its “governance”, its ability to govern and thus its ability to act if it wants to be on an equal footing with the enormous challenges, but also with the other big players such as the USA and China. This applies all the more as a new round of enlargement is imminent with Ukraine, Moldova and the states of the Western Balkans. Otherwise, an EU with more than 30 member states – from the Belarusian border to the Atlantic, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean – will become the dinosaur of world history. At the same time, however, it is important for the EU to gain more approval from its citizens. Their greatest successes – abolition of borders, free trade and a common currency – have become a matter of course.
It is therefore a matter of reforming the Union at its head and its members. Unfortunately, with the Lisbon Treaty, only half of the way to the creation of the United States of Europe (USA) was covered. Incidentally, that was a great success in 2009, since the previous attempt to give the EU a constitution had failed due to referendums in France and the Netherlands. Significant parts of the draft constitution were implemented in the Lisbon Treaty. This process must now be completed.
For me, this includes strengthening the role of the European Commission as the government of the EU. In the future, the European Parliament should nominate a President, who will then put together a cabinet independently of the wishes of the member states, which will then stand for election in the European Parliament.
In any case, the scenario from 2019 must not be repeated, when the EPP won the European elections with Manfred Weber as a candidate for the presidential job and then the heads of state and government with Ursula von der Leyen pushed through a different solution. There is no better way to work out the democratic deficit of the EU. In future, the number of commissioners should be based on the number of useful departments and not on that of the member states. 30 commissioners and more – nobody can want that!
Of course, a direct election of the President of the European Commission in all EU member states would also be conceivable. The prerequisite for this would be an election in the entire EU instead of the previous separate elections in each member state. Then there would also be a pan-European election campaign, which would considerably strengthen the citizens’ awareness of living in a united Europe. If a directly elected Commission President is too powerful for the heads of state and government of the member states because he would be the President of all EU citizens, one can also opt for the German system: President would then be whoever receives a majority in the European Parliament.
In the future, the European Parliament would also have to emerge from an election in an electoral area encompassing the entire EU with combined electoral lists. This will decide whether Winston Churchill’s vision of a European federal state will still be fulfilled or whether the EU will remain a confederation of states, a Europe of fatherlands (Charles de Gaulle). Regardless of this, the rights of the European Parliament must be further strengthened, for example when drawing up the EU budget or – very crucially – through the right to initiate legislative processes. So far, only the European Commission is allowed to do this.
As already explained, the extensive if not complete abolition of the unanimity principle in favor of qualified majorities is of central importance for the EU’s ability to govern. In addition, this principle is associated with a considerable democratic deficit. Because while in the Bundesrat each federal state has votes according to its population, Malta has the same voting weight in the EU Council as Germany or France. The result: 500,000 Malteser can decide what is right or wrong for around 450 million EU citizens in foreign and security policy as well as in tax and budgetary policy.
Those are the big reform wheels. But even small adjustments can have a big effect, for example the principle of discontinuity. It states that with the constitution of a parliament after elections, all bills and proposals that were not passed in the past legislative period must be introduced and negotiated again. This applies to almost all parliaments of the EU member states, but not to the European Parliament. What sounds technocratic has a significant political impact. Because when politicians know that a project will expire at the end of the legislative period, they usually rush to get it through parliament beforehand. The introduction of the principle of discontinuity could therefore have a turbo-charged effect on the work of the European Parliament.
The summit meeting in Brussels at the end of this week (23/24 June) is of central importance for the future of the EU. Because French President Emmanuel Macron, who currently holds the presidency of the Council, wants to discuss fundamental reforms of the EU there, not least the abolition of the unanimity principle on central issues. Macron decided at the end of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” in Strasbourg at the beginning of May that if the EU wanted to develop faster, the need for unanimity on key issues made no sense. “I support institutional reform.
One of the ways to achieve this reform is to convene a convention to revise the treaties,” the Frenchman supported the European Parliament’s call for a constitutional convention to be convened. Macron considers the Maastricht Treaty on the euro and a uniform monetary policy or the Schengen agreement on the abolition of internal EU borders to be in need of reform. And he wants to finance European investments in general through European debt in the future.
Not everyone in the EU likes this: 13 member states, mainly from Northern and Eastern Europe, immediately presented an anti-reform pamphlet with the bold title “We already have a Europe that works”, flatly rejecting institutional reforms . However, the idea of convening a constitutional convention did not die with that. Because unanimity of the heads of state and government is not required for this, a simple majority is sufficient. And what speaks for the reformers: if the governance crisis is not overcome, the historic project of the European Union is threatened with lethargy and slow decline. The world is not waiting for the European Union. The critics of reform know that too.