Open Europe Berlin

EU-60 summit avoids disaster, triumphalism … and reform. By Michael Wohlgemuth

Kongress

Not all member states and institutions of the European Union were thrilled about Matteo Renzi’s idea – back while he was still prime minister of Italy – to hold a special summit to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. Last week’s celebration of the EU’s founding documents would have been spoiled had one family member – the United Kingdom – shown up with her divorce papers. But Theresa May’s travel plans were not the only worry. Younger family members were also acting up.

Absent friends

As it turned out, last week’s festivities in Rome did not re-enact the birthday party from hell in the classic Danish Dogma film “Festen.” They were closer to the diplomatic frolic portrayed in “Congress Dances,” the German 1932 movie about the Congress of Vienna. No disaster or triumph here. This was all about far bella figura –making a good impression. Given the state of Europe these days, that was already quite an achievement.

Festen

Prime Minister May had the good sense not to attend. It may seem odd and unfair that one of the EU’s most important member states, whose economic output matches that of the bloc’s 20 smallest states combined, is being shunned at European summits – especially since the UK will remain a dues-paying member of the club for at least two more years. But it would have been even more awkward for Ms. May to show up and sign (or not sign) the Rome Declaration.

As it was, the summit declaration came from the 27 leaders of member states that “take pride in the achievements” of the EU and plan to stay in. There was room for some lofty language about the bloc’s ambitions for the next decade, glossing over the ill-humored haggling that may well dominate the next two years of Brexit negotiations.

Always options

But while Ms. May had the grace to wait four days before sending the letter that formally triggered Article 50 and divorce, other leaders came to Rome ready to rumble. Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Beata Szydlo of Poland, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, threatened to boycott the joint declaration unless there were last-minute amendments. In the end, they both relented, avoiding a scandal. Greece got a few words on “social Europe,” while Poland had “the diversity of national systems” acknowledged in the text.

The declaration steered clear of any specifics, preferring to anesthetize its readers with high-flown sentiments – which, of course, is the standard operating procedure at EU summits.

Before last week, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had tried to throw down the gauntlet with his “White Paper on the Future of Europe,” offering five alternative scenarios: 1) “Carrying On,” 2) “Nothing but the Single Market,” 3) “Those Who Want More Do More,” 4) “Doing Less More Efficiently,” and 5) “Doing Much More Together.”

The short Rome declaration did not explicitly endorse any of the options, which is perhaps understandable given the eccentric way some of them were phrased. Option 2), especially, was framed as a regressive, neo-liberal idea that somehow managed to seem hostile to free markets, since the scenario assumed zero progress toward free trade in services, control of state subsidies and EU trade agreements with external partners.

Tricky interpretation

One would need to hire a Scholastic interpreter of the White Paper and the Rome Declaration to discover precisely what the 27 national leaders really wanted. Apparently, Mr. Juncker went into the summit believing that they would react to his menu by choosing “none of the above.” However, the assembled politicians seemed happy to mix and match – especially since no one was being picky about the details.

Thanks to the perverse way it was stated by Mr. Juncker and his team, the market minimalism of Scenario 2) was obviously out. Theoretically, that should have made it easy to get behind the status quo, or Scenario 1), which follows the post-Brexit roadmap from last year’s Bratislava summit. But even the European Commission president realized that more of the same is not sufficiently inspiring for a 10-year perspective. Everyone could agree on Scenario 4)’s doing things “more efficiently,” as long as the details were kept sufficiently vague, but there was not the slightest hint in the Rome Declaration about “doing less” of anything.

There was also silence when it came to Brussels’ default preference – Scenario 5) “Doing Much More Together.” In an election year, the EU-27 leaders know that endorsing ever-closer union is hazardous to their political health.

Hint of controversy

What we are left with is a laundry list of uncontroversial objectives: “a Union that is safe and secure, prosperous, competitive, sustainable and socially responsible, and with the will and capacity of playing a key role in the world and of shaping globalization.” Who could possibly disagree? As to the means of reaching the objectives, the document says nothing. It only states: “We will pursue these objectives, firm in the belief that Europe’s future lies in our own hands and that the European Union is the best instrument to achieve our objectives.”

That sounds a lot like the federalist option 5), except that the political instruments and procedures needed to get there are lacking. But there is an interesting hint on that subject earlier in the document, in the fourth paragraph, which states: “We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction….and keeping the door open to those who want to join later.”

This passage, with its clear nod at Mr. Juncker’s Scenario 3), has provoked the most controversy. In Eastern Europe, it is viewed as a clear threat of a “multi-speed Europe” – with Western member states grouped around France and Germany setting the pace, dictating the agenda (generously interpreted, as usual, by the European Court of Justice) and imposing a political and social model on Europe. An EU defined by these welfare-state standards would impose rising economic costs on its East European members, who have so far managed to compete and grow in the single market through their lower wages and benefits.

Naive idea

This sort of regulatory overreach has already alienated many ordinary Europeans. It is not enough to conclude that sooner or later, an ever-closer Union will fit everybody. More and more, EU citizens see their lives regulated by a political machine that cannot be held accountable under democratic rules.

Real EU reforms will have to address this problem, which is one of democratic legitimacy and subsidiarity (basic issues on which both the White Paper and the Rome Declaration remain deplorably silent.) Two-speed Europe takes for granted that there is a common destination of European integration and a common European “identity” to be embraced by all, sooner or later. But this is a naive idea for the present and a dubious vision for the future. The “ever closer Union” and “one-size-fits-all” approach to European integration has become the problem, not the solution.

A preferable model would be a “variable geometry” in which different countries – “the willing and capable” – engage in mutual integration in various policy areas. These areas could also be open for non-EU members (e.g. free trade, foreign and defence policies, domestic security and anti-terrorism). Europe would again live up to its motto: united in diversity.

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One Response to “EU-60 summit avoids disaster, triumphalism … and reform. By Michael Wohlgemuth”

  1. Susanne Vogelius

    If this was pursued would it not be a Europe a la carte which changes the fundamental principles in EU ( the free movements of goods, capital, labour and people ) which all members should follow . Would it be a new Europe where the members and other European countries interrelate and cooperate with themselves on specific chosen policies which might then disregard the old agreed EU treaties ?
    We will probably need another European politician than Jean-Claude Juncker to develop Europe in your proposed direction ? as he perhaps only wants option 3. ?

    ps. as a Dane I liked the hint to “Festen “

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