Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Opinion

As much union as necessary, as little union as possible

  • 'The EU should be able to speak with one voice in foreign affairs, which more than justifies widespread calls for majority voting in this area' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Summer is over, and the new institutional cycle opened by the May 2019 elections is about to begin in earnest.

This seems the right moment to pause and reflect a bit about the broad picture, before we immerse ourselves into the technical details of the new term's many and important dossiers.

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  • Mikuláš Dzurinda: 'Many may frown upon an objective that is so ambitious as to appear unattainable. Alas, this is not about ambition, but survival' (Photo: Wilfried Martens Centre)

The ambition of the European Union for the next years and decades should be to gradually reform itself into a political entity matching the economic and military strength of the US and China.

In other words, the EU should develop a vision to become the third, equal pillar of a renewed world order it will shape together with the other two global powers.

Many may frown upon an objective that is so ambitious as to appear unattainable. Alas, this is not about ambition, but survival.

America's gradual withdrawal from the old continent is bound to encourage divisions among Europeans and to enable new powers, such as Russia and China, to intervene and play divide and rule.

Only a strong unity can spare us the dismal fate of becoming the vassals of extra-European powers.

This unity, however, cannot come in the form of the very centralised, state-like structure that many europhiles have become accustomed to dreaming of, and many eurosceptics to decrying.

During the recent crisis, it became clear that – for the time being - only national states have sufficient legitimacy to decide on the details of economic, social and migration policies, to name just a few.

The immediate challenge for our EU, therefore, is to outline a model of European unity in which a strong but strictly limited federal centre coexists with equally strong member states preserving most of their autonomy.

Are we trying to square the circle here? Perhaps, but let us outline three concrete initiatives for EU reform that would go in the right direction.

A strong and respected federal centre

First, European integration should be progressively refocused on core areas of traditional federal competence. The supranational institutions should take on more responsibility for defence, foreign policy and external border control, and perform some limited treasury functions.

The EU level should also continue to safeguard the unity of the internal market by strictly enforcing the free circulation of goods, services, capitals and people. Within this broad framework, foreign policy, defence, and migration stand out.

The EU should be able to speak with one voice in foreign affairs, which more than justifies widespread calls for majority voting in this area.

We should also become more serious about a European Defence Union, making it no mystery that an integrated transnational army - a European army - is the end goal.

Management of immigration into the EU should be acknowledged as a federal competence.

The Union should negotiate and enforce with third countries the readmission of persons not granted asylum or a residence permit.

Nevertheless, the competence to accept migrants and asylum seekers should remain at the national level, as this touches upon the deepest issues of culture and identity. Member states should be incentivised, but not forced to accept migrants.

Strong and respected member states

Second, outside the strategic areas where integration is needed, the EU should encourage decentralisation and competition, not centralisation and harmonisation.

We need to have strong and respected EU institutions, but also strong and respected member states. We can only achieve this by the strictest interpretation and implementation of the subsidiarity principle.

Taking subsidiarity seriously can have transformational implications for the EU and its relationship with member states. It can, for example, justify the EU's gradual withdrawal from agricultural policy, cohesion policy and social policy.

In our view, it should also justify a major review of EU regulations in view of scaling them back to what is necessary to complete the single market and nothing more.

The abuse of single market legislation to pursue other—for example, social or health policy—goals by stealth should be ended. Redistribution and the welfare state are at the core of national democracies and must therefore remain firmly in the hands of the member states.

Another area in which subsidiarity should be more rigorously defended is that of culture and identity. European institutions should not be expected to promote an artificial European identity, but rather to eliminate causes of friction while respecting national and regional diversity.

On such sensitive issues such as family structures, gay marriage or the role of religious symbols in public life we should strongly defend the prerogatives of member states against EU encroachment.

Reformed national economies

Third and last, the political economy of eurozone countries is ill-suited for a decentralised monetary union and in need of a deep reform.

A transition towards a more sustainable Union requires a drastic reduction of public debt and more market-oriented paradigms for the provision of public services in countries that adopted the euro.

This may have to be accompanied by a limited mutualisation of national public debts at the EU level. But it certainly requires simpler and more credible rules to enforce national budgetary discipline and ambitious programmes of national reforms of the type initiated during the financial crisis.

It is deeply unpopular to talk about this aspect of the European predicament, we know.

Unfortunately, it has not disappeared just because populist politicians have denied it ever more loudly - and then been successful at the ballot box - in recent years.

Most European states – notably in the west and south – are increasingly and unsustainably indebted. Urgent measures are needed to remedy that.

To conclude, for decades the talk of the town was about 'more Europe' and 'ever closer union'.

Now, after a decade of growing uncertainties, populism and nationalism we probably need something different: as much union as necessary, as little union as possible.

It is time to start discussing how to achieve that.

Author bio

Mikuláš Dzurinda is a former prime minister of Slovakia, and the current president of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels.

Federico Ottavio Reho is strategic coordinator and research officer at the centre.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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