22nd Mar 2023


Member states are taking more control — for better or worse?

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In the last few years, the European Union has been at the forefront of the fight against two major events: the pandemic and Russia's war on Ukraine. As a result, we now have more 'Europe'. But the Europe we have now is also different.

It is increasingly an intergovernmental Europe, with member states more in control than in the past, carving out roles for themselves not just in the decision-making phase, but also in the implementation phase of European policies — sometimes with European institutions, but sometimes also against them.

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  • The EU is as strong as its institutions are. Its growing dependence on the goodwill of national leaders should be a worry for all

These two major trends — more Europe and a more intergovernmental Europe — should get alarm bells ringing. The European Union risks becoming a bazaar dominated by national politicians haggling, doing handshakes, walking out and having tantrums. This is a logical consequence of having a more intergovernmental Europe.

So, why are we having 'more Europe' than before?

Because the world is facing vital challenges and the European Union has no choice but to respond. Often, member states only want European solutions for problems they do not manage to solve on their own — or, as Jean Monnet once said, at moments when "national leaders do not know anymore what to do".

In 2022, there were plenty of such moments again. The Russian war on Ukraine triggered major global changes to which the EU responded collectively, for instance by beefing up external border protection, securing new sources of energy together, jointly buying weapons for Ukraine, and shoring up the monetary union. Even European defence is no longer taboo.

Ten years ago, during the euro crisis, the difficult, divisive issue of debt and deficit was dominating the European discourse. Nowadays, security concerns are dominating everything, from investment rules to cyber regulations and agricultural and industrial policy.

Europe has long regarded itself as an open market and a community of values with little geopolitical clout. Now, that market and community of values are vulnerable and urgently need protection. Even allies like the United States nowadays engage in policies harmful to the EU, with their green IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) subsidies so attractive to European companies that the European Commission has no choice but to propose new state aid rules in order to keep them from relocating to the US.

Member states are constantly asking the European Commission for new draft regulation to confront these and other challenges.

Commission staff work in overdrive: they work harder and faster than before, while member states keep cutting staff budgets. As new European legislation often deal with issues that are nationally sensitive — today's crises deal with security, defence, the currency or migration — member states are increasingly reluctant to leave the implementation to the commission.

In the past they would take decisions, and then step back and let the commission take care of implementing these decisions. Now, they want to stay involved in the implementation phase as well. And the commission is increasingly shy in challenging member states who violate the rules.

This was already happening during the pandemic. Health being a national competence, member states initially refused to ask the commission to order vaccines for the entire EU; this only changed when they failed to procure them nationally. They insisted, however, on national administrations scrutinising each and every contract between Brussels and pharmaceutical companies. The process could only proceed after all 27 had signed off. They also wanted to choose their own, national 'mix' of vaccines from different producers.

Soon enough, Austria took advantage of this system. In the spring of 2021, dissatisfied with its own choice of vaccines, it took an entire European Council meeting hostage in an attempt to make others responsible for finding a solution. The chancellor frustrated all his colleagues and blamed 'Brussels' for his misfortunes. Had member states decided to let the commission do the implementation, this could not have happened.

When member states decided to use eurobonds to shore up stricken national economies during the pandemic, they also chose to remain involved in the implementation phase. The decision to issue joint debt to set up the €750bn Next Generation EU was definitely historical — but instead of letting the commission select projects in member states, check the criteria and disburse the funds, the 27 chose to assist it.

As a result, they actively assess each other's national recovery plans and scrutinise adherence to European rules and values, reserving the right to pull the brakes if they think anti-corruption measures or rule of law obligations are violated.

This national involvement is rather unusual. While the commission produces reports and issues opinions for approval or disapproval of national plans, it now partly steps back from its role as a 'guardian' of the treaties because the 27 take part in the decision-making process.

Pros and cons?

As some European officials acknowledge, this new system does have its merits: it increases national ownership of European projects in sensitive areas. Others rejoice in the fact that northern European countries now finally experience how it feels to be under scrutiny from peers demanding every little detail of your recovery projects — something former 'programme countries' like Greece or Ireland are used to when they had to take heavily conditioned loans from other eurozone countries a decade ago.

The flipside of everybody judging everybody, however, is that discussions can get politicised this way and that everything becomes negotiable in the end.

The risk is that the quality and impact of the projects gets lower and lower. Each capital will think 'they' will approve its pet projects if it approves 'theirs'. This is a slippery slope, and for a fundamental reason.

It raises the question: do we really want national leaders, elected to run their country and act in the interest of that country only, to run Europe too? A member of the European Court of Auditors, a political appointee from the Netherlands known for his scepticism on Next Generation EU and Italian reforms, is already flooding the commission with questions on the way Covid funds are spent.

Nothing is wrong with strong scrutiny. But coming from him, some raise their eyebrows. Who is next? Will there be tit for tat? When it comes to spending in the member states, it is vital for European institutions to be free from national political interference.

The EU is as strong as its institutions are. Its growing dependence on the goodwill of national leaders should be a worry for all.

This column was amended on 17 March to clarify that the questioning of Covid spending was not specific to Italy

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in NRC.


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

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