Comment

Europe's future can learn from Europe's past

Martyn Bond / May 2021

Photo: European Union, 2021

 

A hundred years ago Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi published Pan-Europa. In this political programme he envisaged a united Europe as a regional power alongside Pan-America, the British Empire, the newly united Soviet Union and what he described as an ‘Asian force’ that comprised China, Japan and Korea.

The EU started later, but over the past thirty years it has emerged as – potentially – the global player that Coudenhove-Kalergi predicted. Its enlargement after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of the Euro have now made the EU a disruptive force.

Since Coudenhove-Kalergi’s days the British Empire has become history and Brexit a reality. Today’s superpowers are the USA (established), China (waxing), Russia (waning), and - potentially - the European Union. India is still waiting in the wings. They jockey for power in the UN, the G7, the G20 and dozens of international organisations, but every diplomat knows it is the big ones which call the shots.

The European Union has opened a consultation on the Future of Europe, crowd-sourcing ideas for its future development. It is asking specifically for ‘concrete proposals’ regarding institutional dynamics and also policies. The two are closely linked.

The Schuman Declaration in 1950 spoke of the fusion of interests and concrete steps creating de facto solidarity. Seventy years of accumulated common interests and thousands of concrete steps have taken us a long way along that road since then. Will more of the same small steps get us where we want to go, or do we need a change of method, a ‘great leap forward’?

It is easy to find plenty still to do internally. Try including services in the single market, pushing energy policy, or making climate targets really binding. The European institutions should know by now how to progress with such well-known dossiers where the problems lie in the special interests in one or other member state.

It is in the outward facing aspects of the EU’s activity that the Union needs to think bigger and act more like a big state. Both in its near abroad and further afield, the EU is already an economic giant, but still a political pygmy.

If Europe learnt nothing from its history, Coudenhove-Kalergi observed, it would become – like the Holy Roman Empire in earlier centuries – politically and militarily the object of the policies of other powers, what he called “the chessboard of the world”. That was a hundred years ago. Has much changed?

If the EU wants to be a player and not be played upon, it needs more of the attributes of a state. It needs the authority, the legitimacy and the means to successfully pursue policies on behalf of its members. Acting as a whole, it must achieve more than what they can achieve separately.

What needs to be done to guarantee both authority and legitimacy in the EU? First, the Council should clearly be seen as the senior chamber in the legislature. Qualified majority voting must be the rule, not the exception. Small minorities – measured both as states and populations – must not be empowered to block decisions generally in the common interest. Just as Coudenhove-Kalergi suggested.

At the same time there must be a serious revision of the number of members in the European Parliament. If the principle in the Senate is one state, one vote, then the principle in the European Parliament must be one person, one vote. All states may claim a minimum number of MEPs – perhaps as few as three – before a strict relationship between population and the number of representatives is applied. Perhaps one MEP per million voters? That too was Coudenhove-Kalergi’s suggestion.

The Commission should steer the process that leads to compromise between the two chambers of the legislature. This implies a diminution in the role of the rotating presidency, itself now an increasingly rare event for any state in an EU of close to thirty members.

The distribution of power within the Council or Senate – as within the European Parliament – will doubtless evolve over time. Large or small states and larger or smaller party groups will all fight their own corners in that continuing struggle. But that should not block the big step towards democratic legitimacy and increased executive authority these revisions imply.

Then consider the means at the disposal of the EU. The current tight budgetary rein on the Union is both ridiculous and untenable. Budget limitations which were understandable with a new and untried organisation in the 1960s and 1970s no longer make sense. The Commission needs the capacity to borrow – as is common practice in all member states.

Some states fear that borrowing would grow out of control, but it is a misguided fear. Future borrowing will be limited by decision of the two chambers. The principle of joint responsibility, established for the Recovery Fund, needs to be applied to other specific policies that the Commission can propose and the Chambers then decide.

Whether spent by national budgets or through the EU budget, it is all European taxpayers’ money and to be disbursed for the benefit of Europeans. Why should this be frustrated by an early accounting rule that limited expenditure to a small % of fluctuating GDP?

The most controversial areas in the Conference on the Future of Europe will concern what were also the most controversial elements in Coudenhove-Kalergi’s vision a hundred years ago. How will the central authority command armed force, the ultimate characteristic of the state? Externally, technological developments have made borders even less relevant than they were – think cyber – and internally, sophisticated criminal organisations ignore the frontiers the twentieth century spent blood and treasure to defend.

Externally, the EU has already taken small steps to combine its members’ diplomatic resources. It should build on the success of the EEAS to better reflect the enormous soft power of the Union’s democratic values. One day it must also face up to the issue of European hard power, which nowadays involves fewer bombs and rifles and more satellites and spies. Coudenhove-Kalergi also knew this was a vital element in the Pan-Europa that he worked for.

The Union must also have the power to deal with persistently disruptive behaviour by member states that flout its own rules and values. We need a better definition of what is a political crime. What would, should, or could the EU do to a state that persistently undermines the Copenhagen criteria? What state behaviour might be punished, as well as simply condemned? Britain left peacefully - if painfully - with Brexit. What will the EU do with a state that stays in to reap the benefits, but flouts the Union’s standards and values? Coudenhove-Kalergi, who escaped death at the hands of both the Communists and the Nazis, would have devised a suitably painful end for them

   

Martyn Bond

Martyn Bond

May 2021

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