A Conference for the Future of Europe

The Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission have announced their intention to call for a conference to gather the views and proposals of citizens and, particularly, young people, on how to “shape the future of the European project”. The initiative is reminiscent of the Convention, which was given the task of drawing up a ‘Constitution for Europe’ in 2001. From what we can deduct from the text of the three presidents’ joint declaration, their project seems to have – wisely – less ambitious formal goals and to achieve them in a way that is less loaded with media exposure. The decision to give the title of ‘Constitution’ to the Treaty produced by the Convention to improve the functionality of the European Union, the over-exposure of the Convention’s procedures in the media, and the organisers’ emphasis on its results, were probably the main reasons – though not the only ones – for the rejection of the Treaty in the consultations held in 2005 in France and the Netherlands. Deep misunderstandings about the interpretation of the Treaty’s scope had arisen in the European public’s opinion. The Treaty did not establish a constitution for a federal state that did not yet exist. It did not create the European super-state. It did not annul national state identities, as many citizens – not only in France and the Netherlands – had been led to believe. It limited itself to codifying the pre-existing treaties, making significant – but certainly not decisive – changes in a federal direction concerning the not yet fully state-based nature of the integration process. After the failure of the ‘Constitutional Treaty’, its substance was saved by the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which arduously took over most of the changes it contained and combined them into the pre-existing European Treaties. For ease of reference, the jurists merged the result of this work into the edition of the ‘Consolidated Treaties of the European Union’.

Relaunching the European integration project in the light of old and new challenges

As a methodological premise, to warn against repeating the rush forwards in the media and draw attention to the need to assess the evocative power of words before using them carefully, the three institutions’ initiative is indeed very timely. It is particularly convenient at this time when the willingness of some Member States and the European institutions to relaunch the integration project in the light of old and new challenges facing Europe and the expectations of its citizens has finally been expressed. These expectations must be recorded and taken into account for the purposes of concrete action being taken. Objectives that are very important for the security and well-being of citizens and the defence of European values – and which have long been enshrined in the treaties – remain, to a large extent, unfulfilled, owing to a lack of political will on the part of governments and of adequate legal instruments provided for in the treaties themselves. These two categories include, to varying degrees, economic policy, immigration policy, foreign and security policy and defence policy.

The ability to defend Europe’s values depends on the will of EU citizens

Economic and monetary union has been considered a constituent aim of the European project – as a logical consequence of the common market – since the Hague Summit in 1969. Monetary union was achieved with a fully federal institutional set-up by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992: the Euro has circulated as a common and single currency since 2002 among the countries adhering to it. It is issued by the European Central Bank, which defines the monetary policy of the Eurozone. Due to national resistance in Maastricht, economic, budgetary, and fiscal policy was not entrusted to federal institutions but remained individual member countries’ responsibility. The Treaty’s coordination at the European level proved insufficient, despite the progress made in recent years, to ensure harmonious economic development across Europe and cope with endogenous and exogenous shocks. In July 2020, a crucial step forward was taken to give more substance to the common budget and give the Union the capacity to borrow beyond its own resources. Effectively, all states do so to finance expenditure they consider indispensable but exceeds the amount of taxes collected.

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We could make further significant progress if the valuable proposals put forward in recent years by the institutions and some Member States to strengthen the coordination of national economic policies were adopted without amending the Treaty. The Treaty already provides for majority voting in the Council for decisions on economic and budgetary policy. What has been lacking so far is the political will to implement the Treaty in full. However, even enhanced coordination of economic policies will not eliminate trade and production distortions between the Member States without harmonising taxation levels. In truth, harmonisation has been prevented by the unanimity rule for adopting decisions in this area. Treaty amendment is therefore necessary.

Similar considerations apply to social policy, which has remained partially unimplemented even in those areas that do not require a unanimity vote. On the other hand, immigration policy has remained largely at a standstill, despite the Treaty provisions for its implementation, which require majority voting in the Council. In the case of both social and immigration policy, the member states’ political will has certainly been lacking.

Foreign security and defence policy in Europe

It must be said that it is illusory to imagine a ‘common foreign policy’ until the European Union assumes a completely federal structure in this area until the member states have decided to entrust their foreign policy to European institutions. Indeed, they have already done so in matters such as the internal market, trade policy, competition policy and monetary policy. However, specific foreign policy initiatives are conceivable and have been designed and implemented – with mixed results. Experience quickly highlighted the extreme difficulty for the Council to take demanding and timely decisions, as these decisions have to gather unanimity among member countries. For foreign policy decisions, too, majority rule is indispensable if the EU is to play its appropriate international role. More generally, time is long overdue for the unanimity rule to be abolished in all the Treaty articles for which it still applies. It is helpful to recall that the internal market could only be achieved after the majority rule was introduced in this area by the 1987 Single Act. One of the many merits of that Treaty was to start the gradual process of reducing the number of unanimous decisions. The transition to majority voting in foreign policy requires an extraordinary effort of political will on the Member States’ side. However, this no longer seems so unrealistic after the UK’s exit from the Union. Governments willing to implement it among themselves could resort to ‘enhanced cooperation’. Such cooperation is provided for in the Treaty if ‘the objectives pursued cannot be attained within a reasonable time by the Union as a whole’, provided that at least nine Member States participate.

*Roberto Nigido, Ambassador, held the position of head of the Italian Representation in Brussels, expert of the Eurispes Laboratory Europe.

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