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« L'Europe se fera dans les crises et elle sera la somme des solutions apportées à ces crises »—Jean Monnet

50% Loading: politicization of the EU in progress.

Politicization of the European Union is a recurrent theme in post-conference dinner debates. Are we really hedging towards the end of the Commission as “the guardian of the Treaties”? are we assisting to the euthanasia of the Bureaucrat? Is this a good or a bad thing?

Some time ago, no-one would have cared about these questions. Today however many people do: crowds of angry anti-Austerity protesters, as well as the opportunistic politicians gathering their votes, have restlessly built a rhetoric against the “unelected bureaucrats” (copyright Niegel Farage) taking decisions instead of the people. The rising demand for a political leadership in the EU has probably not gone unnoticed, and many things have changed since the latest European elections in May 2014. The Commission, and everything concerning the European Union, has become deeply politicized. The seeds have been laid in a terrain fertilized by years of quasi-undemocratic decision making on economic policy, and the process of politicization of the EU is today so deeply entangled with our political life that a comeback is barely thinkable. Indeed, we are assisting (live!) to the Saint Grail of functionalist theorists: the “spillover into political integration”. I discuss the functional logic of the spillover from monetary integration into to fiscal and to political integration (and its implications for democracy) in this paper, and I am resolved to write an update account of the functionalist theory in the incoming years (you can have a taste of it at pp. 11 of the paper).

At the core of the political spillover lays the politicization process, happening both in the national dimension and the European dimension. The national dimension of politicization depends, in turn, on three main phenomena: the rise of Euroscepticism during the crisis (that I discuss empirically here), the increased salience of Europe in national debates and the contextual polarization of the party systems over the pro-Europe/against-Europe cleavage, which in turn causes a “normalization” of pro-European grand-coalition governments in the continent (I discuss these dynamics in this paper for the Institute of European Democrats). In this post, I will focus especially on the European level, which I somehow neglected in my previous research.

At the European level, the politicization process is mainly happening trough three channels. The first concerns directly the Commission: politicizing the Commission is probably the first electoral promise that Juncker is maintaining. Most of his most relevant acts, especially those concerning fiscal policy, are a jump away from strict application of rules into political judgement and decision making.

  • The “flexibility clause” introduced in February in the Stability and Growth Pact basically allows the States to ease their progress towards their fiscal medium term objective (MTO) as long as they coordinate their actions in detail with the Commission.
  • The “Juncker investment plan” (Aka European Strategic Investment Fund) constitutes, in fact, a deep change in the way fiscal policy is enacted in Europe. More than stimulating investment, the plan introduces a de facto “golden rule” for all participating countries, in which “investment” (will it include social investment as defined by the Social Investment Package of the Commission?) is extrapolated by the computing of the deficit and MTOs as long as it is fully (and formally, through the Fund) agreed with the Commission. Freedom of investment in exchange for control and supervision, basically.

In sum, the Commission is taking a very clear stance on the eternal dilemma concerning flexibility and fiscal rules. Flexibility of fiscal rules can be understood in two ways: as a very detailed fiscal rule attempting to model each possible state of the world, so that the rule allows for more (or less) margins in given situations; or as a simple rule with lots of margins for national decision making in the hands of national politicians. The first solution is not welcome in southern member states, which struggle to explain to the electorate the existing fiscal rules, let alone more complex and elaborate rules; more technicalities and constraints on economic policy making is the last thing the cash-stripped governments of southern Europe want. The second solution is unthinkable for northern members, because it would give too much incentives to the lazy southern Europeans to spend too much and eventually mutualise the losses. The apparently unbreakable empasse has been creatively solved by Juncker, which has opted for the second solution by taking for himself- through the flexibility clause and the golden rule- the responsibility for the political decision, thus removing (at least formally) the northern-European lack of trust on southern political elites. Europe is thus heading back to politically-brokered budgets, but where the key decision-maker is in Brussels and not in Rome (or Paris).

A key question ensues: does the Commission (“the unelected bureaucrats”) have sufficient legitimacy to take such decisions in a field of strict democratic competence?[1] This leads to the second channel of politicization of the EU: the changing relations between the Commission and the Parliament. Again, there are three main dimensions of this shift.

  • The first, and most evident, is the electoral link between this Commission and its Parliamentary Majority. Juncker has been the first President elected through the new article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, competing in open elections against Martin Schulz; it has been imposed by the Parliament to the European Council despite an early veto from Merkel and a final “no” from Cameron. While the Spitzenkandidaten process failed (this time) to attract the voters to the ballots (especially because nobody really trusted in it) there is no way back from this step; form 2014 onwards, the elections will decide the lead of the Commission.
  • The election has brought about a strong political coordination between the “great coalition” and the President of the Commission. While the existence of a Great Coalition is not new, the polarization of the Parliament has increased thanks to the growing success of Eurosceptic parties, which control- both in the soft ECR groups and in the extreme EFD and ENF- around 20% of the parliaments. The other oppositions in the Parliaments- the Greens and the Left- control another 15% more, so about 35% of the Parliament systematically vote against the ruling coalition, an unprecedented polarization for the Hemicycle. This has led to constant meetings between the President and the leaders of the ruling parties, which are reported to meet once or twice per month to coordinate the actions of the parliamentary majority and the Commission.
  • Finally, the Parliament may gain a (surrogate) power of legislative initiative. In fact, the Parlamentarisation of the EU’s political life, as well as the increased dependency of the Commission on its parliamentary majority to pass its laws, does not come without a cost of for the Commission autonomy. One of the most relevant limitations of the European Parliament is its infamous inability to initiate legislation. However, this may change soon, as the Commission and Parliament are reportedly working on a mechanism to streamline and normalise proposals from the Chamber under article 225 TFEU, which grants the Parliament the right of asking the Commission to submit legislative proposals. An operationalisation of article 225 could constitute a true major shift in the democratic legitimacy of the EU: although still short of a formally recognised right of initiative, it would constitute the highest approximation possible in the current Treaty framework and a truly considerable gain for the European Parliament.

In sum, the relations between the Commission and the Parliament are in fact evolving into a strong bond not dissimilar from those existing in any Parliamentary Democracy, where the Government and its majority are strictly coordinated in their action.

The EU, however, is still lacking the fundamental capacity of shaping a true economic policy of its own. The reform of the Economic Governance, as proposed by the 5-Presidents Report in June 2015, has left everybody unsatisfied; the Greek crisis in July has shown how dangerous it is to maintain national competence (and hereby vetoes) on an economic policy by necessity integrated across the Euro Area. While “interparliamentarism” looks like “democracy” at a first glance, in fact it is no more closer to democracy that intergovernmentalism. Both require unanimous decision making on fiscal and economic policy, which is a negation of democracy as such: democracy, by definition, requires majority voting. The Greek crisis has shown the risks of a prolonged economic policy based on crossed vetoes; many have now understood that the Euro Area is either to collapse or to move forward. We can thus expect a leap towards strengthened fiscal integration in an accelerated timeframe in respect to the already-outdated 5-Presidents Report, with a communitarization (and thus, a re-politicization) of economic policy making to be discussed in the Fall. Interesting times ahead…

[1] Remember the adagio “no taxation without representation”? Parliamentary democracy is in fact better understood as “no representation” (i.e., no true democracy) “without taxation” (i.e., without democratic control on fiscal policy). This is, at least, the legal opinion of the Bundesverfassungericht since 2009. I will write a post on it very soon, I promise, but you can read its full logic by yourself from pp. 7 of this paper.

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This entry was posted on July 23, 2015 by in Democracy, Constitutions, Institutions, Europe, OPINIONS, PROFESSIONAL.

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