The institutional horizon for the EU: the next 5 years (2014-2019)

By David Phinnemore

David Phinnemore, visiting professor at the EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Department of the College of Europe and trainer during the 21st Intensive Seminar on the EU (30 June – 18 July 2014), presents his point of view regarding the future of the European Union and takes into account the foreseen institutional changes: with more than three-quarters of the Commissioners being new to the job and a newly elected European Parliament, challenges such as the Scottish referendum or the fiscal and economic union should be faced. Stay up-to-date on the EU by attending the College of Europe Autumn or Summer Seminars and by requesting a training programme tailor-made to your particular needs. 

By the end of the year 2014 will have seen a number of significant institutional changes in the European Union (EU): elections to the European Parliament (EP) in May; the nomination by the European Council and ‘election’ by the EP of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President; the installation of a new 28-member Commission; the appointment of a successor to Herman van Rompuy as European Council President; and the appointment of a successor to Catherine Ashton as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In addition the year will have seen the introduction in the Council of a new voting system – double majority voting – to eventually replace the existing system of qualified majority voting.

The changes should be followed, however, by five years of relative institutional stability. All the institutional reforms provided for in the Treaty of Lisbon will have been implemented, there are no major treaties containing institutional or structural reforms or new or reformed decision-making procedures pending implementation, and no such treaties are currently planned, despite the pre-election hopes of some of the more integration-minded MEPs that a constitutional convention would be called to reform the EU. Even if there were a new round of treaty reform negotiations any structural or institutional reforms would be unlikely to be introduced, given the timetable for ratification, until at least 2019 and so most likely not until after the next EP election and the appointment of a new Commission. Rarely has there been such a projected period of relative institutional calm in the last thirty years of European integration.

This is not to say that the institutional prospects for the EU are necessarily rosy; far from it. The next five years contain a range of institutional challenges for the EU and it could easily be faced with more as it deals with the medium- and longer-term legacies of the eurozone crises, the ongoing problem of its weak and weakening legitimacy, and questioning attitude of certain member states to the democratic commitments underpinning membership (Hungary) and indeed to continued membership itself (the United Kingdom), and potentially the fallout of independence votes in Scotland and Catalonia.

A first institutional challenge concerns, however, the new appointments of 2014. The Juncker Commission will be very much a new Commission with more than three-quarters of the Commissioners being new to the job. As ever, each will have their own agendas; and several will have to adjust to being no longer a head of a national government. Juncker needs not only to bring to coherence and provide effective leadership to the Commission, but also improve its popular standing.

Within the Commission, the High Representative – also a Vice-President of the Commission – has one of the most demanding jobs. Expectations will be high that she or he will bring a greater profile to the post than Catherine Ashton and genuinely enhance the EU’s impact on international politics. Whereas for much of her time in post Ashton was pre-occupied with the demanding tasks of assuming the new post-Lisbon demands of the High Representative post and establishing the External Action Service, her successor will not be so encumbered. There will be greater demand for evidence of results in promoting coherent and effective foreign and security policies; a major challenge in the light of the EU’s continuing difficulty in reacting promptly and effectively to events and the continued reluctance among some member states to support and promote common policies and actions.

Eyes will also be on Herman van Rompuy’s successor as European Council President and how she or he develops the post. Van Rompuy’s two two-and-a-half year terms in office were dominated by the Eurozone crisis allowing few opportunities to develop the role of European Council President other than as a coordinator of fire-fighting activities. Attention will also be focused on how van Rompuy’s successor deals – the European Council having become the focus of policy-making – with the increasing demands of and for economic governance within the eurozone. S/he will also – as will Juncker – have to be sensitive to and manage the evident tensions between those member states inside and outside eurozone as the former deepen their integration and potentially take further measures towards fiscal and economic union.

Relations with the EP will also have to be managed. This is a particular challenge for Juncker, President of a Commission whose members may ‘neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution’, but who is the first Commission President to owe his ‘election’ to the Spitzenkandidaten process and the votes of a majority of MEPs. Expectations are high among MEPs that Juncker should be more responsive to the will of the EP than his predecessors. Member states in the Council and European Council will clearly want to ensure they maintain, indeed strengthen, their influence over the Commission.

Any prospect of it wielding increased influence over the Commission assumes that the EP can muster clear preferences. The 2014 election not only resulted in more fragmentation within the EP with MEPs from more parties being elected and a 60% increase in the number of non-inscrits once the party groupings had been formed, the range of eurosceptic and outright europhobic voices increased to an unprecedented level. The EP’s seventh legislature is set to be its most divided. The election result did little to help clarify what sort of EU its citizens want. And the quietly revised turnout figure – down to its lowest ever at 42.54% – can only reinforce the evident concern that the EU is suffering a seemingly intractable crisis of legitimacy.

For the EU’s institutions the next five years demand concerted efforts to improve the EU’s popular legitimacy. In part this has to be achieved by acting responsibly and effectively to address citizens’ concerns. The EU needs to prove its worth. Rhetoric needs to be backed up with action – a challenge that the European Central Bank may need to address in the coming years as markets and investors demand further proof of Mario Draghi’s commitment to do ‘whatever it takes’ to maintain the euro.

Enhancing the EU’s popular legitimacy also requires a greater degree of honesty on the part of the institutions and member state governments as to what the EU can actually do. Its competences and its resources are limited, and voters need to be made aware of this. Few genuinely understand what the EU can do and how it does it. Developing understanding, while necessary, is however, far from being a sufficient step for improving popular acceptance of and support for the EU. The EU’s institutions need to demonstrate their worth.