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 Second, Garton Ash uses the now outdated David Cameron concept of reform of the EU, namely that reforming it means nothing much more detailed than that there ought to be less of it (a case I made in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.


  1. @Rapscallion

    If people want to change the EU towards a different direction they have democratic means to achieve this. EU laws and policy can only be made with the consent of both Parliament and the Council. If say, Centre-Left Europeans dislike the direction of the EU, they need to vote for Centre-Left MEPs and National governments. The Commission have the power to introduce a policy is not the factor that prevents a European from exercising their democratic rights.

    The EU is only 70 years old, so give it a chance and it has become gradually more democratic with each treaty change. Unfortunately this process has rarely been communicated to the public, by politicians, the media and schools. I am coming from a British perspective of course. How can you attack the EU for being not being a Democratic utopia, when it tries and gets stopped by centre-right and right-wing Politicians like UK Conservative Party led by David Cameron and UKIP led by Nigel Farage? it’s like complaining someone is late for work and then you steal their car and bike.

    Take the Commission, it’s President since the Lisbon Treaty is now selected by the same process of a Prime Minister from the UK or France. Each European party selects a Commission Presidential candidate, they campaign across Europe (example they had live TV debates) and if their party wins the most parliamentary seats by become the President. Yet national media, especially the British one, just ignored this process and millions of British people had no idea that by voting UK Labour they would increase the likelihood of having a Social Democratic Commission President.

    Sadly it’s too late and my country has got Brexit. But it is not too late for the EU27. The people who wish to defend the EU need to start communicating and countering the falsehoods.

  2. Johanna Haffner

    I agree with Brendan that the most urgent task is reform of the Eurozone with deeper integration, and common fiscal and monetary policy. For this to happen a lot does depend on the upcoming german elections though, and whether Schäuble will continue to be finance minister, which I hope he will not. Even if one would argue that his approach to macroeconomics works for Germany (not hard with current interest rates!), he seems very unwilling to even consider looking at things from a different angle, which will be required to foster the cooperation necessary for deeper reform. If he, after an election, ends up as finance minister again, only baby steps can be taken.

    Speaking of deeper integration, I would also like there to be even more of that especially when it comes to green energy, as well as defense (quite a lot of people in favor at the moment), and digital industry. In these areas, some countries willing to work together could do so, which would be a step towards a multi-speed Europe.

    On the other hand, everything that involves complex negotiations will probably have to wait until 2019, as much as one would like to tackle some issues head-on. It is of the utmost importance that the EU27 be united to be able to weather all the Brexit ugliness that is to come.

  3. Gymnopedist

    The states of the United States of America (which is an organization with a level of Federal integration far beyond what the EU could reach) do still have elected parliaments.
    Injecting more direct democracy between the citizens of the european states and the EU can be done easily, and in many different forms and levels without reaching such a nuclear option IMHO.

  4. Brendan Donnelly

    This is an excellent blog about the usually empty calls for “reform of the European Union.” My own view is that the need for reform is not primarily in the European Union but rather in the working of the Eurozone. It is the problems of the Eurozone and its governance that have cast a shadow over the standing and popularity of the European Union as a whole for the past decade. It has been fatally easy for the EU’s detractors to present the single currency as an exacerbator rather than solver of economic problems. Macron is clearly aware of the Eurozone’s inadequacies , and has proposals for its reform, going in the direction of greater (certainly not less) economic and financial integration for the Eurozone’s members. . Whether he will be able to persuade the German government to share his analysis, now or after the German elections, is not easy to assess.

  5. You cannot reform the EU, not in any meaningful sense. Should one ever achieve fundamental change then what you are left with will not be the EU. It will be something else. The EU with 5 unelected Presidents (unelected by the people), and it’s unelected Commission was specifically designed that way by Monnet et al. Indeed, on the basis of it’s undemocratic institutions and by it’s own laws, it would have to disbar itself from membership of its own organisation. All other parliaments can repeal laws – except the EU parliament. It does not propose law either; that is done by the EU Commission. Moreover, the more democratic accountability is removed from national parliaments and subsumed within the EU, the greater the democratic deficit. Ask yourself this question, How many countries would disband their national parliaments and allow the EU to rule them – to effect full political and economic union? I don’t think you’d find many takers for that one?

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