Sunday

25th Aug 2019

Analysis

Kurz's 'new EU treaty' - election noise or necessity?

  • Europe's youngest leader, Sebastian Kurz (left), with EU Council president Donald Tusk and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz is known for launching bold yet well-calculated political initiatives.

His latest is a proposal for a new EU treaty.

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The choice of the timing of this announcement raised some eyebrows though, as policy experts and politicians in Austria questioned why the Austrian chancellor had not made those reform proposals already last year during the Austrian EU presidency.

Werner Kogler, the Spitzenkandidat from the Austrian Green party said that "Kurz had his chance to initiate reforms during the EU presidency but did not use it. A real reform and stronger Union is not in his interest."

Kurz was also rebuffed by Harald Vilimsky, secretary general of the Austrian far-right FPO, that governs in a coalition with Kurz's conservative OVP.

Vilimsky warned that Kurz's plans to reform the EU treaty would lead to "an end of unanimity voting and more centralism".

Vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache from the FPO qualified this statement two days later on 7 May when he said that "a change of the EU treaty has always been our wish".

Ramping up political infighting, Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl, who has been nominated by the far-right FPO as a non-party member for the post of foreign minister, warned on Thursday that "giving up unanimity voting on issues of common foreign policy would be a great mistake. The interests of smaller European countries including Austria would come off badly."

And yet Kurz is not alone in his push to reform the EU.

France's president Emmanuel Macron launched an extensive reform proposal at the beginning of March detailing his ideas in an article that appeared in all major European newspapers.

But the two proposals have little in common. While Macron wants more Europe, Kurz demands more subsidiarity and less bureaucracy.

In an interview with the Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse and several Austrian regional newspapers on the day his party launched its European election campaign, Kurz explained that Europe had changed a lot since the 2007 Lisbon Treaty.

"We had a debt crisis, a euro crisis, the migration crisis and the climate crisis, in addition to the Brexit chaos," the chancellor said. "What is needed is a new EU treaty, the current one is not up to date anymore."

Treaty change necessity?

"The challenges were very different more than 10 years ago when the EU Lisbon Treaty was conceived," says Professor Walter Obwexer from the department of European law at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

"I therefore consider the chancellor's current proposal to reform the EU treaty sensible, as it takes into account today's challenges."

Professor Sonja Puntscher Riekmann from the Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies agrees with this general viewpoint - saying that a "treaty change has been necessary for quite some time".

When it comes to the details of Kurz's proposal it gets more complex though.

Tougher sanctions

One of Kurz's central demands is that of tougher sanctions. "It needs a new treaty with clearer sanctions on members that incur debt, penalties for countries that do not register and wave through illegal migrants, and harsh consequences for violations of the rule of law and liberal democracy," Kurz said.

When it comes to maintaining rule of law and democracy in the EU, Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), says that tougher sanctions are indeed "a good proposal and important political signal".

Yet, Gros considers sanctions on members that violate the EU's asylum laws not useful. "I think it would make more sense to improve the protection of the EU's external borders."

Puntscher Riekmann agrees when she says that "we need a proper border management and an increase in Frontex personnel instead of sanctions".

Regarding sanctions for members who accumulate debt, professor Puntscher Riekmann also does not agree. "I am not advocating a policy of incurring debt but what we need is a system of managing debt instead of a system of sanctions."

Gros underlines this point even further when he says that "if a country has run out of money, additional financial burdens in the form of sanctions will not be helpful at all".

Obwexer has a different opinion on this point: "We already have sanctions that can be launched against states who violate the deficit criteria. However, they are not tough enough and therefore we need to make changes to the EU treaty so that states will be urged to consolidate their budgets."

Insult to France?

Kurz also thinks that the EU should get rid of what he calls the "wandering circus" of the European parliament relocating monthly between Strasbourg and Brussels. "Macron presents himself as a reformer. He who demands reforms must also be prepared to make them where it hurts," Kurz said.

"I deem this proposal to be difficult and consider it an insult to France," says Puntscher Riekmann. "We should not forget that the choice of Strasbourg at the time was an important historical compromise between Germany and France."

Obwexer sees it somewhat differently: "The EU works well even with two seats of the European parliament, but we could save money and time and also reduce environmental pollution if we had just one seat in Brussels," he says.

Reducing commission

The Austrian chancellor also wants to reduce the size of the European Commission and end the practice whereby each member state automatically receives one commissioner. According to Kurz, the posts should be apportioned on a "fair rotating basis" instead.

"I am not against reducing the size of the commission" Gros says. "What makes the EU inefficient though is not the size of its commission, but the fact that the European Council, composed of member states, is very often not ready to concede competences to the EU."

Puntscher Riekmann adds to this that there is already a decision by member states to reduce the size of the commission. "It is now up to the member states to implement this decision," she says.

Professor Obwexer agrees on this point explaining that "a smaller commission is not central for the efficiency of the EU".

No EU army

Kurz spoke out against an EU army where member states had to "give up command". Instead, he proposed increased cooperation in the area of military procurement, which would "save billions".

Obwexer agrees that an EU army would be politically difficult - particularly for neutral Austria.

Gros adds to this that the best form of military cooperation would be in fact one that is "restricted to certain sub-areas, such as border and costal protection, establishing a drone fleet, aerial refuelling or improving cyber security".

Improving competition

The chancellor finally demands that the EU's competition be improved, particularly in the areas of e-mobility and artificial intelligence.

"The existing EU competition law should be changed so that we don't stand in the way of European companies when they are rising to become national champions," Kurz said.

"The way I understand this proposal is that the chancellor suggests to limit EU competition law. This is bad because currently the commission makes sure that consumers in Europe get the best products for the best prices. If we are now aiming at creating large monopolies again, this will be to the detriment of the consumers," Puntscher Riekmann is convinced.

European elections

Overall, Gros believes that most of Kurz's proposals are owed to the EU election campaign. But he also adds: "Kurz's call for sticking to the rule of law and to liberal democracy is a very important signal. Showing that EU membership and democracy are intrinsically linked is vital, particularly at the current time of rising populism."

Changing the EU treaty is a complex process that requires unanimity and even referendums in some EU member states. Any serious negotiations can only start after the Brexit process is completed.

Author bio

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist and diplomatic correspondent in Vienna.

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