Squaring the concentric circles?

Cristina Vanberghen delivers her thoughts on the Franco-German proposal for EU reform
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Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Marseille, May 2023. Photo: Obatala-photography/Shutterstock.

Last week saw the unveiling of an imaginative set of proposals for major EU reforms, from a Franco-German expert group in view of enlargement of the Union. While being a “Franco-German” proposal it does not represent the official position of the two member states.

According to the group’s Report, the first aim of the EU Reform should be “to strengthen the EU’s capacity to take and implement decisions across all policy areas based on EU primary law, including those areas of cooperation which –because of the various crises – have de facto become EU powers. Given external and internal challenges, speedy decisions are of the essence”.  

While overall agreeing with the technical solutions provided by the Report and acknowledging that speedier decision-making can help Europe respond quickly in achieving goals faster in a changing geopolitical context, implementing policies cannot be reduced to an ad hoc or kneejerk decision-making process.  At EU level, we need strong institutional capacity in collecting and analyzing data. We need politicians able to slice and dice this data and turn it into actionable inspirational policies. The EU’s capacity to take and implement decisions is more than the mathematical calculation of votes or providing a new architecture for decision-making process; rather, it is about the ability of institutions and politicians to communicate and collaborate with different stakeholders. It is about leveraging evidence-based policymaking, and restructuring the interaction of various actors of different EU institutions to generate considered and fair judgements about what Europeans really want.

The second aim of this reform according to the Report is to strengthen the protection of the rule of law, its fundamental values and democratic legitimacy in the EU. To me, this is the heart of EU Reform, since the rule of law protects us against vulnerability, against harassment and discrimination, ultimately against totalitarianism.  Sadly, we have seen that the rule of law is declining in some parts off Europe and in some countries is under direct assault. But would institutional reform alone be able to ensure a perfect implementation of the rule of law?

The central question, is how to instill a strong rule of law culture, based on values such as fighting against corruption, protecting human rights and bolstering academic and media freedom?  According to the Special Eurobarometer SP523 on Corruption, Europeans have serious concerns about corruption: 68% believe that corruption is still widespread in their country ! In focus are national public institutions, where 74% of respondents increasingly believe that corruption is widespread, followed by political parties (58%) and local, regional and national politicians (55%). At the same time, Europeans are pessimistic about actions taken at national level to address corruption as a crime. Only a minority think measures against corruption are applied impartially and without ulterior motives (37%), that there are enough successful prosecutions to deter people from corrupt practices (34%), that their national government’s efforts to combat corruption are effective (31%) or that there is sufficient transparency and supervision of the financing of political parties in their country (31%).

From my experience I would say that there cannot be any magical institutional reform that can by itself ensure perfect implementation of the rule of law. The rule of law is enshrined in our European cultures, and while it reflects the values of our democratic societies, it requires a continued effort, one which must be backed up by individual and societal conviction beyond the mere existence of a set of rules. It must come from the heart and not just the head. At EU level, the only way to encourage this effort is to support the interactions of Europeans in their endeavor to reform the dynamic core of democracy by providing real value and eminently sensible policies.

Franco German group of experts
French and German ministers for Europe together with the experts who worked on the proposal. Anna Lührmann/Twitter.

The third aim of EU reform set out in the Report is to make the EU’s institutions ‘enlargement ready’.  The Franco-German proposal suggests a Europe of four concentric circles: the inner circle of members of the euro area and Schengen; the EU; the EU plus the associated members; and the European Political Community. But the question is: how to avoid tension between the inner circle of members and the outer circle of the European Political Community? How do we square the circles in other words? According to the Report, the “associated members” would be countries that subscribe to the EU’s principles and single market without becoming full-fledged EU members. UK can become an ‘associate member’ of the European Union (even though all the major UK political parties have rejected single market membership). 

The proposals include ideas such as abandoning the veto right, fewer commissioners, increasing the EU budget and amending treaties to better defend the rule of law.  This is an “in extenso approach” to EU Reform, tying in the debate on EU enlargement and not restricted to EU Treaty change. The EU enlargement topic will be discussed in October in Granada under the Spanish Presidency and the European Council is expected to decide in December whether to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Charles Michel the President of the European Council has even suggested that the EU should be ready for enlargement by 2030. 

While France and Germany are drawing up a plan for a Europe of concentric circles, Ukraine made quite clear it doesn’t want to be fobbed off with second-tier membership. Ukraine wants to become a “fully fledged candidate for full fledged membership” of the European Union, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told POLITICO as he vowed to take his country into the EU within the next two years.

Today, the 27 member states agree that enlargement is inevitable. But how to proceed? And at what pace? These are for now intractable questions. Some EU Member States remain sceptical about fundamental EU reform.  For example, the idea of wide sweeping EU reform is met with scepticism in Poland, which considers that it will be simply lead to decision-making paralysis in a future enlarged EU. 

Other countries consider that creating the conditions for successful enlargement must be done in a way and at a pace that ensures the continued efficiency and functioning of the EU. Sweden for example is opposed to President Michel’s proposal of setting 2030 as a target date, and argues that reforms regarding “policies, budget issues, and institutional decision-making ” will be necessary before the EU can accept any new members. The Franco-German proposal report also runs counter to  one recently presented by Baltic, Polish, Nordic and Croatian experts, according to which institutional reforms should not be a prerequisite for the arrival of new EU members. 

The proposal to reduce the number of Commissioners to two-thirds of the member states will – as was the case in the past –be a nightmare. Previous attempts in this direction have been met with opposition from smaller member states.  

In an “Erasmus Europe”  of the 2st century –  where there is a lot of “migration” between EU countries (five million Romanians for example have emigrated while companies investing in the country struggle to recruit workers.) one cannot imagine that in this Europe which, despite all, has a Single Market – that anyone would accept that small EU countries would decrease their weight in the decision-making process – after being at the same table with the big countries.  

The French-German paper sets out ideas that would allow the EU to enlarge without necessarily changing its treaties. It also floats a potential “supplementary reform treaty” that would allow “willing” member states to move forward with treaty reform without the backing of more sceptical countries. 

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting the Special European Council summit in February 2023. Photo: Council website.

But if there is a little appetite for treaty reform in EU Member State, it is almost equally difficult to imagine realistic alternative solutions. Enlargement IS about reform, and not just public diplomacy, and as we can see in the present situation, we are confronted with too much corruption. That is not a secret. If we advocate enlargement just to increase the geopolitical weight of Europe, without getting to the root problems of corruption and disregard for a culture of law, then we will create an unholymess that could wholly unravel the European project. 

The paper from the expert group concludes that if not all member states are willing to amend the treaties, reforms might be pursued by a coalition of the willing and the EU might evolve into a multitier entity. That is a big error. We have worked so hard over decades to create a certain unity. Reforming is about convincing and communicating and finally it is about strengthening our cooperation through connectivity projects in areas such as: the digital, climate and energy, transport, health, education and research sectors.

It is with this purpose that the European Union unveiled in 2021, its plan to support infrastructure development around the world called the Global Gateway. The plan would mobilise €300 billion between 2021-2027 for connectivity projects. If the stated objective of the Global Gateway is that the world needs major infrastructure investments (and viable alternatives to China’s Belt and Road), we need to recognize that the real rationale behind this project is to achieve the goals of climate and environmental protection, universal access to energy, water and sanitation, greater mobility, and improved food security. To realise the SDGs and our Paris climate targets, the world must invest around €1.3 trillion per year in infrastructure.

Reforming EU is important but large initiatives such as the Global Gateway can instil a strong feeling of Europeanism, a patriotic feeling which is so important when we want to reform something.  Creating an environment able to support EU reform including regulatory institutional reform can be done through practical projects that scale-up sustainability of our reforming actions, beyond reforming projects.

In my view there are at least four areas, all relating to the Global Gateway initiative, which deserve attention. These four areas support Europe’s institutional reform from the bottom up. They allow Europe to engage in a relatively short-term timescale, and in a practical way, by sharing responsibilities with its partners in the different concentric circles proposed by the Report, and with global partners while contributing to its strengths. 

One. Let’s work seriously on the Global Gateway in Southern Neighbourhood. The EU’s Global Gateway strategy, implemented through the Economic and Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbourhood, can strengthen infrastructure interconnections between our Southern partners and the EU. The Southern neighbourhood’s geographical proximity and historical human and commercial exchanges, as well as the record on policy dialogue in the Euro Mediterranean space, is well positioned for mutually beneficial nearshoring projects between the region and for the EU in a number of sectors. It will be a way to contribute to develop a more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable economy in the Southern Neighbourhood, responding to the socioeconomic priorities both in Europe and for our partners, including the creation of job opportunities. 

Two. Let’s work on the Trans-Balkan Electricity Corridor, on the North Macedonia rail corridor, and on the “Western Balkans – Eastern Mediterranean” European Transport Corridor – all of which will further streamline and facilitate the coordinated development of the Transport Networks between the Western Balkans region and the neighbouring EU Member States. Fifty four flagship investment projects have so far been endorsed by WBIF. 

Three. Let’s increase regulatory convergence and rebuild Ukraine’s economy after the war, which represents a significant opportunity to modernise the country, and build quality transport and logistics infrastructure. Let’s extend the European Transport Corridors to the territory of Ukraine and Moldova to have improved connectivity of these two countries to the EU, facilitating economic exchanges and better connections for people and business alike. Our efforts to facilitate the export of grains from Ukraine via the “Solidarity Lanes” have demonstrated the importance of interoperability in the transport system, reinforcing the need to increase convergence within the EU network, making it more resilient, diversifying and strengthening the internal market. 

And four, let’s boost connectivity through the Black Sea which is at the heart of the two Global Gateway Strategy flagship projects for 2023 to deploy undersea electric and digital cables, contributing not only to the EU’s connectivity with the Eastern Partnership and the South Caucasus, but also with Central Asia. In addition, the Economic and Investment Plan for the Eastern Partnership can also contribute to the establishment of ferry connections between the EU and the South Caucasus. 

By fulfilling these projects alone, we can create a more united European Political Community. We will reinforce Europe in the way envisioned by Robert Schuman, who rightly said that “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.

Cristina ULB photo

Professor Dr. Cristina Vanberghen

Professor Vanberghen is an academic and political commentator, now based at the European University Institute in Florence, and a senior expert with the European Commission. A French-Romanian national, she is an internationally recognised expert in digitalization, artificial intelligence, consumer policy and cybersecurity. She has been consistently ranked as a “Top EU Influencer” by ZN Consulting.

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