We Will Unite the Continent in the End!

26. August, 2003


Dace Akule

Foto: The EPC

You are not acceding to a market, you are acceding to a political Union that is more political than 10 years ago and most likely will be more political in 10 years. If you want a political Union to function, you have to give it the institutional means to do so. If that means renouncing a couple of votes in the Council or the rotating presidency, I think that is a price worth paying.

Giovanni Grevi, Associate Director of Studies at the Brussels-based think tank “The European Policy Centre” in an interview with Dace Akule, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty

When you evaluate the Draft Constitution, I’ve seen two phrases used in European Policy Centre papers – the maximum obtainable and still not impressive. So what was the vision of the EU that you had wanted to see and that you don’t see in this document?

I think that the Convention was a major opportunity to make the EU a fully-fledged political actor able to confront the challenges that were put to it, that is external security, a role for Europe in the world, internal security, managing migration, asylum, promoting growth and employment. Those are the key political challenges. Now, you need a political structure to act and you need the legitimacy that national governments enjoy to make serious choices that affect the day-to-day lives of citizens. This is what you need, I think, in Europe. Is it a state, is it a super-state? This doesn’t really matter as long as you have a political framework that works.

Whether the Convention equips Europe to that end is questionable. I think that there is progress, without a doubt, particularly in terms of simplification; but, in so far as the institutional balance is concerned, I think that it is still unbalanced. The scope for decisive influence on the part of each national government is still too strong and I think that the institution mandated to present the general interest – the Commission – is still too weak.

In particular, I am disappointed that a sort of democratic link between European elections and the identification of the president of the European Commission has not been foreseen. I think that in the absence of a link between elections, the selection of a candidate and the appointment of the president of the Commission there will not be enough European public debate within the member states and therefore citizens will continue feeling a little bit distanced from the Union.

What, then, is your idea for this president of the Commission – a president of the people of Europe?

I simply think that if you look at the European Council, which is indeed an essential institution of the Union, you’ll have 25 heads of state and government around the table and all of them legitimately mandated by their own people to govern. All of them, except one – the president of the Commission – who has been appointed by them and approved by the European Parliament. It is obvious that in the absence of exceptional capacities on the part of the president of the Commission, which was, for example, the case of Delors [former president of the Commission, Jacques Delors], the president of the Commission will be a “light weight” politically compared to the national leaders.

Also, it is one thing to have nine heads of state and government around the table, and another to have 12, 15, 25 or even 30 in the future. This is why I say that European politics is not about forcing member states to do anything except when they accept to be forced, such as with the new EU law under the single market provisions. But for the rest – in foreign policy, in police co-operation, in economic co-ordination – it won’t really be about forcing them. It will be about persuading them that some solutions are better than others and that sometimes common solutions are more effective in the general interest, and the Commission is mandated to do so. But if the Commission is to do this on such highly political dossiers like the ones I mentioned, it needs political authority. That is my line of argument – Europe needs to play a political role since citizens support that (all the polls demonstrate this). There has to be one institution promoting the general interest – the Commission – but it cannot be the only one without political credibility.

But what about this foreign and security policy that is called a “common thing” and qualified majority voting? There are voices saying, “No, there is no way we can speak with one voice in the world.” At the same time, there are others saying, “No, we have to go this far, this is what we have to do, otherwise it will not work!”

I think that it will not be the voting procedure that will define whether or not we will have a common policy. A common policy rests on a common appreciation of the threats, priorities and the need to act together. So Valéry Giscard d’Estaing [the president of the Convention] was right when he said that there is no point in having majority voting if you don’t have a minority that is ready to accept the will of the majority, which really is not the case regarding the CFSP[1]. This is true. But it is also true that first you have to create the mechanisms to talk to each other frequently, to consult each other before taking decisions, to have common proposals, drafts on the table before going to journalists to state your own country’s position. On the other hand, you need somebody speaking on behalf of the Union and the idea of having a foreign minister is progress in that respect. And thirdly – sure, QMV[2] is not enough if you don’t have a common policy. But, if you have a common policy and one country is opposed, then it would be a shame not to be able to establish a common position or a common action because of the opposition of one. I simply think that majority voting on the CFSP, as well as on other policies, is more a sort of negotiating tool than really an instrument to put someone in the corner. No member state has an interest in naming and shaming another one by saying, “Oh look, he lost. He is in the minority.” Nobody has an interest in being put in that situation either. So if you have a majority, you’ll simply have more readiness to discuss, more readiness to compromise and find a common position.

You may know that regardless of the unanimity or majority voting, votes in the Council are very rare. Normally, decisions are simply taken by a consensus. They are taken by asking if there is anybody against taking this decision, like at weddings, and nobody says anything, regardless of the way you vote. Majority is an incentive not to have blockages.

Talking about the consensus, there might be some willing to ask what this consensus was about in the Convention. But, going back to foreign policy – take the example of the war in Iraq. Now, how would that function?

That’s a very good point. What was the fundamental matter of the disarray of the EU in Iraq – the fact that the UK came out in August 2002 basically declaring its support for the US. The Germans and the French did the same, but the other way around, declaring they would never sign any resolution in January. Then there was the letter of the eight [European countries], then the declaration of the Vilnius-10, and so and so forth. Everybody decided to make their position clear and public before talking to each other. Now you have much stronger provisions in the treaty [Draft Constitution] calling on member states to consult before taking specific positions and you also have a potentially powerful foreign minister. Now, I say potentially because it’ll depend very much on who he or she will be, and on the political circumstances. Of course, it is easier to progressively build a position of authority than to be thrown into a warlike situation to begin with. So it remains to be seen to some extent.

That being said, the foreign minister will be able to draw on a single foreign service. Thus, bureaucratically it will have the means to act. It will be able to draw on the political authority of the Commission, which should have been stronger in my view as I said, but is still a considerable asset and it will chair the meetings of other foreign ministers. Therefore, it will be able to distinctively set the agenda of those council discussions. It will be the one saying that first we will discuss Iran, then Afghanistan and then the crisis in Venezuela, for example. That’s very important. Now, hopefully this new position of the foreign minister will be crucial in enhancing the willingness of member states to talk to each other because foreign policy and security and defence above all are those policy areas where, for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever, nobody will be able to dictate anything to anybody. It’s not even a matter of large and small member states; it’s simply a matter of national sovereignty. But it is the area where the most consensus building is necessary and the fact that we have new provisions and, notably, a new foreign minister could be an interesting potential development.

Yet, we have these 25 countries with different positions on this particular issue. So, imagine that we have this foreign minister, the 26th person sitting at the table, and they all talk and talk and talk, and there still isn’t any common decision, they will still remain with their own positions, so what’s the point?

You’re right, it is very difficult. However, if I look at the reality, I also detect some regret that things went that way over the Iraq crisis. There was so much division, so much public disarray. That was a rather regrettable situation for everybody and nobody enjoyed it. Many leaders had domestic problems.

One aspect of the Iraq situation that is sometimes underestimated is that all over Europe public opinion was rather sceptical of the war. Yet, the divisions in Europe, the consequent impotence of Europe in shaping the policies of the US, the discredit for the United Nations and for the rule of law internationally – which is in the interest of the Union if we don’t want international relations to be solely a matter of power – the eventual dynamics of political integration that are progressively unleashed through common institutions will eventually produce more agreement. I think the Iraq crisis surely had a number of downsides, but potentially it has been that sort of mobilising crisis that the Balkans was. After all, the Union made a lot of mistakes in the Balkans unfortunately. Now, however, Solana [EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana] played a fundamental role in avoiding a crisis in Macedonia and now you have operation Concordia which is an EU-lead operation in Macedonia. Tomorrow, it could be the same perhaps in the Middle East. I mean, there are steps. Of course, it is a difficult process – the more transatlantic relations are involved, the more difficult it is because, of course, there are different sensitivities between each national government. But if you ask me, I would say that the trend is towards convergence and not towards divergence. Why? Because I think that most leaders recognise that convergence is ultimately in their interest, divergence means to some extent impotence, in particular for small states. Large member states might, to an extent, have the impression of being able to determine their foreign policies, but the small ones really have no hope. Therefore so much the better to take part in a common discussion and have a really common decision.

Okay, let’s go back to the Convention. If you look at the past 17 months, what was this debate really about? Was it a clash between more power to Brussels or more power to the member states, or who gets more power between the member states?

It was a debate about all that, and also about more power between EU institutions, so three levels of powers, if you want to put it that way. It should have been a debate about what we want to do together? I think that was the fundamental question that was put at the beginning, and I think that question has unfortunately not been answered, at least not fully. There are new statements of objectives, there is the preamble, etc., but it is not clear to me and, I think, to most of the members of the Convention, what Europe is really about?

The Convention was a very sound and healthy exercise showing that there are differences. The Convention has been very helpful in laying down some rules, institutionally speaking, that will perhaps facilitate overcoming these differences through – what I regard as essential, as I said – common discussion and dialogue. Whether the Convention has actually managed to give a sense of a shared vision for the future is questionable. Frankly, I would argue, it didn’t. This is why either there’ll be good will on the part of everybody to use at best the decision-making procedures that the Constitution makes available, or in the absence of such shared good will you’ll have a major crisis coming up. That could certainly be the case, as we said, in foreign and security policy. There are reasons for hope, but by all means that could be a crisis. It could be on the budgetary negotiations in 2006; it could be even earlier than that on a referendum, if France fails to ratify it. Now, not everything depends on a dialogue in the European institutions, for example, a referendum does not. But as far as the relationships between different countries and member states are concerned, I would say that we are still quite far from sharing the same vision about Europe. That is the outcome of the Convention.

Take a country like Latvia and other small countries, in particular the ones that will join the Union only next year – what should they be looking forward to? Now we have this Constitution with a European Commission that will have a College with European Commissioners with voting rights and the so-called African Commissioners without voting rights; there won’t be this EU presidency anymore – something that especially the small countries were looking forward to, etc.

I think the first thing for the small countries is to forget that they are small because one used to say, “The European Union is made of small member states.” Some of them know and some of them don’t know that they are small, and that is the case of the so-called large states. So let’s forget about it, really. I think the distinction between large and small is misleading. Whether Latvia, or for that matter Denmark or Ireland or Cyprus, will or will not have clout in European policy making will depend on the ability of your representatives to advance and submit your perspectives in common decision-making institutions. This is why the direct, immediate interest of all countries, if you want to put it that way – even more so for the small member states – is to strengthen the common institutions. Through common institutions, a good minister from Latvia with a good argument, with a good coalition supporting him that he built step by step, will have perhaps as much clout at the table as a less good minister from the UK. It is really not so much about big politics and diplomatic meetings. It can be much more than that! There can be more dialogue, more progressive development, and small member states can have disproportionate influence in that to their advantage, as the Benelux countries have historically had since the 1950s and the circumstances were not easier.

I’ve spoken to some representatives of small countries who told me, ”Oh well, the whole point is to have a possibility of blocking.” For example, with the new voting formula it would be almost impossible for small countries to block a decision without the support of at least one large country. But again, that’s not the point! As I said before, as a matter of fact, statistically, votes are almost never undertaken. It’ll be a matter of agreement, and for an agreement to be reached you’ll have to have a strong agenda-setter, a strong policy-initiator and that is notably the Commission.

As to the composition of the Commission, since that is of course a central issue in the debate between large and small countries, I personally think that this debate should not apply here as well. If you ask me, I’d say the Commission should be a small one, say 15 Commissioners with no selection on national grounds. But if there is such an understandable sensitivity, in particular from accession countries, to have a Commissioner, then my response would be – at least 1 Commissioner per Member State. That is a really big Commission with wide power for the president of the Commission to organise its functions, but one Commissioner for each member state so that it feels like it is a part of it, if that is so important.

I think that the compromise solution found by the Convention, whereby you would have 15 Commissioners including the foreign minister and the president and then the “African commissioners,” is not politically sustainable for two reasons. First, one has to strike a balance between formal and actual equality. Now, all member states are formally equal, but it is also true that there are member states with 80 million inhabitants and member states with 1 million. So an equal rotation in the two groups of the Commission is perhaps a little bit difficult to sustain and defend in referenda, by the way, in large member states. The second problem is that they explicitly say in the text of the Treaty that those outside of the college will not vote. Now, my point is – don’t say that! Leave this internal organisation of the College to the president and you’ll give important portfolios to some and less important ones to others, but don’t focus on vote and “no vote.” Again, this is a formal element. Just focus on the functions of the body, and if it is felt that the body has to include a national per member state, then put a national per member state and get it to work well.

Yet, what about the EU presidency, this tradition that enables one country to say that for six months we’re at the centre of Europe, we can show our people that the EU is actually right here, and we can show the others what we can do… And we have seen that the presidencies of the small countries have been among the most successful in the history of the EU. So why should one change that?

As far as the presidency of the European Council and external relations are concerned, I think there was a case to change it because the European Council is supposed to give the political impetus and the strategic guidelines to the Union. It meets four times per year, every time for one day really – an afternoon and a morning. Changing the presidency every six months is at the same time an illusion and a complication. An illusion because, as you know, the fundamental underlying agenda does not really change. A complication because on the basis of a fundamentally steady agenda you’ll have priorities being cherry-picked here and there depending on the domestic politics of each country holding the presidency. That is simply not efficient enough and credible enough in my view to drive the work of the body that is supposed to give strategic impulse to the Union and whose decisions are often disregarded. See the Lisbon process – Europe by 2010 the most competitive economy in the world – forget it! But of course there is no credible agenda-setter, there is no credible process to oversee this “Lisbon thing.” In the chairman of the European Council you may have somebody responsible, politically responsible, and keen on making sure that the decisions of the European Council are actually followed up. If you ask me, did we need a chairman of the European Council to do so, my answer would be – not necessarily. An integrated president of the European Council and the Commission could have done it. So there is an element of tension potentially between the two presidents, but again – that is not necessarily a good reason to preserve the six months presidency.

The same goes for external relations. That is true – you need a common policy and it is not necessarily a matter of having a foreign minister that really changes the state of play as far as CFSP is concerned. But it is also true that, really, as the Union becomes more political, if it wants to play a role in the security business around the world, then it makes sense to have one person who has the ability to draw on the resources of both the Commission and the Council on a permanent basis and is mandated to do so by members states through the European Council, which gives him or her additional political credibility.

In reality, the foreign minister of a small country would have been uncomfortable with that and, above all, would not necessarily have been taken seriously from outside. Moreover, neither would the foreign minister of a large country, either! It would have been perhaps even worse because the temptation to drive a sort of national priority through Europe would have been perhaps even stronger. As you said, it’s not the size of the country that affects the quality of the presidency. Sometimes the other way around – take the example of Finland. But there must be political credibility and sometimes the size of the country offers that. On the other hand, there must be neutrality, and sometimes the size of the country affects that because large countries are not necessarily the most neutral ones. So let’s exclude that from all the set of reasons for the European Council and external relations.

The other Council formations – why not? I would have been personally in favour of maintaining the 6-month rotating presidency. I would have been personally in favour of giving the president of the Commission at least the chairmanship of the General Affairs Council because it is supposed to co-ordinate all the others. That has not been achieved. Would it be better to preserve the 6-months rotation to meet the expectations and concerns that you were referring to, as opposed to the unpredictable scenario that we have now when nobody knows what is really going to happen? The most likely scenario is to have different countries chairing different Council formations at the same time. Therefore, there is considerable confusion and a big question mark on who will take responsibility for co-ordinating them.

For one moment forget those who have been inside this club for some years and for whom this development seems more or less natural, and concentrate on the ones that have been looking at this house – the EU – from far away. They have been waiting to get in and, okay, they knew the reforms would come, but now the house looks so much different?

I completely understand this point of view. But I also think there must be a joint effort of common understanding somehow. I think it is very important to make clear that candidate countries are not acceding to a market, they are acceding to a political Union that is more political than 10 years ago and most likely will be more political in 10 years. And if you want a political Union to function, you have to give it the institutional means to do so, hoping that the political will will also be there. If that means renouncing a couple of votes in the Council or one seat at the European Parliament, or one voting Commissioner, or, for that matter, the rotating presidency, I think that is a price worth paying.

The rotating presidency, as I understand it, is symbolically important. However, many people who have been involved in the rotating presidencies have been saying how useless and wasteful it is from a political and financial standpoint. It is extremely expensive – several, several, several million Euro are thrown into the organisation of a presidency. I’m not sure that’s the best way to use money, in particular for small countries and accession countries.

This is not to say that some model of rotation shouldn’t be preserved that allows for major events or occasions to be hosted in each country. Frankly, there is no reason why the European Council, for example, could not move around Europe for each country to host for a month when the agenda is really the big European one. That’s excellent. To constrain the whole functioning of an institutional system on the basis of the desire to host meetings for six months – that would seem to me like going a step too far, and not really going down the road of enhancing integration, instead of trying to defend everybody’s little corner.

We’ve been talking about policies and institutions, but let’s get down to people. Now, everybody said that when the Convention came together it had this ambition to make all the treaties and institutions understandable for the citizens of the EU, so they know who’s responsible and who does what. Now we have these more than 200 pages and especially the third part of the Draft Constitution, on the functioning of the EU with QMV, IGC[3], etc., you could not say that this is easy to understand. At the same time, they included the symbols of the EU in this paper in the final weeks, saying, “Look, people, there is something in this for you as well.” Okay, there is this Charter of Fundamental Rights as well… But still, doesn’t the fact that this Constitution does not make things simple and people will not read it, make things worse?

I don’t think that it will make things worse, I think that the expectations were largely deceptive at the beginning. I don’t think that the Convention could possibly draw Europe closer to the people. The Convention was really about constitutional and institutional reform – that is not necessarily the issue that mobilises public opinion. If it does not do so at the national level, why should it at the European level? It is to some extent a legal matter, or at least it sounds legal although it is political. So I am not surprised that the Convention has not been the point of reference for the public debate. Whether the Convention has produced a Constitution or Constitutional Treaty that is more accessible to citizens? It did not make things worse; it did not make things better. It is more or less the same business as before. I would however argue that, if you take the fundamental constitutional provisions of Part I – that is not impossible to read! Quite the contrary, I think that the average citizen could read it and find it also quite interesting to understand the basics of how things work. It’s about 60 articles, so that is feasible – for students that’s cool – so there is an improvement there. I also think that, if we take a step further, there was an improvement in the way instruments and procedures are called – they are now called laws and legislative procedures, which is more understandable. If you then ask me, aside from the readability of the text, what is in there for citizens? I think there is quite a lot.

They receive much more protection from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as far as the application of EU laws is concerned – they can use the charter to bring their own country to court as European citizens. I think that is quite an innovation and it’ll be quite important in the long term to shape a sort of common sense of citizenship and belonging.

I think that the fact that the national parliaments are now much better informed and can watch the application of the principle of subsidiarity is also important. There will be more debates in Europe in national parliaments and, as a consequence, MPs will report to their constituencies and speak about that. As you know, the fact that the European Parliament has more powers under the legislative procedure and there is more majority voting is in itself a democratic step because the European Parliament is directly elected.

There is also, as you know, the citizens’ petition. That’s a novelty. Okay, it does not bind the Commission to table a legislative proposal, but certainly it puts a lot of pressure on the Commission and citizens can decide to take an initiative across the Union.

But look at the elections of the European Parliament – a rather small number of people participate?

This is true because what really mobilises people and what really will involve them in European politics is, in my view, the possibility of choosing a person and a problem, the same as in national politics. If you look at national politics in most member states, it is not that people are eager to follow political developments on a day-to-day basis. They really mobilise and discuss and vote at elections. That’s the same thing that should happen in Europe; not to build a super state, but to give the institutions – and notably the Parliament and the Commission, the common supra-national institutions – enough political capital to invest and spend with member states. And also to create an incentive to be part of the debate, for people to be given alternative choices – do we want more liberalisation in a single market or do we want more regulation and social protection? This is a fundamentally political choice. Why does the European People’s party and the European Socialist party not present it as such? Others would say that European political parties are just talking shops, it will never work, etc. But I argue that until you give the European political parties an incentive to mobilise, present the candidates, create a political cycle, then they won’t do so. But if you have elections for the president of the Commission through the European Parliament; if you have a budget for the Union to decide upon through the Parliament, then European political parties will start thinking, “Oh, hold on, we appoint a government here, we manage money, it is worthwhile to put up a program and to go to the voters with that.” Then you have a European public sphere and a Europe finally closer to its citizens!

Talking about the vote, there are calls for a referendum on the Draft Constitution. Even Giscard has joined these calls, but some say it is a guarantee that the document will be blocked!

I hope they are wrong… Yes, it is a serious possibility – that the document will be blocked. There are pros and cons to it. I think it’s a fundamentally good thing to go to referenda because it is time to be honest with the people, as I think that national governments are sometimes playing two different games domestically and in Europe. It is too easy to blame Europe when things don’t go well and the other way around when things go well and say – it is my own merit. It is time for national governments and the political leadership to be deployed in favour of Europe, saying, “Listen, this Constitutional Treaty perhaps is not perfect, but it is a big step, a necessary precondition to enlargement; the whole thing would collapse in the absence of this treaty, we can’t take that responsibility. And not only because it will be a major problem, also because there are good reasons to adopt it. There is more for justice and home affairs, therefore for your security. There is more for asylum and immigration, not only defensively, but also to integrate immigrants into our societies. There is more on economic co-operation. We can do better, but it’s a step. Approve it and we’ll go ahead. We’ll unify the continent to begin with!”

Whether people will take the responsibility of saying, “No, it’s bad, drop it,” will have to be seen. If they do and if they win, again it’s better because things are clear, it is possible to see who is in it and who is not. There will be a major crisis, but it could be that it is a crisis of growth, following which either referenda are repeated or differentiation comes: some go ahead and some don’t.

[1] CFSP – common foreign and security policy

[2] QMV – qualified majority voting

[3] IGC – intergovernmental conference raksts

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