Timothy Garton Ash, in a column for The Guardian about the task facing Macron after his election on Sunday, sums up the new French President’s challenges in the EU thus:
it’s great that Macron also wants to reform the EU, but that’s not in his gift. With Brexit talks already turning nasty, Britain has moved from being a major ally in European reform to a massive distraction from it
This annoys me in two ways. Firstly it has become a truism to say that the EU needs reform – you will barely find anyone who is not in favour of reforming it. Second, Garton Ash uses the now outdated David Cameron concept of reform of the EU, namely that reforming it means nothing much more detailed than that there ought to be less of it (a case I made in 2014 here).
The problem, as I see it, is that while there might be a wide consensus that the EU in its current form needs reform (and by that I mean the narrow meaning of the word – i.e. to change it) there is no consensus whatsoever as to what that change ought to look like. Saying you want to reform the EU without articulating how to do so, or what you aim to reform, therefore strikes me as meaningless.
Here then is a simple set of questions to think about the problem.
First, do you want to reform the EU in terms of input legitimacy, or output legitimacy? By that I mean does the EU gain better public support through efforts at democratisation (perhaps more transparency, supranational lists, strengthening the European Parliament) or by actually producing better policy outcomes (perhaps finding ways to rejuvenate Europe’s economies, or to spend less money on agriculture subsidies for example)?
If input legitimacy needs to be improved, how do you do that? Make the EU more of a club of nations, a more intergovernmental union, one more answerable to the states? Or try to improve direct citizen legitimacy of the EU itself, through efforts at democratisation? Both of these routes have their advocates.
As for output legitimacy – in the end, who wins? The 95% of the EU population not involved in farming might be OK with lower farm subsidies, but if you are a politician who then has rioting farmers on your doorstep how do you cope with that? Same for EU funding for poor regions – you might not want to subsidise eastern Poland, but if that region remains poor, and people move from there to richer western Europe, then is it legitimate to complain? Then there is the very issue of whether aiming for GDP growth is even the right end in itself, and that the distribution of economic spoils ought to also be looked at. If the price of economic reform, in the EU’s eyes, is deregulation, and that hits the poorest in society, is that OK? Those people might well argue for EU reform that prioritises social policy. These are the sorts of issues behind the European Commission’s Governance White Paper.
Once you have all that sorted comes the question of how to actually make those reforms happen. What can actually be done within the framework of the EU’s current treaties? Or does major reform require institutional or treaty reform? If it does then welcome to a complex process of ratifying those changes in every EU country, with some of them needing referendums.
Lastly which countries are the reforms going to apply to? The whole of the EU? Or just the Eurozone? For there is a consensus that the Eurozone remains problematic and fragile, but the Eurogroup remains a strange and incomplete way of solving the complex economic and political problems that the Euro faces. That is before we even come to the very different views on the French and German sides as to how to solve these matters (although Macron’s election, and hopefully Schäuble out of the way as German Finance Minister this autumn might help things).
So how is that little lot then? You say you want EU reform? But how are you going to do it?
Perhaps commentators might give that some thought before blithely saying the EU needs reform.