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Schuman at seventy

Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Andrew Duff

Date: 06/05/2020
The Schuman Declaration turns 70. The Conference on the Future of Europe is the chance to relaunch the process of European unification along the federal lines first envisaged by its author.

On 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet gave birth to what was to become the European Union. Their proposal, to unite the coal and steel industries of France and Germany, was radical. Their timing was right, their method clever, their project deliverable ‑ and their mission was unashamedly federal.

“In this way, there will be realised simply and speedily that fusion of interest which is indispensable to the establishment of a common economic system. It may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community between countries long opposed to one another by bloody divisions.”

“By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority, whose decisions will bind France, Germany and other member countries, this proposal will lead to the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace.”

Schuman warned that “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”. As Monnet advised, only supranational governance would make a reality of the spirit of solidarity between the six member states and their citizens.

Over the years, Monnet’s method has evolved, new institutions have developed, and many more states have joined the Union. But while the EU’s achievements must not be underestimated, it has struggled to maintain the pace of integration and live up to the ambitions of its founding fathers. Too many European politicians are lured back into nationalism; one member state has seceded; and others begin to question the rule of EU law. The German Federal Constitutional Court wilfully undermines the judicial authority of the European Court of Justice. In these circumstances, it is proving impossible for the Union to realise its full potential.

To compound these problems, the coronavirus pandemic is leading to another severe economic recession. It aggravates the financial instability of the eurozone, and accentuates social and regional imbalances. Political divisions about how to deal with the public health crisis without adequate instruments and resources are already exposing the constitutional frailty of the Union. The international situation is deteriorating.

European integration so badly needs fresh impetus consistent with the spirit of the Schuman Declaration.

Another conference 

Before COVID-19 struck, it was agreed in principle to convene a major Conference on the Future of Europe involving the EU institutions, consultative bodies, civil society organisations and citizens. If the Conference is to be convened by September, preparations must be accelerated. The Commission seems to have no clear ambition for the Conference beyond a vague popular consultation. The European Council has refused to define its position. Only the European Parliament seems keen to get going on a serious reform agenda.

The coronavirus crisis reinforces the need for the Conference. Social and economic recovery will be a long and arduous task that stretches the capacity of EU governance to its limits. Muddling is inevitable and disunity likely, with the institutional problems of the Union on full display. This is the context in which the Conference will have to work.

There is indeed no point in convening the Conference unless it is ambitious. The Conference should aim to equip the Union to deal better with its challenges, and to speak and act with one voice when necessary. It should reassess the balance of competences between the Union and its states as well as reconsider the balance of powers between the institutions. Some reforms can be achieved within the existing compass of the Treaty of Lisbon; others will lead to treaty change.

The federal purpose

The Union needs to be competent to address effectively all those issues which now outstrip the capability of its member states to resolve alone. The federalist principle of subsidiarity needs to be applied fully across the spectrum of all internal and external policy. The goal should be to build a vibrant liberal democracy, a fair and resilient European society, and a sustainable economy.

The Union cannot afford to be permanently divided between net contributors and beneficiaries to the budget. This requires the federal element of the budget – ‘genuine own resources’ – to be progressively expanded as a proportion of the whole. The EU should use its greater fiscal capacity to invest in public goods of common value to all its citizens, including education, scientific research, digitalisation and cybersecurity.

The share-out of competences between the member states and the Union level of government could usefully be adjusted, especially in the fields of public health, energy supply, and asylum and immigration. Supervision of the European financial services industry should be strengthened at the federal level. The Single Market needs consolidation in the areas of services and taxation policy.

Enhancing the competence of the Union requires strengthening its governance. Executive authority needs to be concentrated on a streamlined Commission, made fully accountable to the bicameral legislature of Parliament and Council. Reliance on unanimity in the Council must be replaced by greater use of majority voting, particularly in fiscal and social policies. Where necessary, there must be enhanced cooperation among a group of integration-minded member states.

The European Parliament must gain the right of co-decision with the Council over the raising of revenue. Reform is needed, in time for the 2024 elections, to ensure that a portion of MEPs is elected in a pan-EU constituency from transnational lists, contested by federal political parties.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is the chance to relaunch the process of European unification along the federal lines first envisaged in the Schuman Declaration. 21st century Europeans deserve to live in a well-governed, adequately resourced and united democratic polity. And the world needs a strong European Union that projects abroad the values and principles which it upholds at home. This is especially so, as Schuman and Monnet knew 70 years ago, in times of peril.

Andrew Duff is President of the Spinelli Group and a Visiting Fellow at the European Policy Centre. He was a member of the European Parliament 1999-2014. He tweets @AndrewDuffEU

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