The edifice of the European Union (EU) has been built on the basis of equilibrium between intergovernmental co-operation and supranationalism. In other words, the fathers of Europe wanted to attain integration through the institution of organs which would be representative of the two currents: institutions with an intergovernmental character, through which the voice of the Member-States could be heard, and institutions with a supranational character, which would represent Europe, as a potentially integrated entity, with its own interests and expectations. In the first category, the central institution is the Council of Ministers, which functions with the presence of national Ministers, depending on the subject-matter of the agenda, while in the second category the main organs are the Commission and the European Parliament. The Courts, finally, settle disputes in a spirit of supranationalism, and in this direction they have offered their good offices to integration.
This initial equilibrium has been disturbed lately. The provisions of the Lisbon Treaty introduced a new form, beyond the Council of Ministers, which reinforces the intergovernmental character of the EU, and replaces to a certain degree the entirety of the institutions. The triptych European Council - President of the European Council - High Commissioner (for Foreign Affairs) intervenes in the works of the Council of Ministers, and the works of the Commission. Indeed the European Council, which is constituted of heads of States or governments, determines the basic orientations of the EU, and, as a consequence, intervenes in the works of the Council of Ministers, which is an institution made up by subordinates of the heads of State or governments, as well as in the works of the Commission, which is tyrannized by this fact. Certainly, through its provisions, the Treaty of Lisbon takes care of the equilibrium among the competences of the various institutions -both new and traditional- on the basis of multilateral co-operation and good faith. Exception to that is the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which, in any event, was, at all times, in the hands of the intergovernmental institution, dragging down the overall multi-head foreign policy of the EU.
However, apart from the institutional barrier to supranationalism (given that the intergovernmental institutions have shown, by using their conventional power, serious examples of introversion and national egoisms), the very central supranational institution, that is, the Commission, has many times discredited itself, having been transformed to an executive organ of the European Council. This phenomenon may be the result of the absence of strong personalities in the Commission, who axiomatically would impose the equilibrium, on the basis of their conventional competence.
The question is what was the reason for such a transformation of the EU? During the seventies and the eighties, the EU was an Organization that was giving promises of integrating Europe, and that was followed by many Europeans who believed in its work and achievements. What happened and changed this pattern, transforming this Organization into a most routine-like, indifferent entity? I think that one of the main reasons for this was the massive accession of a great number of States to its membership. Indeed, the EU, in a period of some years, has been enriched by 13 new States, most of them coming from Eastern Europe and the former socialist countries. These States acceded to EU unprepared to cope with the exigencies of the Organization, and totally inimical to integration. The reasons of their accession were to secure their borders from Russia, and to develop gradually an economic and social system resembling the Western system. Some of them have declared their opposition to integration, expressing serious concerns about that. They enjoyed their independence and sovereignty for the first time, after so many years of subjugation to the USSR, and they were not willing -as one leader of a country said- to fall in the hands of Brussels.
This phenomenon has had its repercussions upon other European countries: some States, the traditional Eurosceptic ones, found in them an ally in their battle against integration. Some others, namely those believing in integration, were discouraged and disappointed by the attitudes of the newcomers. In a rather short period of time, the transformation of the EU was accomplished: the institutions that had the real powers in their hands became those which were intergovernmental, to the detriment of supranationalism. Gradually, the States who had the economic power imposed themselves upon the others. This transformation did not go unnoticed. Soon, the people of the countries who were members of the Union were also disappointed and discouraged. The percentage of satisfaction vis-à-vis the Union has fallen to a record low, from a record high in previous years. In some countries it has fallen to 30%, or even lower.
What should be done to give back this lost confidence to the people of the Union in its future? I think that the only solution would be the return of the Union to the period of supranationalism, when the Organization flourished. In this respect, the easiest way out of the inertia of the present is the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union, by the introduction of the economic union into the agenda. A first step has already been made through the Banking Union, a measure which, despite its deficiencies, is a progress. This owes to the current crisis, and the conclusions drawn from that. Real economic union cannot be achieved without the creation of a central authority supervising the States’ budgets, and the replacement of the national authorities with international ones. In any event, I strongly believe that the EMU is the policy from which we can start the integration, not only because its members seem to be willing to proceed accordingly, but also because its completion is a prerequisite for the full development of this policy.
Furthermore, I believe that in order for the Union to come back to the orbit of integration, the institutions which are responsible for this integration should be reinforced. To that end, the monopoly of legislative initiative, which is in the hands of the Commission, must be shared with the European Parliament. What happens at present is that the Parliament is asking the Commission to submit suitable proposals to various subjects. What should happen instead is that the monopoly of legislative initiative, which is now in the hands of the Commission, be shared with the European Parliament. This measure would strengthen the democratic legitimation in the Union, and the prevalence of the rule of law. And, it goes without saying, that the Commission must be strengthened with personalities able to resist the initiatives of the European Council. In the long history of European institutions, the bras de fer between intergovernmental and supranational organs is not unusual, and, at the end, each time the victorious power is the one who is able to resist the challenges of the other.
In any event, the election of the new President of the Commission gives us hope that, this time, integration will progress, and that the intergovernmental pattern that tantalized the EU for so many years is now behind us in the years to come.
Christos Rozakis, Professor (emeritus) of Public International Law, University of Athens; President, Administrative Tribunal of the Council of Europe; Former First Vice-President of the European Court of Human Rights