Press play to listen to this article
EU leaders meeting in Brussels this week shrewdly dodged the question: can the EU revise the way it takes big decisions?
They can’t outrun him forever.
Momentum has been created for the EU to change the treaties that govern how it reaches agreement on everything from finance to foreign policy. And as EU leaders once again promise to end years of stagnation on admitting new members, a simultaneous argument has arisen: the bloc cannot expand without first reforming its own statutes.
At the heart of the debate is the EU’s unanimity rule, which gives individual members veto power over everything from countries that become EU members to approved sanctions. More countries in the EU means more possible vetoes. And ever since Russia began bombing Ukraine, the EU has seen acutely how one country – in this case, Hungary – can delay decisions for weeks after almost everyone has signed up.
Some of the EU’s most powerful leaders support the treaty change to varying degrees, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. And, technically, the legal path to changing the treaty began earlier this month, putting it more formally on the table for the first time in more than a decade.
So while several EU candidates are slowly marching towards membership, the bloc will eventually have to come to terms with its own rules – Scholz said. said as much. And after the leaders did EU candidates from Ukraine and Moldova this week, while pushing to Unlock with the Bulgarian veto effectively keeping North Macedonia and the other Western Balkan candidates out of the club, this march only progresses.
“Future accessions force us to ask ourselves the question not only of the needs of the candidate countries, but of the needs of the EU itself, and its ability to function in the future in an enlarged Europe, which will require reform of these decision-making processes,” said an official at the French presidential Elysée.
On Friday, Scholz agreed, speaking to reporters after the two-day leaders’ summit.
“I have the impression that no one doubts that [expansion] will not work without institutional reforms,” he said. “And that’s why I think we have a chance that it can be done.”
How the Rules Evolved
The current, full-fledged iteration of EU treaties dates back to 2009, several years after a round of aggressive eastward expansion that saw 12 new members join.
The treaties are essentially the constitution of the EU, outlining the institutions of the bloc, clarifying the division of powers between the EU and its members, and outlining how decisions are made. Since the founding of the EU in the 1950s, they have been revised many times as the body changes and grows.
Renewed talks over rewriting EU ground rules intensified as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the continent. The EU abrogated tough fiscal rules to protect a faltering economy and moved to buy vaccines collectively, underscoring the bloc’s shifting powers.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has only fueled these discussions, with the EU faced with its inability to act as quickly as individual countries to approve economic sanctions aimed at crippling the Kremlin’s war chest.
In parallel, the EU also launched in 2021 a “Conference on the Future of Europe”, an eight-month forum of self-reflection which asked citizens to propose reflections on the revision of the institution. international.
The initiative generated hundreds of ideas that were summarized in 49 proposals. Some of them – like repealing unanimity requirements or strengthening the EU’s role in health policy – would require EU treaty changes.
A discussion of the outcome of the conference has been added to the agenda of this week’s European Council summit, raising the possibility that leaders will face the prospect of treaty change while sitting around the table.
Adding further pressure, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a pre-summit resolution imploring EU leaders to take a major step towards treaty change – convening a European convention to discuss the issue. The executive arm of the EU, the European Commission, has also encouraged leaders to remove the unanimity requirement for foreign policy decisions.
Instead, the EU’s 27 leaders kicked in.
In the Council’s conclusions, the leaders vaguely called for an “effective follow-up” to the conference and simply asserted that the enterprise had been a successful exercise in democratic control. The words “treaty change” never graced the statement.
Macron, who initiated the conference, also showed relative restraint on the issue during his post-summit press conference. He encouraged his colleagues to “grasp” the “deep transformations” recommended by the conference and promised that leaders would continue to work on the issue.
Diplomats were quick to note that most of the conference’s ideas could be implemented without any significant rule changes.
“The initial focus of this Council should be on what we can do, make sure we do it and tell people we are doing it,” an EU diplomat said. “One of the main takeaways from this conference is that apparently we do a terrible job of explaining what the EU is doing to citizens.”
war changes everything
There are also other factors at play.
As war burns in Ukraine, EU leaders are promoting unity, especially this week, while giving Ukraine a boost by nominating it an EU candidate.
Yet it is exactly Ukraine’s eventual membership that is likely to force the EU to change the treaty, as the country’s EU aspirations are helping to boost applications from other countries.
Leaders like Germany’s Scholz have said the EU needs to reform before it is “capable of welcoming new members”. Specifically, Scholz and others have pointed to the consensus needed for any foreign policy initiative, which has led countries to suspend everything from capital sanctions to basic declarations.
In the European Parliament, members are also working on a series of proposals to change the Treaties. They will eventually send them to the 27 Heads of State or Government for approval by the European Council.
“This is a moment of historic opportunity,” said Sven Simon, the German MEP who is one of Parliament’s interlocutors on the issue.
“The treaty dates from 2009 and the EU has gone through many crises” since then, he noted.
For those seeking adjustments, however, there is a cold reality ahead: it is difficult, and many countries are skeptical.
Changing EU Treaties is a long and tedious process. And swathes of the continent feel there is no need to start now, as the EU faces multiple crises.
First, there is the logistics aspect.
The initial phase is doable. EU leaders can convene the European Convention – which would bring together members of national parliaments, as well as heads of state and government, to discuss proposed amendments – with a simple majority vote.
From there, it gets complicated. Under the ordinary procedure, any effective revision would require the support of a consensus of all EU countries. And the removal of unanimity or any decision will rattle smaller EU members, who know their veto power gives them much-desired clout in a body often led by France and Germany.
Second, there is the political dimension.
In May, 13 countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Poland, made clear they considered any change to the treaty premature, arguing that it would only distract the bloc from more pressing matters.
“Now is not the time to discuss a treaty change in the midst of the war in Ukraine,” said a diplomat from one of those countries. “A lot can be done without treaty change.”
Another EU diplomat remarked: “We all know treaty change isn’t happening anytime soon, so let’s not rush into these things when everything around us is changing.”
Some have expressed fears the debate could really tear apart the union, which has already lost a major member, the UK, to EU skepticism and may struggle to convince citizens of its benefits.
“Would such a move alienate member states, sowing future dissent that could lead to the disintegration of the EU? wondered another EU diplomat. “Considering that the EU is not a federal state but a collection of sovereign states, would the EU switch to a federal model? If so, how can the divergent interests be reconciled?
At some point, however, conversation will be unavoidable.
“In my view,” said an EU official, “a change in EU decision-making will be on the table the day enlargement draws near.