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What's at Stake in the EU Treaty Reform: An Interview with Brando Benifei, MEP

By Sofia Eliodori

The European Parliament approved a draft of changes to the Treaties during its last plenary session, to better understand the procedures and implications we interviewed a prominent Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and European Federalist: Brando Benifei

Brando Benifei, Member of the European Parliament (Source: European Union 2020, EP)

As described in our latest article “Federalists in Europe are Making their Bid for EU Treaty Reform”, during the past year the Parliament of the European Union has been committed to the approval of a comprehensive reformation proposal of its foundational Treaties. On November 22nd, during a plenary session in Strasbourg, the report on reform - prepared by co-rapporteurs members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO), among which it is worth citing Domènec Ruiz Devesa (Chairman of the Streit Council) – was approved with 305 votes in favor, 276 against, and 29 abstentions. After reiterated calls to action from MEPs, the parliamentary phase has come to a formal end. Now the ball is in the court of the heads of government and state at the European Council level.


To get a deeper understanding of the political challenges hindering the desired transformation of European institutions in a federalist direction, and to dive into the profound consequences in implications expected, we had a special conversation with a prominent Member of the European Parliament (MEP): Brando Benifei. MEP Benifei is a member of the Union of European Federalist, elected for the first time in 2014 at the age of 29, becoming the youngest representative elected from Italy. He is Head of the Delegation of the Italian Socialist & Democrats MEPs and former President of the Spinelli Group. His main areas of work are Internal Market and Consumers Protection, Employment and Social Affairs, and Constitutional Affairs.


With MEP Benifei we addressed some critical issues related to the reforms. We asked about the procedural and political obstacles that those promoting the reforms are facing at the European and national levels. The path to reform is undoubtedly tortious, but supporters like Benifei are convinced that, if implemented, the changes will strengthen democracy worldwide and enhance democratic procedures in the European institutions, delivering a higher degree of reliability and transparency critical to addressing the democratic deficit  that contributed to fostering the populist backlash of the past decades. A major concern addressed in the proposed reforms is the impellent need for the EU to speak with one single European voice on Foreign and Security Policies at the international level. According to Benifei the last votes at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on the Israeli-Hamas conflict show it: Europeans voted separately, in three different ways.


Our guest stresses why this reform proposal is particularly relevant in a time of heightened international turmoil, global instability, and deepening uncertainties about the future. It has the potential to replicate the same transformative change called upon in the Ventotene Manifesto and realized in its first steps through the Schuman Declaration. What at that time seemed utopian and unfeasible is a reality today: peace among European states prevailed against the century-long tradition of power politics that made the continent the epicenter of two world wars.


Q: The reform procedure. On a procedural level, the possible reform of the European Treaties is extremely layered and convoluted, with many steps, each of which could become a permanent halt, melting away years of efforts. Starting from last year’s parliamentary appeal, the EU Council seemed to have ignored calls to convene a Convention, could you tell us who is opposing this reform and what do you consider to be the main reasons for this opposition?

A: “The current institutional system of the European Union clearly states that the will of the Parliament is necessary but not sufficient to start the Treaties’ reform procedure; of course, it is a strong political message that puts pressure on the Council and the member States to call a Convention. It is not a secret that within the European Council some leaders oppose the reform, especially the ones elected with Eurosceptic platforms, because of their “fear” to lose sovereignty and power. However, as I said in my speech during the debate on the proposal in the plenary session, it is utopian to think that in the current global scenario we can address historical challenges only by ourselves, as individual Member States.”


Q: Opposition to the reform. Do you think that in the foreseeable future, there could be a larger political and national consensus on the proposal? At which level and on which topics could compromises be found? The reform comprises a redistribution of sovereignty to a supranational level, what do you think that non-favorable national states could accept as compensation?

A: “This proposal is ambitious and impactful, that’s why is important to reach broader consensus on it, although the text adopted in plenary did not reach the broad majority that we would have hoped for. Of course to reach the end result we will need more time, so it is unlikely that the process will be finalized before the European elections that will take place next June. We have to be open to discuss and find compromises but – and I want to be very clear about this – without stepping back on our commitment to stronger institutions, social policies and protection of fundamental rights.”

European Parliament plenary session (Source: European Union 2019, EP)

Q: Systemic Level. The reform desired by the European Parliament and federalists all over Europe comes after years of dramatic changes and multipolar instability. Democracies are questioned internally in their capacity to protect their citizens’ safety in its multidimensional aspects (security from terrorism and wars, but also health security, food security, and social security). They are challenged externally by an international pro-authoritarian movement fostered by competitor regimes that seek to undermine the Western liberal powers by undermining citizens’ trust in democratic institution. How do you place the reform proposal in this broader context? How will the future EU be able to develop the antibodies to defend its values from these attacks?

A: “In the past decade, we have seen a sort of democratic backsliding and the rise of hybrid regimes. Within the European Union, one of its main problems was the so-called democratic deficit, the perception of a distant and not efficient Union, that has always had lack of democratic procedures and processes. In my opinion, this was one of the main causes of Brexit and of the rise of Eurosceptic parties. With this reform, we want to strengthen the role of the European Parliament, cancel the right of veto-power in the Council. The initial text included also a clause to give EU citizens the possibility to vote in European referendums but, unfortunately, this proposal was removed during the vote in the Plenary.”


Q: International Level. The preamble of the proposal contains several references to international politics and geopolitical challenges that the EU has faced especially in the last few years. These events are presented like the latest red flags alerting to the need to strengthen the EU’s political unity and agency on Foreign and Security Policies before it’s too late. With the crises of the UN and the international liberal order - exposed further in the lack of a constructive role of international institutions vis-à-vis the Israel-Hamas conflict -, if this reform will take place, how do you envision a new global role for the EU? Do you believe this reform could also settle the conditions of a UN Security Council reform?

A: “One of the main aspects of this proposal is related to EU Common Foreign and Security Policies: in the new global scenario we are going to face - and are already facing - challenges will require a more integrated Europe, that needs to speak with a single voice and that cannot be blocked by vetoes. Of course, reforming the Treaties is not sufficient, as we saw in one of the last votes in the UN General Assembly on the war between Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas. Without a common line, EU countries voted in three different ways. In the future, a more integrated Europe could be perceived as a geopolitical actor, maybe with a seat in the UN Security Council. But as things stand now, I do not think this is more than a hope for the future.”


Q: Actor Level. First, Trump’s presidency increased awareness of the possible end of the Pax Americana. Then, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia further strengthened the push to develop a European strategic autonomy to complement NATO, as displayed in the Strategic Compass for the EU. The variety of involved actors (i.e., the European Commission, the Council, EU member states, European External Action Service, EU Parliament) with conflicting competencies and shared powers, combined with the provisions of arts. 31 and 42 of TEU that prescribe unanimity as the decision-making rule for foreign, security, and defense policy, are considered the greatest obstacles to effective and fast European action. How would the proposal change the EU’s foreign policy? In which way would it make it more effective?

A: “As I said before, the first thing to do for the EU to be perceived as a coherent and reliable actor is to speak with a single voice in the international fora. The proposal approved by the European Parliament gives the new Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy which will substitute the current High Representative, the role of leading EU Foreign Policy, as a proper Foreign Affairs Minister.”


EU Parliament President, Roberta Metsola at the meeting of the EU Council(Source: European Union 2023, EP)

Q: Domestic Level. In addressing the topic of the ongoing crisis of representative democracy, the proposal focuses on one side of a renewed role of the Parliament, on the other, it proposes the introduction of an EU referendum on EU’s relevant matters and calls for the strengthening of instruments for citizens’ participation in the EU decision-making process within the framework of representative democracy, without further specifying. Do you believe that the future of European representative democracy depends not only on the attribution of powers to a ‘federal’ level but also on a re-formulation of multilevel governance that entails participatory and deliberative policy tools (Citizens’ Assemblies, Co-governance of commons, Social Hackathons, etc.)? Do you see in this option an acceptable and viable way to re-balance national sovereignty?

A: “The European Union is an area of more than 4 million square kilometres and around 500 million citizens and, moreover, we want to increase its competences in a large number of fields. If we want the Union to be not just able to act, but also closer to European citizens, it is important to be open to them and to give a new, more important role to bodies like the Committee of the Regions, which includes representatives from cities and regional assemblies all over Europe. In this way, we will strengthen the bond between Brussels and the local institutions, the ones closer to citizens.”


Q: Individual Level. Considering the previous questions, and regarding the various levels of analysis considered, what does this reform, if it passes, mean for European citizens? What changes in terms of agency?

A: “One of the aims of the Treaties’ reform, probably the most important one, as clearly stated by the rapporteurs and by the Union of European Federalists, which I am a proud member of, is to bring citizens closer to the European Union, which in the past was perceived as distant due to a cumbersome decision-making process and to its apparent lack of democracy. We wanted to change that, and our commitment stands towards more democracy in the Union for our citizens.”


Q: Past and Future. The proposal recalls as references the original Ventotene Manifesto and the Schuman Declaration. What is its relationship with last year’s “Proposal of a Manifesto for a Federal Europe: sovereign, social and ecological”? What were the compromises vis-à-vis that document? Finally, what is the long-term perspective underpinning these reforms, as they are now in the draft and could be adapted after implementation?

A: “Both the Ventotene Manifesto and the Schuman Declaration were fundamental to the European integration process: after two of the most devastating wars, our Continent has ever seen, thinking of a lasting peace and economic cooperation between our countries was considered mostly utopian and unlikely to be realized.

In the end, we came from more than 70 years of prosperity, but that is not sufficient anymore.

The crises we faced in the past decade and the challenges in front of us require new instruments, as I told you before. There is no other way to face these than with a utopian vision for the future, as the founding fathers of the EU did in the 40s. We need to have a long-term vision, we need the same courage.”

Sofia Eliodori is political scientist and Research Fellow at the Streit Council, exploring the different dimensions of federalism related to Foreign Policy: participation, sovereignity, global governance and public diplomacy.


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