EU Prepares a Political and Institutional Revolution ahead of the Next Enlargement

Bernardo de Miguel

5 mins - 7 de Noviembre de 2023, 19:45

The European Union is gearing up for a major enlargement of the bloc, and all EU institutions are already analysing the changes needed to assimilate new members. In particular, one as important as Ukraine, which this week is expected to receive the preliminary green light from the European Commission to begin accession negotiations in 2024. The Spanish presidency of the Union is leading debates this semester on the future of the bloc and on such far-reaching reforms as its electoral law, with both issues on the agenda of the EU Ministerial Council on 15 November. And the European Parliament is finalising a report calling for a political and institutional revolution to turn the EU into a more democratic, agile, and transparent structure just in time for the next major enlargement, which could raise the number of EU member states from 27 to 35.

The Commission itself has launched a department-by-department review – from agricultural to budgetary – of the necessary reforms and plans to present its proposals early next year. European Council President Charles Michel has even set a date – 2030 – for completing the bloc’s transformation and admitting new members as they are ready, with Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia at the front of the queue.

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Parliament argues that far-reaching changes are needed to bring about the biggest institutional transformation in the Union’s 70-year history. The report, due to be voted on in plenary in November, calls for a move away from the EU’s unique structure of an independent Commission, a Parliament with limited powers, and a Council with intergovernmental supremacy, towards a bicameral configuration of representation, similar to that of national democracies

This is not a mere renovation of the facades, in order to keep the interior of the institutional framework intact. It seeks a profound change in the distribution of power within the Union, with a much more sovereign Parliament and a Commission with a genuine executive role, close, for the first time, to that of any national government, to the extent that it is proposed to change the name of the body to “European Executive”.

The federalist nature of the proposal is evident and coincides with the profile of many of its promoters. Among the five rapporteurs of the report (one for each political group in the Parliament that supports the initiative) is the Belgian liberal, Guy Verhofstadt, the architect of the Laeken Declaration (2001) that paved the way for the first failed attempt to establish a European Constitution.

Significantly, the rapporteurs of the other four groups (popular, socialist, green, and left) are all German, indicating Berlin’s interest in controlling a process that will try to match the geographical enlargement of the bloc with the deepening of internal ties.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is also German, is convinced that both challenges can be tackled at the same time. “This is what our Union has always done. Each wave of enlargement came with a political deepening,” Von der Leyen told the European Parliament in September, stressing that “it is time to think big again and write our own destiny”.

The European Parliament has taken Von der Leyen at her word. The European Parliament has called for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s internal procedures and the degree of public participation in its management, over and above the accounting haggling over the cost of further enlargement and the impact of new members on the distribution of funds.

The winds in Brussels blow in favour towards change prior to the accession of Ukraine and company, coinciding with those blowing in Berlin and Paris. Enlargement has become a ‘geostrategic imperative’, noted the Franco-German report published in mid-September on the reforms needed before resuming eastward expansion.

The document, drafted by 12 experts from both countries on behalf of their respective governments, distinguishes between immediate changes (before the European elections in June 2024) and those that are advisable in the medium term (until 2030). Urgent reforms include clarifying the system for electing the next president of the European Commission, abolishing the right of veto in some areas and speeding up the accession process.

And in the next legislature (2024-2029), according to the report, a change in the voting system in the EU Council should be undertaken (to increase the weight of the least populated countries as compensation for the elimination of the right of veto), a tightening of Article 7 of the Treaty to curb the authoritarian drifts of some partners and an increase in the EU’s competences.

Some developments will be more tangible and, predictably, painful than others. The end of the presence in Brussels of one European commissioner per country, for example, is proving difficult to swallow. Germany has already indicated that it is willing to temporarily relinquish its Commission post. But for small countries – which are more defenceless in other institutions such as the Council or the Parliament – the absence of a commissioner of their own will be difficult to accept. The compromise formula therefore aims for a rotation system similar to that applied in the European Central Bank, where all countries are represented but voting rotations have been established with a system of distribution based on the demographic and economic weight of each state.  

The final scope of reforms before enlargement is difficult to calculate. But the agenda for change is already underway, and the thesis has taken hold in Brussels that the EU of the mid-century will be very different from the EU of today.
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