European Affairs

The Future of the EU: A View from Central Europe     Print Email

Now that the political debate over the future of European integration is well under way, it is important that countries seeking membership of the European Union make their voices heard.

The Convention on the future of Europe that started work in March is preparing proposals for the EU InterGovernmental Conference due to be held in 2004. That is the same year in which the European Union is widely expected to admit up to ten new members, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland.

This forthcoming enlargement of the Union from West to East is the greatest challenge that the drive for European unity has faced since it began in the 1950s. The challenge of enlargement is also inextricably bound up with the other problems that Europe will have to face in the coming years.

Those problems were set forth in the declaration agreed by EU leaders at Laeken in December as a basis for discussion not only in the Convention, but more widely among the general public in present and future EU member states. The declaration poses questions of a fundamental nature that may be compared to constitutional problems in nation states.

The first challenge is to bring the European Union's institutions closer to its citizens, who, while supporting its main aims, do not always see the connection between the EU's broader goals and its everyday actions. The second is to strengthen the role of the European Union in a world in which globalization processes are dominant.

The European Union is an area of freedom, solidarity, democracy and the rule of law, which respects diverse cultures and traditions. As such, it should take decisive action against nationalism, xenophobia, human rights violations, terrorism and organized crime.

For this to happen, the Union should continue its efforts to forge a common foreign and security policy. It should also enact the economic reforms necessary to build a strong economy, based on knowledge and modern technologies, which is able to compete in today's world.

As the debate on European integration has shown so far, EU citizens also expect common actions to protect the environment, ensure food safety and deal with climate change, as well as measures to increase employment and combat poverty.

If these aims are to be achieved, there will have to be ambitious reforms in the way that the European Union operates. The Union should become more democratic, more transparent and more effective.

The Laeken Declaration outlines four objectives:

  1. A clear division of powers between the European Union and its member states. This should respect the principle of subsidiarity, according to which decisions should be taken at the lowest possible administrative or governmental level, and only those requiring Europe-wide action at EU level.
  2. Simplification of the legal instruments of the Union.
  3. A strengthening of the democratic legitimacy, transparency and effectiveness of the European institutions.
  4. Simplification of the European treaties to make them easier for citizens to understand, a process that could lead to the creation of a European Constitutional Treaty.

These objectives raise difficult political issues such as the role of national Parliaments in EU decision-making and the institutional improvements needed to prepare for a Union with nearly 30 members. But the debate inevitably also raises the fundamental question of the final goal of European integration, or its "political finality," as the French put it.

Countries such as Poland, which hope to join the European Union soon, feel a common responsibility for the future of Europe. It should be emphasized that any reforms that the European Union wishes to implement will require the involvement and acceptance of public opinion, in the new member states as well as in the old.

In the words of former European Commission President, Jacques Delors: "Eastern Europe, less privileged and less focused on the protection of its comfort and prosperity, which it still has not had the occasion to enjoy, is more open to the European dream."

We want to participate actively in building a united Europe. The basic goals that have guided European integration from the beginning - peace, prosperity, security and stability - are still valid.

We must ask ourselves, however, whether we really need to define the ultimate goal of European construction at this time. Can this goal be a federation? Should European integration develop as heretofore, step by step, as it strives to achieve successive objectives, such as the single market or economic and monetary union?

I am convinced that the European Union should retain its current, functional nature. Fifty years of European unification prove that the incremental method adopted by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman is correct and leads to closer integration of the nation states of Europe.

Retention of the functional nature of European construction guarantees that its previous achievements will be preserved and its continued growth assured. Experience shows that integration in one field creates the need for integration in others. This is because in today's world individual areas of public life are closely interrelated.

It is irrational to maintain that the nation state is the only structure capable of responding to the challenges facing our societies. Nonetheless, the idea of creating a federal Europe in the absence of a European "demos" (though unquestionably there is a common European historical-cultural identity) seems Utopian.

Such a federation, however, cannot be excluded at some point in the distant future. Federalism, as a set of principles of governance, should not cause anyone concern. It does not mean centralization. It is a way of coping with the complexity of problems. We say: as much diversity as possible, as little uniformity as necessary.

A federation in this sense is something more than the sum of its parts. It differs from a confederation, which is an alliance of interests that can change at any time. In the present European Union one can point to federal elements, such as the successful introduction of the single currency, the euro.

The establishment of economic and monetary union, however, does not presage the introduction of a European federal state. There is no such need today, nor would it be accepted by public opinion.

The functional nature of the European Union is re§ected in the "community method," according to which the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament each play their part in EU decision-making. This institutional triangle is subject to the leadership of the European Council and to the supervision of the European Court of Justice.

The community method determines the specific nature of the European project and guarantees the continuity and the dynamism of European integration. In the light of the challenges facing the European Union, it needs to be strengthened.

This is all the more important at a time when the differences between the member states of the European Union are widening as a result of enlargement. That is why Poland, as a member of the Union, will support strengthening the community method - a goal, it would appear, that can be achieved by increasing the number of decisions made by qualified majority voting.

As for the division of powers between the member states and the European Union, our goal should be a clearer designation that permits evolutionary changes in who deals with what, in accordance with the subsidiarity principle. After all, it is hard to foresee the challenges that Europe could face in the future.

We should not lay down an in§exible definition of respective powers, which could slow down, or even halt, the process of European integration. That would be a negation of the undeniable achievements of the last 50 years.

A simplification both of the decision-making procedures and of the legal instruments of the European Union is exceptionally important from the point of view of the citizens, who should be able to follow the decision-making process.

For example, EU directives are meant to lay down binding goals for member states, but leave national governments free to choose the means of implementing them. In most cases, however, directives fail to meet these criteria and do not allow member states to choose their own methods of implementation.

This means that national governments and parliaments have less to say than they should about the choice of instruments and the methods of putting individual decisions into practice. We must re§ect on whether it might be possible to return to the original assumptions and make greater use of "framework" directives that would help to strengthen the role of national parliaments.

We must also simplify the European Union's four treaties, which are composed of numerous articles, protocols and declarations. This can be achieved by dividing their contents into two separate documents: a basic constitutional-type treaty defining the values and tasks of the European Union, and a document containing specific regulations. Amendment procedures should also be simplified.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which stems from the constitutional traditions of the member states, should be legally binding and included in the constitutional treaty.

In order to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the institutions, the role of the European Council in setting the Union's strategic agenda should be strengthened. The European Council is composed of the democratically elected leaders of the member states.

Another important step in the same direction would be to create a committee composed of national deputies in the European Parliament. The committee's task would be to monitor implementation of the principle of subsidiarity.

The goal of the reform of the institutions should be good, effective government and not the creation of a European super-state. The current rotating presidency of the European Union should be re-examined to make the presidency more effective. So should the role of the Commission. The Commission's independence should be strengthened, and it should be given greater responsibility for implementing political instructions from the European Council.

National parliaments should also become more deeply involved in the decision-making process. Thought should be given to creating a Legislative Council, alongside the Council of Ministers, that would hand down opinions on draft EU legislation.

Solidarity has been one of the main principles of the EU from its very beginning, and the member states have enjoyed political, economic and social solidarity. It is important for solidarity to be the binding principle in a united Europe.

A policy of economic and social cohesiveness would be one of the expressions of this principle. Assistance under such a policy should concentrate on the poorest regions of an enlarged European Union.

Another important reform would be to strengthen the role of the European Union in the international arena by deepening integration under the Common Foreign and Security Policy. A closer link is needed between internal and external security policy, and the candidate countries should be included ever more actively in formulating and implementing EU policy in this area.

The goal of both members and aspiring members should be to build a strong, united Europe that is close to its citizens and at the same time capable of playing an important role in the world. The reforms undertaken must not only meet the challenges that the European Union faces at the beginning of the 21st century, but also guarantee the continuity and dynamism of the integration process.

We are building a common house. For it to become a home we must all feel comfortable in it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Most of all, however, it is a historic responsibility that we owe to future generations.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number II in the Spring of 2002.

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