After the annus horribilis: a review of the EU institutions

15 December 2005

The European Policy Centre hosted a Policy Dialogue to launch its Working Paper on After the annus horribilis: a review of the EU institutions. Keynote speaker Antonio Vitorino, former Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner and Chair of the EPC’s Political Europe programme, outlined the Paper’s main conclusions. A debate then followed with Sylvie Goulard, Associate Research Fellow at CERI and teacher at Sciences Po (Paris) and Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, EU Correspondent of Die Zeit. The Political Director of the EPC, John Palmer, chaired the meeting. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

John Palmer introduced the event by presenting the EPC’s Working Paper on "After the annus horribilis: a review of EU institutions", explaining that the future of political Europe remained one of the EPC’s key research priorities. He said the paper, which focuses on the three main EU institutions - the European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers - was "not the end of something, but the very first stage of something that will go on for a long time".

Antonio Vitorino argued that the EU institutions should not become hostage to a crisis and the Union should fully exploit the opportunities offered by the existing treaties. The Working Paper was the first of three building blocks, to be followed in 2006 by one on political parties and another on the role of civil society, including the media, in political Europe.

European Commission

Presenting his personal conclusions, Mr. Vitorino said the Commission remained a key player, but faced three main challenges.

The first was to reshape its political profile. This was especially important since issues such as the Lisbon economic reform agenda and governance were not primarily based on legislation, where the Commission has its power of initiative. "The Commission is a political body, not just a high-level administration," he said.

Secondly, there was the question of collegiality. This had taken on a new dimension, partly because of the sheer number (25) of Commissioners, but also due to the removal of a second Commissioner from the five biggest Member States. Since these almost invariably came from opposition parties, their absence has had an impact on the institution and its relationship to national politics.

Thirdly, the position and powers of the Commission President needed to be clarified on issues such as the choice of Commissioners.

European Parliament

The European Parliament had more to lose than any other institution from the absence of a European constitution, said Mr. Vitorino. MEPs had only limited competences for many of the issues now on the EU’s agenda, such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Lisbon Strategy. The Parliament could, however, overcome this handicap if political groups created stable coalitions on key issues.

With a decline in EU legislation, it would be a mistake if the Parliament succumbed to the temptation to focus on micro-managing the Commission. Such an approach would lead to tensions between the two institutions.

Council of Ministers

It was here that the impact of enlargement was the greatest, with the potential difficulty of securing consensus among 25 governments. However, in practice, the institution’s business had not stalled and the new Member States were displaying a positive attitude towards decision-making.

There were serious questions about the Council’s transparency and effectiveness. More efforts were required to achieve internal rationalisation and greater legislative coherence. In particular, the relationship between the General Affairs Council and sectoral Councils must be improved.

Mr. Vitorino’s key message was that while the constitution would have given added value to the way the EU’s institutions function, it would be wrong to deduce that nothing could be done in its absence. The institutions needed to show leadership and define priorities for the Union.

Sylvie Goulard said the main problem facing the Union was not its inability to communicate what it does and why, but its failure to make people feel involved in its decisions. This could be seen not just in the French and Dutch rejection of the constitutional treaty, but also in the poor turnout in the 2004 European Parliament elections. "We need to put more democracy into the system," she insisted.

The Commission should be more visible and its representations in Member States should abandon their normal neutral stance and be more proactive. "The President of the Commission has to take risks."

Secondly, while the constitution had been a step in the right direction, it had left many questions unanswered, notably on the EU’s institutional structure. It was on this wider context that the Union should work in the coming years.

Finally, the Union’s members should end the charade of pretending that they agreed on everything. There were very different views on what the EU is, or should be, ranging from political union to a loose network. People should face up to this debate and draw the appropriate conclusions on the type of institutions, social model and world role for the Union.

Joachim Fritz-Vannahme said two key words - complexity and credibility - were absent from the EPC’s Working Paper. European affairs were extremely complex and, for journalists, difficult to sell to their news editors and readers - and efforts to introduce greater transparency into EU decision-making or to increase the visibility of its institutions would not change this situation.

National politics were also complex, but different from the European scene because of the concept of membership. Since they felt part of their own country, few citizens were prepared to distance themselves from it, but that sentiment did not extend to the Union. "The first people to distance themselves from Europe are the politicians who come to Brussels. They talk of ‘there’ not ‘here’ and of ‘they’ not ‘we’," he said.

Responding to points made by the two other panellists, Mr. Vitorino, agreed that communication on its own was not sufficient to bridge the gap with citizens - the content of what was being communicated was also important.

He accepted that complexity would remain a feature of the Union. It might even become more evident, since the EU’s institutional structure must accommodate some variable geometry to allow countries that wish to cooperate more closely to do so. He gave as an example the UK’s lukewarm attitude towards economic union, but its wish to be in a ‘hard core’ on defence issues.

"The Union will remain complex, but if EU issues can enter the national debate in an organised way, it will help to reduce it," he argued.

Mr. Vitorino also criticised national ministerial doublespeak in Brussels, describing it as "the most damaging political and cultural affront to the EU project".