Wednesday 29 September 2010

Onward, Community Soldiers

The Community method must be saved, cry the Community warriors. The European Council seems to be encroaching on Community territory: crisis after crisis has been dealt with by intergovernmental deal-making and policy taskforces set up by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. The Lisbon Treaty had increased the powers of the European Parliament to set it on par with the Council as a co-legislator in the vast majority of policy areas, yet the Community method - where the Commission proposes and the Council and Parliament legislate and decide - seems to be threatened enough to elicit pledges of support from the Liberal and Social Democratic leaders in the EP to Commission action that takes on intergovernmentalism. Though the Commission has struck back against France over the Roma - an important and welcome development - the Commission doesn't seem to have the same leading role as it had 20 years ago.

There is no Community any more, of course. The Lisbon Treaty did away with the old pillar structure of the EU, so now there's just the Union (though the residue of the internal divisions of the pillar structure still remain within the Union).

Grahnlaw has written about the Community method and the European Council under Van Rompuy. Stanley has welcomed Van Rompuy's style of leadership, with his attempts to try and involve heads of state and government in the EU more (proposing more frequent meetings, for example), so that they take more ownership of the EU and European policies.

On the surface, involving European leaders more in the European Union is a good idea, but the embrace of this method of integration seems to be an optimistic attempt of integration through socalisation of the European leadership. It's important that there's solidarity in Europe, but I cannot see being extended by monthly meetings by the European Council. Member States show solidarity out of community spirit, but also because belonging to the same Union has brought similar interests. Intergovernmentalism is a necessary part of the EU, but the European Council is a bandage for crises, and should be restricted in its role.

The increase in power of the European Council in comparison to the Commission also weakens the EP. If part of the role of the EP is to scrutinise the executive, by taking over the responsibilities of the Commission in setting policy, the European Council renders the EU less transparent and accountable. It is also bad for most Member States. Supranationalism - the Community method - is a good check on the big Member States. When diplomacy, intergovernmentalism and vetos (whether formal or informal) are strong features of the system, the big 3 can dominate, since it's easy to steamroller small objecting states, and when there's a Member State consensus, the EP may be faced with a fait accompli. In comparison, QMV, though voting is weighted according to population size, levels the playing field by making big states more open to conpromise because of the need for coalition building, and the Parliament, though it may encounter consensus in the Council under QMV, is not faced with a fait accompli from on high and may not be as inhibited in the legislative process.

The "Community method" is key to the (more) transparent, open and more democratic decision-making of the EU. It also has a longer-term quality to it as decisions do not have to take place within the pressured short-termist deal-making of a summit. As I have written before, the importance of the supranationalist elements of the EU is not just based on the enthusaism of federalists, but is a key part of the good will in, and the smooth running of, the intergovernmental side.

So I think that there's a need to defend the "Community method". There is a new group set up earlier this month by MEPs to do so: the Spinelli Group. It is a very federalist group, and I am torn over it. On one hand, it is important that the Community method is not circumvented by a domineering European Council. On the other hand, the group seems to be a new form of the "European Alliance" that Verhofstadt has called for before, and which I strongly reject. The Community method and the EP will be well served by strengthening the coherence and political will of the Europarties and developing a clear, visible politics for the citizen. Member State pacts cannot be successfully countered in the loong run by cosy consensuses in the Parliament. If the Spinelli Group focused on defending Parliament and strengthening the Europarties, then it would be more relevant and attractive than a federalist's club.

[As for Grahnlaw's question of how the Community method and the EU's way of operating should be termed now, perhaps the "Union method" could be used in the same manner as the "Community method". Perhaps opposed to the "Council method" or "Special method"? Although that's only my suggestion to the cosmetic part of the question...]

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