The EU Commission wants to end the sport of blaming Brussels

A sign displays the words 'Bon Voyage' and the stars of the European Union (EU) at the Parlamentarium, the visitor center of the European Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mark Dawson says its white paper puts the ball back in the national court.

It seems unlikely that 1 March 2017 will be a turning point in the future of the European Union. It could, however, be seen as a day on which the EU’s foremost institution, the Commission, finally developed a new role for itself in the 21st century. The Commission has been in decline for over a decade. Buffetted by the twin euro and refugee crises, it has had little option but to cede leadership to the larger member states. Only they seemed to carry the financial muscle and political legitimacy to find solutions to the seemingly unending ‘state of emergency’ the EU has been in since 2008.

The Commission’s main problem – a key driver of yesterday’s white paper on the future of the EU –  is that large states have been good at claiming credit for their achievements but not at taking responsibility when things went wrong. To take the euro crisis as an example, while weaknesses in the Eurozone were blamed on the EU, they also reflected unwillingness on the part of the member states to restrain their budgetary sovereignty prior to 2008. Similarly, during the refugee crisis, the EU was held responsible for failure in an area – aslyum protection – that is largely within national prerogatives. Blaming Brussels has become a favourite national political sport. The game has taken a heavy toll on the EU’s popularity.

In this light, President Juncker’s message is simple: if you are unhappy with Europe’s direction, don’t blame me. Rather than lay out ambitious plans, only to see them shot down by countries unwilling to agree or implement common rules, the white paper adopts a different strategy. It places the ball in the national court. Its playbook is this: here, member states, are five options; please pick the one you want (and you can be responsible for explaining to national citizens the outcomes of that choice too). In spite of the often vague and infeasible nature of many of the scenarios outlined, the white paper plays a clever political game. It starts a strategic conversation about Europe’s future for which all EU leaders, and not just the Commission, will have to take some responsibility.

Which scenario will win out? One of the scenarios, ‘carrying on’, describes an EU that moves forward incrementally, maintaining the status quo ex ante. Anyone who has seriously followed the history of the EU’s last twenty years would bet strongly on this option winning out. Even without the UK, the EU remains an organisation of 27 members, likely to disagree starkly, both on the EU’s policy direction and its level of integration in the future. By laying out a series of ambitious options, however, including full federalism (what the paper terms ‘doing much more together’) the Commission is also taking a bet on how national elections in the next six months will play-out. While full federalism may seem an academic pipe dream today, it might be seen in a very different light were Emmanuel Macron and Martin Schulz (rather than Angela Merkel and Francois Fillon), to become the union’s two central players by October 2017.

Regardless of whether that comes to pass, the upcoming elections offer a serious opportunity. Such white papers are normally elite discussions, prompting responses from national governments and letters from lobbyists but little else. The broad brushstrokes within which this paper is written offer the opportunity for Europeans to have a much wider discussion. As the euro and refugee crises have shown us, national and European policies are less and less separable. Voters in France and Germany deserve to know what kind of vision of Europe their prospective candidates hold. This white paper at the very least offers ammunition for concrete scrutiny – a good moderator in any future leader’s debate in this country (and in the Netherlands and France) should ask candidates for high office which of these models they would endorse and why. Europe was not reborn yesterday but its future is certainly at stake in the next six months. Yesterday’s white paper should be the start of a discussion among all Europeans. 

This article was originally published by Zeit Online on 2 March 2017 in German.

More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance