Five ideas for EU governance reform – analysis

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After five years of a ‘geopolitical Commission’ that introduced a large tranche of new legislation, the EU must now adapt and equip itself for an era of implementation and enforcement, say analysts — but how? Here are five innovative ideas proferred by think tanks ahead of the new mandate.

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The last mandate saw more than 660 initiatives from the EU executive and unprecedented responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, an energy crisis and even a war on its borders. 

The EU proved that despite its complex governance, where there is political will, there is a way – and so the bloc found the tools and mechanisms to jointly buy vaccines and provide Ukraine with all the financial, military and human aid it could.  

But the picture for the next five years will require management of the green and digital transitions – rather than lots of legislation – and what worked in the past may not work in the future. 

“It would be naive to take for granted that the EU and its members will always do what is required when the pressure is so high that the Union has no choice but to go the extra mile to avoid the situation spiralling out of control,” according to a recent analysis by think tank the European Policy Centre (EPC). 

It and other think tanks are currently mulling how a changed outlook and set of demands might be reflected in institutional changes in Brussels, especially in this election year.

To meet future challenges and make the EU more resilient to current and future crises, the bloc must act more quickly together, find ways to finance its needs, improve coordination between its institutions and provide strong leadership, researchers argue – especially in a context of growing polarisation, security threats and more countries anxiously knocking on Europe’s door to join the club of 27. 

Euronews has read some policy discussion papers and talked to EU researchers to bring you a list of five ideas on how the bloc can improve its internal functioning to deliver on its political promises. 

1) A more executive Commission

The increasing role of the EU in policy areas where member states have the main responsibility, such as health, foreign policy and security, requires a higher degree of executive ability and capacity, says the EPC analysis. 

The European Commission was designed more than 60 years ago as a strategic institution to propose and develop plans in line with member states’ expectations and to implement these strategies using various budgetary and regulatory instruments, Jean-Louis De Brouwer, director of the European Affairs programme at the Egmont Institute, told Euronews. 

“The problem is that the Commission is not yet equipped to implement these executive functions,” De Brouwer added. 

Despite having acquired new executive powers in recent years, especially in the field of technology, member states are still showing some reluctance to give the Commission additional resources to fully and effectively enforce all the new legislation, according to De Brouwer. 

CEPS analyst Ursula Pachl says a new commissioner for enforcement and implementation would make a lot of sense to maintain the EU’s position as a global regulatory power. 

The Commission President is now the only member of the College of Commissioners with the power to coordinate and ensure the enforcement of EU law, Pachl argues. 

“This system now seems outdated and too narrow in scope, given the enormous challenges ahead,” she writes. 

Heather Grabbe, a senior fellow at Bruegel, argues that the next Commission should be an impartial, rather than political, Commission focused on ensuring that EU law is properly enforced. 

“There needs to be much stronger powers for the Commission to be the guardian of the treaties on the rule of law,” Grabbe said. 

2) Strong and coordinated leadership

In recent years, it’s been no secret that Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (Germany/EPP) and European Council president Charles Michel (Belgium/Renew) have not had the closest of relations. 

Their personal clashes and competition, which culminated in the so-called “sofagate”, led to less cooperation between the two institutions and did not always present the EU as a united voice.

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“We will need some leadership from the new team that will be in place when the Commission is completed, [and] some efforts will have to be made to improve this [EU] governance,” De Brouwer said. 

Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa will be the next European Council president from October, but von der Leyen still needs to be approved by the European Parliament to return to her old post for a new mandate. 

“It will be particularly significant that the presidents of the European Council and Commission push in the same direction,” EPC analysts note. “Both need to understand that the power of the Commission increases in line with the strength of the European Council and vice versa”. 

3) Set clear strategic objectives

Bruegel has just published a memo to the next leaders of the EU institutions, in which its researchers note that not all legislation has been good over the past five years, and that progress has been slow or non-existent in important areas such as capital markets union. 

The researchers also state that the Commission’s response to the EU’s declining competitiveness has been one-sided, failing to adopt key legislation to deepen the single market, and the Council’s failure to agree on new own resources to help repay the EU’s next generation of loans. 

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“I think a greater consensus on areas for more EU action would be the most valuable thing that could be agreed at this point,” Grabbe told Euronews. 

The more the goals set by EU leaders in the Strategic Agenda for the next five years and the Commission’s roadmap are aligned, the more the implementation of the bloc’s key objectives should be supported by strategic task forces, the EPC recommends. 

A task force could be institutionally anchored in the Commission and led by an experienced political figure focusing on a specific priority, such as the EU’s defence and security industry. 

“However, they would need to have real powers of coordination and be embedded within the EU system to be effective,” EPC analysts write.

4) Reform EU decision-making

Much can be done without reforming the treaties, the researchers argue.

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“The political context now makes it virtually impossible to do the kind of large-scale treaty-based institutional reform that we’ve had in the past,” the Bruegel fellow told Euronews, arguing that it’s not realistic with the current divisions between member states and the different vision that popular radical right forces have of what the EU should be. 

Enlargement, for example, is extremely complicated because of the number of vetoes each member state has in the process, which have become more and more elaborate over time, Grabbe said, adding that they don’t need to be so ornate.

“The EU should be innovative in preparing for the next wave of enlargement, including Ukraine’s accession. Staged accession should be seriously considered,” the Bruegel memo says.  

Another key aspect will be how to structure – or restructure – the internal functioning of the Commission, so that there is better coordination between policy areas and so that each EU commissioner [there is one per country] has a significant portfolio. 

“The need to organise clusters of commissioners makes sense, but they all need to have some kind of meaningful portfolio. That’s the challenge,” says Grabbe. 

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5) More efficient use of the EU budget (and common borrowing?)

During the election campaign, von der Leyen said she would use the experience of the past five years to simplify the EU budget, eliminate redundancies and make it more efficient. 

The centre-right German commission chief hinted in May that she might be willing to cut expensive farm subsidies and aid to the poorest regions to prioritise new areas of spending, such as defence. 

“Agriculture and cohesion will play a role, without any question, but we have to focus on what is most important at the moment,” von der Leyen said during an election debate. 

The Commission president spoke of the need for new own resources and did not close the door to new joint borrowing to plug funding gaps, an idea backed by leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron – although the view most accepted by member states leans towards doing more with limited resources.

“If we want to literally put our money where our mouth is, we will have to think broadly when the time comes to think about the next generation of financial resources needed for the EU,” De Brouwer stressed. 

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The Egmont director believes that much more can be done in terms of simplifying existing budgetary instruments and making greater use of the performance-based approach. This means that EU money will only be transferred to member states if they meet certain targets that measure their reforms and performance, as was the case with the Recovery Next Generation plan. 

“A larger EU budget should also be explored, but only if the current policies that absorb most of the EU budget (CAP and cohesion) are also reformed,” the Bruegel memo said.

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