Professor Jean-Claude Piris,
15 Feb 2012
Executive Seminar Room, NUS Bukit Timah Campus Block B, Level3, 469 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259756
3.30PM – 5.00PM
During times of crisis like the current sovereign debt crisis in Europe, there is usually a tendency to retreat from deeper regional integration and to cling on to the idea of the nation-state. But the need for European Union has not been written off, as EU member states continue to recognize its necessity. As relatively small, ageing countries with slowing economic growth, EU member states need to strengthen unity, improve governance, and competitiveness through more, not less, integration.
Working on this premise, Professor Jean-Claude Piris, the former Director-General of the Legal Service of the Council of the EU, presented four theoretical ways forward for the EU, as he presented them in his book The Future of Europe: Towards a Two Speed EU? that was launched at the event. He emphasized the need for a stronger, not weaker, EU to deal with the crisis for which it was not prepared in the first place. The Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), which was agreed in 1997 in lieu of a fiscal union for the euro zone, did not work as the threats of sanctions were weak and the provisions were not flexible enough to encompass still uncomplimentary business cycles across the member states. The assumption that markets will instill discipline did not materialize either, as the debt crises have shown..
The EU’s lack of robust, collective action to deal with the crisis stems from the flaws of its decision-making processes, said Piris. The decision making system of the EU was built for the 1950s, in which the then European Economic Community (EEC) had only six members that were relatively homogenous in their economic and other characteristics. In the Council, unanimous decisions are needed, and this is sometimes not fair for majority. The reforms of the European Parliament (EP) over the years to address the oft-cited ‘democracy/legitimacy deficit’ of the EU has produced mixed results, though much is also due to poor turnouts at EP elections. The intergovernmental style of the functioning of the EU has been proven inefficient, given the lack of oversight by a powerful, neutral body, as had been envisaged for earlier, smaller incarnations of the current Union, and the veto restrictions might well be adapted so that member states cannot prevent others going ahead with a policy a minority of states might find objectionable but which they will not have to implement in their own countries. However, such an architecture may in turn be difficult to implement.
Nonetheless a ‘stronger EU’ is not politically viable through Treaty changes, as the appetite for either Treaty negotiation or “EU strengthening” is understandably low. Here, after visiting a number of alternatives, Piris weighed in on the option for a “two-speed Europe”. The idea is hardly new, and indeed, it has been speculated on for some time by the media. Some form of a ‘two-speed Europe’ already exists, such as with the situation of the UK and Denmark opting out of the euro zone.
Where Piris comes in is his formulation of a path towards a ‘two-speed Europe’ as in his book it is not only concretely mapped out, but is also designed to be politically feasible. Most importantly, he has found it possible to achieve this while keeping the existing EU treaties unchanged by adding a new, legally-binding treaty to the existing framework that creates new institutions for a ‘core’, and which does not contradict the existing treaty framework of the EU.
The ‘two-speed’ operation can first apply to issues concerning the Economic and Monetary Union of the EU, but there would also be room to cover issues on defence, cooperation in civil and criminal law, environmental protection.
A qualified majority voting (QMV) system should be implemented for all matters with which the Council of the European Union deals, in place of decision-making by unanimity for some issues which should be abolished. An “administrative authority”, distinct from the European Commission and capable of working more closely with national parliaments, would give oversight to the workings of this temporary, core, even vanguard group. Another type of parliamentary organ composed of national MPs should also be considered, perhaps to complement the EP.
None of these implies a ‘two-class Europe’. Rather, those in the core would have the duty to help the others join their ranks once that is feasible, and the core group would be open to new members once they found themselves in a position to contribute purposefully.
Besides clarifying aspects of Piris’s ‘plan’, the event’s question and answer session covered the other salient issues on the euro zone sovereign debt crises. Questions were raised as to why the EU would want to keep Greece ‘in the club’. Piris was clear that this was not just due to lofty visions of European solidarity, but due to a real fear of contagion of the effects of the sovereign debt crisis.