European Affairs

One thing needs to be explained right from the outset: proposals like the ones recently put forward by Joschka Fischer look to a medium- and long-term future. They cannot possibly be put into effect right now, or in the very near future. What we need to do now is to ensure that the existing system can continue to work. The moment will come, sometime later, for putting forward more radical options for the future.

As I see it, that is the heart of today's discussion on Europe's future. Step one: Europe must adapt its existing institutional structure. Step two: Develop a more efficient Union following one of a number of paths on offer in order to create a more efficient, if not yet complete, Union.

I. Time for a genuine reform of the institutions

Why reform them, and why now?

The task that faces the Intergovernmental Conference, like its predecessors, is to make progress in the development of the institutional framework for European integration. Europe has had institutional reforms before - what makes this one more important?

There are several questions vital to the functioning of the institutions which the Amsterdam Treaty failed to deal with and which need to be settled for good this time around. This conference must succeed where the previous one failed, now that the enlargement of the Union is moving ahead, with the prospect of the number of Member States virtually doubling. Just by force of numbers, this enlargement is going to completely change the way Europe integrates.

The reform of the institutions under way at the moment is a means, not an end, still less a vision for the future. It is about the Union's institutional machinery, sometimes a highly political area, but the purpose is not to make a statement about where the Union is going. Without these adjustments, however, and without firm action to strike a better balance in the existing institutional framework, enlargement would be harder to achieve and the new Member States, after all their work, would end up joining a weakened Union. In other words, reform is not an excuse for holding enlargement up, it is the prerequisite for making a success of it.

That is why all the Member States, whatever their weight of population, can and must make an effort at the negotiations, to make a success of Nice. Succeeding is not the same as just bringing things to a close, and I say once again that I firmly believe that producing sound reforms is more important than just sticking to the timetable. Why? Because the reform, giving us a Union whose operating systems will mesh together better, is the basis on which we can build the Europe of the future.

The challenges of institutional reform

So the "mechanical" aspects of the reform are the questions the last conference failed to decide on. What, for example, should be the composition of the Commission if it is to remain credible? How can the Council make its decisions more efficiently and more legitimately?

Unless there is a change in the way the Commission is appointed, a few years from now it will have 35 members - or four times more than when it started. If that happens, how can it go on operating on the principle of collective responsibility which for 50 years has enabled it to act in the general interest as one of the vital driving forces behind European integration?

The European Commission has concluded that there are two ways of rising to this challenge:

  • either stick with the present pattern of 20 Members, in a genuinely collegiate body, with a system of rotation in a predetermined order and with all the Member States strictly equal, coming into being as soon as there are more Member States than seats on the Commission;
  • or let each Member State appoint a Commissioner, subject to there being a major overhaul of the Commission. By giving the President greater powers, for example, backed by a caucus of six or seven Vice-Presidents, the Commission should be able at least to continue to act consistently even if it does not function on the basis of genuine collective responsibility.

Before opting for either of these approaches, which both have weighty consequences, we have to ask ourselves quite frankly how much the Member States and the European Parliament will actually trust the future Commission. In a larger Community with more Member States, can it go on being a force for consistency, a motor and a source of new ideas or will it, having failed to win that trust, be confined to the mere day-to-day running of the single market and a few common policies?

Another challenge facing the reformers is the majority voting system in the Council of Ministers, which will have to go on striking the original balance and reflecting fairly the relative weight of each of the Member States. The Commission proposes allowing for both these imperatives by setting up a dual majority system: a proposal can be carried only if most of the Member States representing most of the total population of the Union vote for it. I think this dual majority system is simple and clear. It also confirms the dual legitimacy enjoyed by the citizens and the Member States.

If the decision-making process is to go on being effective with twice as many Member States as there are now, the right of veto will have to be reduced and, to make Community action more democratic, a link will have to be set up between qualified-majority voting and legislative co-decision with the European Parliament. A lot of progress has already been made on this, first at Maastricht and then at Amsterdam. But each of us still needs to make an even-handed effort in the interests of us all. There are around 50 clauses in the Treaty still hampered by requiring a unanimous vote. This requirement should be confined, basically, to institutional matters only. All the Community's policies should be decided by qualified majority and co-decision on legislative matters: action to combat discrimination (Article 13 of the Treaty establishing the European Community), asylum and immigration policy (Article 67), structural policy (Article 161) and so on. The right of veto should also be done away with as regards those fiscal and social measures needed to ensure the proper functioning of the single market.

What, after all, would be the point of being a first-rank economic power if we denied it the resources to coordinate its fiscal and social policies effectively? We cannot allow 25 or 30 Member States to be forced always to move at the speed of the least-hurried or least-willing among them - States, that is, that short-sightedly seek to protect their own interests rather than the general interest.

The Amsterdam Treaty opened the door to "closer cooperation," meaning that certain States can cooperate with each other, in the interests of the European Union, even if others do not wish to or cannot do so. One task for the conference must be to make the conditions less stringent and abolish the right of veto associated with setting up closer cooperation of this kind, while making sure that it really is a case of these front-runners clearing a path that others may follow rather than creating opportunities for Member States to unravel the progress that the Community has already achieved. I would add here that we must not let the progress we are making on closer cooperation be used as a smokescreen for a substandard agreement on extending qualified-majority voting, which is still, after all, the nub of the reform.

It is worth remembering that when negotiations of this kind break down, the effects are not always obvious immediately. They become clearer with the passage of time, as regret or remorse starts to strike people who, for lack of enough vision or courage, have stood in the way of a breakthrough in the name of short-term interest or national timidity.

How are we going to restore the Commission's credibility if the price of its operating difficulties may one day be that certain countries or the European Parliament refuse to give it their wholehearted trust? How are we going to make the wider single market work if we keep undermining it by systematically vetoing any proposal, however essential, on taxes or social policy? In an even more sensitive area, aren't we one day going to be sorry that we put off setting up a more efficient system for protecting our collective financial interests?

That is where the overhaul of the institutions which started on February 14 this year has to show that it means business. And that is exactly what the Commission called for on January 26 in the opinion it delivered on the reform of the institutions. When it comes down to it, the proof of how boldly we act will not just be the number of subjects there are on the table but how resolutely and bravely they are tackled.

First steps towards a Constitution for Europe

Looking beyond these four questions - the composition of the Commission, decision-making in the Council, extending qualified-majority voting, the criteria for establishing closer cooperation - all of which affect the linkages between the EU's Member States and its institutions, it is probable that the Heads of State or Government will in the end want to see the reform creating a new spirit in the Union which is less concerned with counting numbers and more with policies.

There may be other questions raised by the European Council in Nice, even if they may very well not be decided on until later. These tend to boil down to the same basic issue, that of a constitution for Europe.

Whether we like the word or not, the point is to give the European Union an instrument which is clear and simple. I am not talking about giving the Union greater powers but about making the process of European integration easier to grasp. It is vital for European democracy - the primary reason why we are all in this together - that ordinary members of the public should be able to get their hands on a constitutional treaty - a text which, to quote Vaclav Havel, "every child in Europe can learn at school without too much trouble."

To draw up such an instrument, we need to rekindle that mixture of inspiration and level-headedness that we see in the Community's very first founding instrument, the treaty establishing the ECSC. The way the Community treaties and other instruments are organized at the moment makes it genuinely difficult for most ordinary people to come to terms with the idea of a more united Europe: the basic material is covered in hundreds of articles scattered through several different treaties. In fact important work recently done by the European Institute in Florence, at the Commission's request, demonstrates that it is legally impossible to compile it all in a single text with only a few articles.

Even if lack of time prevents this basic instrument from becoming a Treaty of Nice, it must be the starting point for a joint effort to restructure the treaties. This exercise will go hand in hand with the work already started which former German President Roman Herzog chairs on a charter of fundamental rights. And, we would be wrong to overlook the case for finding an answer to the recurring question of what the EU's powers actually are, so that we can at last say, as unambiguously as possible, what it is supposed to concern itself with and what it should not - or should no longer - concern itself with. I would incidentally find it hard to understand if the parties most attached to the idea of the nation-state and terrified at the mere mention of the word "Constitution" were to say no to making this effort to clarify the situation.

As we look at these three interrelated questions, then, there is an incentive for us to draft a reference document - and not before time - clearly enunciating the fundamental principles which have to be observed and the major balances which have to be struck in developing the Union. This is not a project to be disposed of in a few months. It would both have symbolic value, and go to the very essence of the matter, were it to be launched at Nice.

II. A period for reflection: the three ways forward for Europe

The current reform of the institutions is paving the way for enlargement. We must let the reform have the time it needs. The second stage will have to come afterwards, leaving a longer period for quiet reflection on where the Union is going. About how to organize things, in fact, to make sure that Europe goes on having a firm, coherent project around which it can structure its development.

This thinking will have to be done, and the process has been set in motion again by Joschka Fischer's proposals, with contributions from, among others, Jacques Delors, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt. The thinking has barely started, but at all costs we must steer clear of ready-made answers. The process of European integration has always been one of innovation, bypassing national and international models not suited to achieving the objectives of the founding countries, which are to act effectively and in the common interest.

"We saw the European Community as a process of change, so setting it in stone would be a contradiction in terms. Jumping ahead to results chokes the spirit of innovation. New horizons will open up before our eyes as we go along." That was what Jean Monnet recommended. Keep an open mind, get to where you are going by starting from what is possible; that is an approach which I think is still valid today.

So, as we start discussing these questions again, we must not shy away from asking what the words which are going to be the framework for our thinking really mean, words like "nation-state," "federalism," "community" or "directoire" - or from sketching out a few avenues to channel the discussion along.

I would like to take part in this reflection and begin by describing three main avenues which I believe, out of all the available paths, are the ones we can take in building a more united Europe once the present reforms are over. These are the federal path, where it is "all for one;" then, at the other extreme, the intergovernmental path, or "every man for himself;" and lastly, a third way, that of the renovated Community system: "all pulling together."

"All for one:" the federal vision

There is nothing new about the idea of a federal Europe. It germinated and found expression in the 1930s, sprang up again as soon as the War was over and inspired most of the founders of the scheme for a united Europe. The idea of a sort of "United States of Europe" emerging has never been dropped and, as I see it, the creation of the euro is itself part of that federalist rationale.

I myself am not scared by the word "federation;" we just need to be able to translate it with the same meaning and significance into all our languages and all our cultures. And, perhaps, to avoid locking the debate about Europe within the confines of a single approach or a single word.

Supposing we were to set up a federal Union now, how would we go about it?

It ought, logically speaking, to involve an elected executive - for example, a president elected by all of Europe's citizens. He or she would stand at the head of a powerful federal administrative system, foreshadowed by today's Commission, and be backed up in leading the Union by a government appointed by him or her with an eye for maintaining the balance between the main national and political forces.

This government would be answerable to a two-chamber parliament, each of whose chambers would have the power to initiate legislation and equal law-making power. One of these chambers would represent Europe's citizens. It would be the European Parliament, some of whose members would, as I see it, be elected not in national constituencies but at the Union level, on European lists - and by a uniform electoral system, whatever else happens. The other would be a "chamber of the nations" representing the Member States, whose members could therefore be appointed both by the national parliaments and by the national governments.

There would be very little change in the system of justice, for which the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance would be responsible. Even so, the outcome of the federalist rationale would very probably be to make the Court of Justice into a kind of full-blown "supreme court," as someone would have to be set up to act as the guardian and interpreter of the European Constitution, to be responsible, among other things, for maintaining the clear separation of powers which would certainly have to be established between the federal Union and the federated Member States.

"Every man for himself:" the intergovernmental approach

By its very nature, development along intergovernmental lines would tip the balance of executive power clearly toward the Council of Ministers. Whether the executive were the European Council itself or one of its members appointed by its peers to chair the Union, it would coordinate the work of the Council, which would have authority over a European Commission which would have been turned into a purely administrative body.

The legislative work could be done by either one or two chambers. If the option were for a two-chamber parliament, the upper chamber could consist of members of the national parliaments.

The question arising then would be the matter of who defends the Community's interests, which is a power exercised at the moment by the Commission, in a quasi-judicial manner. Only a legal institution independent of the Member States and the Council would be capable of taking over the vital task of acting as the "guardian of the treaties" which has hitherto been performed by the Commission.

This kind of arrangement would take it for granted that the Council would be in a position, as the Commission is at the moment by dint of its independence and its practice of being collectively responsible for its actions, to decide on the collective interest over and above national concerns. Is this realistic? Are we sure that this would not come down to taking a step backwards to the principle of "every man for himself?"

As it is, in a sign of the internal difficulties the Member States face in trying to coordinate their positions, the Council of Ministers is turning more and more to the European Council for rulings on points of contention. Because the European Council works by consensus and, leaving Community practices aside, also states its views on matters over which the Member States have jurisdiction, its rising powers are sparking off a great deal of speculation about the future of the intergovernmental method. Collective emulation, partner pressure, comparisons between the positions of the various countries or the dissemination of best practice would be the modern ways of working together. The Commission would lose its monopoly right to initiate legislation, and there would be no obligation to produce results any longer, but there would have to be exchanges of views, recommendations, codes of good conduct, processes and meetings.

This would produce "soft law" - but would it be more effective than the "hard" legislative variety? Would consensus on policy guidelines produce more results, and produce them faster, than qualified-majority decisions subject to judicial review? That is the issue at stake in the current discussions on the "tax package." The slow progress we have made on a common foreign policy over the last 30 years shows that joint consultation and consensus-seeking are by no means a rapid way of moving. On the other hand, the Union has clearly moved forward on the environment since that was made a Community matter in the treaty. I also see that governments are turning to the Commission, and the Community machinery, when it comes, for example, to preventing disasters which are not the fault of nature, like the recent Erika oil-tanker disaster.

"Everyone pulling together:" the renewal of the Community

Emphasis has frequently been placed on the unique nature and special balance of the Community structure. The structure of the institutions does not reflect a separation of powers, as envisaged by Montesquieu and Locke; it is a model of power sharing. Legislative power therefore resides with both the European Parliament and the Council, while the Council shares executive power with the European Commission.

The European Commission is the keystone of the structure. While it performs executive tasks, its right of initiative also enables it to contribute to the legislative process, and it also performs quasi-judicial tasks and, in certain areas, has its own right to regulate. Its President and Commissioners are legitimized by the shared confidence of the Heads of State or Government and the European Parliament.

At the heart of the system, the European Commission represents the vanguard, driving forward, making proposals and sanctioning. It is the focal point for coherence, synthesis and considering the general interest, while the interests of the Member States often run parallel and at times diverge.

The founding fathers of Europe had a visionary insight when they realized that it would be necessary to have a supranational and independent force guided by the common interest to unite States that were at variance and each different from the other. While it may have its critics, we must recognize that, after 50 years of European integration, the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is due to the European Commission.

This institutional structure, with the European Commission as its unifying force, has been tried and tested. It has succeeded in moving forward and building a European home while preserving the diversity of the States, their peoples and cultures. It has made shared sovereignty a creative and democratic operating principle.

So why abandon it? Why prefer other structures, starting with those I have already described? There can be no denying that the Community model has its limitations. I can see two fundamental limitations that must be addressed.

The first concerns the scope of Union powers, which have been greatly enlarged by successive Treaties. The challenge in relatively new areas, such as security, justice and enforcement, is to develop methods of arbitration and action that reflect the strength and effectiveness of the Community method.

It will be necessary to set out, more clearly than has been stated so far, how the Union is to perform its new tasks. Once the decision has been taken, it will be necessary to clarify how that decision is to be implemented, at what level - central, national or regional - and with which partners - administrations, companies or civil society. In this context it will be impossible to ignore the growing economic power and capacity of the regions and their ability to work more closely together with the general public, which makes them true partners alongside State structures.

To conclude on the subject of subsidiarity, it must also be clarified whether action at Union level is appropriate or not.

Lastly, it will be necessary to decide how to improve the structure of regulatory and legislative activity. Without impinging on the powers of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, or the Commission, we will need to put an end to the confusion between processes which currently afflict the system as a consequence of the failure to distinguish between legislative principles and the methods of implementing them.

The White Paper on European Governance to be produced at the request of the President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, will be a very important step for this joint reflection, which is necessary if the Union is to develop fresh momentum.

The second limitation of the Community model is political. Notwithstanding the scale of tasks that have been entrusted to it over the years and the impact of its actions on people's daily lives, the European Commission enjoys only indirect, and uncertain, legitimacy considered by some as extremely weak.

With the European Parliament legitimized by universal suffrage and the Council legitimized by the fact that it brings together democratically elected governments, the European Commission will one day need direct democratic, not delegated legitimacy, if it is to push ahead with the building of Europe.

Looking beyond the need for internal reform and adaptation which has already been embarked upon, the overhaul of the Community model will require, in the short- or medium-term, several major changes.

First, one day it will be necessary to give serious thought to the idea of electing the President of the Commission. To balance the European Parliament's right to censure the Commission, provision should be made for the right to dissolve the assembly, either by the President of the Commission following approval by the European Council, or by the Council on the basis of a proposal by the President of the Commission. Strong presidential powers may be exercised by just one person, but they may also be exercised by a team - and the way the European Commission currently functions makes this possible.

The logic of this system would eventually require the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, at present the Council's Secretary General, to become a Member of the Commission, inevitably taking the position of first Vice President.

National Parliaments must play a greater role in the building of Europe than is the case today. Further thought must be given to relaunching the Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which brings together the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Committees responsible for European affairs in each Member State. It would be natural for COSAC to play a part in ensuring that the subsidiarity principle is implemented effectively.

Lastly, this renewal requires the Union to be given a constitution which clearly defines the basic principles of European integration and sets out who is responsible for each task.

III. Provisional conclusion

In sketching out these three paths it has been my intention to draw out the major characteristics of something which will, in reality, be far more complex, without forgetting that a multitude of options and intersections link the main pathways.

Apart from these three institutional paths, there is a fourth route that cannot simply be dismissed: the worse course - the status quo. It involves leaving the Union to muddle through as time goes by from minimal reform to minimal reform, from European Council to European Council, without any fundamental change being made. In the final analysis, it would reduce the European Union to a kind of United Nations, with overburdened institutions incapable of taking decisions, much less of developing a strategic vision. This European Union would be fundamentally unpopular, because it would be of no use.

It is to Joschka Fischer's credit and a measure of his courage that he says now that Germany, the country of which he is a Minister, cannot, on principle, go down that road. And this applies to other countries, such as France, which has said the same thing in its own words during its preparations for the Presidency of the European Union.

A vanguard or closer cooperation?

Although Joschka Fischer rejects the status quo, he does not indicate which of the many paths is the one to follow. Having rejected the historical federal model as "contrived and wishful thinking," is he thinking on intergovernmental or even federalist lines when he proposes a federation of nation states? What reality does this deliberately vague formulation relate to, bringing together opposites, as it does? What is the future for the Community system? The strength and the cleverness of his proposal leaves the doors wide open and, especially as he does not propose a definitive model, invites everyone to take a major political step forward which has been put off for too long. And this is why we have witnessed Gaullists in France and federalists in Belgium or Italy united in their applause for his speech.

However, Joschka Fischer's proposal is extremely clear on one point: he seems to preclude the possibility of a strong and enlarged Europe. He does not believe that one of the paths can be taken by all at the same time and that this is the way to ensure that the Union of Thirty remains dynamic and strong.

According to the German Minister, the European political project will be revived around a center of gravity consisting of several Member States and new common institutions. This means that there will be a two-tier Europe: the Community tier, which will be overhauled as far as possible by means of the current institutional review, and a tier consisting of those States which are prepared to link their policies and destinies more closely.

Must we go along with Fischer's fear of unavoidable failure? Is he right, together with Jacques Delors, in wishing to prevent or circumvent collective impotence by means of a "center of gravity?" Should we offer the applicant countries, which are making great efforts to catch up, the disheartening prospect of watching the train leave just as they are arriving at the station?

For my part, I hope today that the success of the current intergovernmental conference, and its new forms of closer cooperation, will confirm the validity of the Community model rather than bring discredit upon it.

And that it will encourage us to renew it, in the interests of all, to allow current and future Member States to continue to benefit from what has already been achieved and move forward together - even if not all will always move at the same speed along the same path in the future.

Within the enlarged Union we have the means to get to grips with the difficult question of the diversity of ambitions and capacities. The arms industry, defence policy and judicial cooperation are projects to which not everyone will want or be able to commit themselves, but they are perfect cases for closer cooperation, as is real coordination of economic policies which the members of the eurozone will be obliged to intensify.

There have always been, and will always be, countries that are prepared to go further and faster, encouraged by their experience and inspired by the desire to integrate their policies more rapidly. Moving beyond the Treaties, there is nothing to prevent these States from meeting regularly and harmonizing their positions. Why can what is done by two at innumerable bilateral summits not be done by seven or eight? There is nothing to prevent them from moving forward openly and informally, without structured institutional provisions.

There is, however, one condition. The Community model must be truly overhauled and this must go beyond the current readjustments. This overhaul must be based on effectiveness and legitimacy. If the Community ceases to function, it will split up. And then it would be necessary for some to build, separately, what we could have built together.


Over the next few months we will face the same kind of difficulties encountered by the founding fathers of Europe 50 years ago.

Like them, and as they would have wished, we will first have to seal agreements between the States, not on dreams or airy long-term prospects, but on the reality of each State's interests, using our skills to achieve the most ambitious compromise. This is the first step and the time to set about it is now.

But, we will then have to move on to create a Europe that, while retaining its diversity, is more united. Like the founding fathers, we must never lose sight of this goal for the future. Nor should we hastily ignore any daring new idea. This second step may come quite soon.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.