A report comprising draft changes of the European Union treaties was approved by the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament, a vote during a plenary session is scheduled for the end of November.
Photo by Linda De Volder, Creative Commons
At a time of international crises, dramatic turmoil, and multipolar uncertainties, European leaders and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are looking for solutions to deficiencies in the European institutional and political system. Following the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE, which ended in 2022), many - among which it is worth mentioning co-rapporteurs Domènec Ruiz Devesa (Streit Council Board Chairman and MEP), Guy Verhofstadt, Helmut Scholz, Sven Simon, Gabriele Bischoff, and Daniel Freund – are supporting a vast Treaties’ reform. These reforms, in the spirit of federalism, seek to strengthen the powers of the central government while increasing democratic mechanisms for citizen representation and multilevel governance through a subsidiarity mechanism, that grants the maintenance of power at a proximity level to people.
Figure 1. AFCO Committee Meeting © European Union 2022 - Source : EP
EU Treaties, the procedure for a new reform
After several thematic discussions, the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) has endorsed a report containing draft changes to the two EU's foundational treaties, namely the Treaty on European Union (TEU), in which are the general provisions defining the Union, and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which contains the specific provisions concerning EU institutions and policies. The failure of past attempts, as was the case with the European Constitution of the early 2000s, threatened the survival and unity of the EU, when important European states like France and the Netherlands rejected the Constitution via national referendums, after the general Convention of 2003.
As it was in 2003, currently, implementing a European treaty reform comes through a long and politically stratified method which makes changes in the reorganization of the European institutions difficult and extremely unlikely to succeed. Like at the times of the mentioned failure of the European Constitution, the new Treaty reform undergoes the same mechanisms established by Article 48 of the TUE which requires a unanimous vote by a Convention composed of ad-hoc elected delegates from all 27 states, and then singular ratifications by member states (through citizen referendums or parliamentary votes). The AFCO committee has approved the report comprising the draft changes during a final voting session on October 25th with 19 votes in favor, six against, and one abstention. The European Parliament is expected to discuss and vote on the draft during the plenary session between the 20th and 23rd of November. Last year, the Parliament and the influential Spinelli Group had already called the European Council to establish immediately a Convention to start a process of reforming the EU Treaties, an appeal which is still unheeded by the 27 national heads of government that comprise it.
Named after Altiero Spinelli, founder of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) and one of the forefathers of European integration, the Spinelli Group was created in September 2010 at the European Parliament in Brussels. It is composed of MEPs who belong to different parties but share the same ideas on federal reform of the EU. It annually brings about an important conference on the island of Ventotene (where Spinelli was imprisoned during WWII by the Italian fascist regime), that in 2022 promoted a Manifesto for a Federal Europe. The group, with its Manifesto, is at the core of the discussed Treaty reform proposal of the AFCO committee.
Figure 2. Domènec Ruiz Devesa, MEP and Streit Council Board Chair
© Socialistas Españoles en el Parlamento Europeo 2019 - Source: Flickr
The content of the proposal
The reform proposal brought forward by the AFCO not only echoes the spirit of Europe's foundational texts—the Manifesto of Ventotene and the Schuman Declaration—but seeks to propel the Union into a new era of deeper European integration and democracy, through some structural and substantial changes. The MEPs’ proposal includes the modification of decision-making processes, the expansion/the increase of the European Parliament’s powers, the extension of the EU’s competencies, supervision of national policies, and compliance with EU democratic principles.
At the heart of the institutional reforms lies the shift towards a bicameral legislature, enhancing the European Parliament's power and rendering the Council an equal chamber, while transforming the Commission into a leaner "Cabinet” entity. At the Council level, decisions could be taken through qualified majority voting to overcome the frequent national votes that, in the current intergovernmental configuration of the body which entail representatives of the 27 European governments, impede a smooth decision-making process. This recalibration would reduce the European Council's grip on policymaking, paving the way for a parliamentary governance model where the executive must maintain parliamentary confidence to govern. The election mechanism of the Commission's President is set for a reversal: the European Parliament would assume the function of nominating the President while the European Council would confirm the appointment. The "European Executive" will take the place of the Commission, enhancing its political strength and capacity while maintaining geographical and demographic representation. Moreover, the inclusion of EU-wide referendums on substantive Union matters, including Treaty reforms, marks a significant step towards enhancing participatory and deliberative democracy within the Union. The proposed modification in the reform also implies a strong commitment to upholding the Union's democratic foundational values, with the inclusion of judicial mechanisms to address breaches from member states.
Further, MEPs are also setting an ambitious course for expanding the EU's competencies, proposing exclusive competencies in environmental and biodiversity preservation and shared competencies in public health, civil protection, industry, and education. The strategic advancement of Union-shared competencies would encompass energy, foreign affairs, security and defense, external border policy, and transnational infrastructure. The expansion of the EU’s political competencies, particularly in environmental protection, public health, civil protection, industry, education, energy, and notably the creation of a unitary defense policy, signals a departure from strict intergovernmentalism towards a Union that acts with more autonomy and strength also at the international level. From the reformers point of view, such a redefinition of competencies would enhance the Union's ability to tackle complex transnational challenges cohesively, as foreign policy and security decisions could be taken by the Council after preventive Parliament’s consent.
Figure 3. MEPs at the Conference on the Future of Europe
© European Union 2022 - Source : EP
The future of EU: implications and opportunities of the reform
The implication of these reforms is profound. It would be a transition from a European entity guided by the will of its member states to one that resembles a federal body, where the European Union would possess a degree of sovereignty akin to a federal state, although some critical features remain unresolved. From a structural and political perspective, some mechanisms entailed in the reform have no preceding examples, which increases the unpredictability of a successful implementation, besides the already mentioned difficulties in the approval procedures. In the hopes of European federalists, this restructuring would lessen the member states' traditional role as the 'masters of the treaties', moving towards a model where European citizens' collective decision-making is prioritized. In conclusion, these reforms would not merely change the functioning of the EU but redefine its very nature, potentially setting the stage for a European federal entity. Nevertheless, opposition at the states' level is still strong: the pathway for European Union reform is long and bumpy.
Sofia Eliodori is a research fellow with the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies.