Launching a European debate?

by Ferdi De Ville

Thus is the subtitle of the Communication from the European Commission ‘A blueprint for a deep and genuine economic and monetary union’ presented by President Barroso on 28 November. Without the question mark, of course. But I put it there, because it remains to be seen if this long document full with jargon and abbreviations will succeed in launching a public debate on how EMU should be reformed.

It could be considered strange that the Commission has written its own report on the future of EMU when Van Rompuy is doing the same exercise, nota bene in collaboration with Barroso. But this has happened before, as two years ago, when both Van Rompuy and the European Commission made similar proposals regarding economic governance that led to the six pack and the European Semester.

In a 52 page document, the Commission now proposes a radical, detailed and time-framed reform of EMU. Changes leading, inter alia, to a substantial EMU budget, debt mutualisation and strong central powers in economic affairs should be carried through in a sequence. This progression begins with sometimes embryonic steps (e.g. a convergence and competitiveness instrument) that do not necessitate treaty reform to be undertaken in the next 18 months, doing more far-reaching modifications that might involve changes to the treaties between 18 months and five years (e.g. a debt redemption fund), and radical leaps towards a federal union to be taken in more than five years time (e.g. an EMU Treasury Commissioner).

While we don’t know the details of Van Rompuy’s final report that will be discussed at the next European Council Summit on 13th and 14th December, we can point to two notable differences between this Commission roadmap and the interim report of Van Rompuy’s masterplan. First, the European Commission is more ambitious in a number of respects, especially as regards the size of the EU’s budget and on the competences for a future Treasury Commissioner. Second, the Commission is trying to fit the proposed reforms within the European Union framework and under the Community method, not creating eurozone or intergovernmental circuits besides the EU. This is all logical from the perspective of the Commission’s bureaucratic interests, but that will not make its proposals easier for the Member States to suggest.

Many of the reforms proposed are sensible, and the outlined sequence is intelligent. Also, the European Commission dedicates some pages to the interesting question how a genuine economic, monetary and fiscal union could be accompanied by democratic legitimacy and accountability. But the document leaves unanswered the crucial question how enough democratic support for the reforms put forward can be assured. To wait with the more radical steps (that need treaty reform) until the European elections of 2014 is indeed reasonable, but does not guarantee that European citizens have consciously reflected, let alone support, this fundamental reform of how Europe is governed.

The problem is, again, that European citizens know and care little about how economic and monetary union functions. Europeans will not be warmed up for further European integration by hanging up a banner on the European Commission’s buildings that reads ‘Towards a stronger European economic governance’. Citizens do not support the common currency (zone) for its own sake, so it is not sufficient to sell reforms with the argument that it will make EMU governance stronger. It is necessary to explain stronger for what?

An example illustrating the difference between legitimating the proposed reforms by procedural and substantial arguments can be taken from Daniela Schwarzer’s latest blog. She rightly argues that an unemployment benefits scheme at the European level would not only be an ‘automatic stabiliser’ that makes EMU more stable (stronger), but that it would also strengthen the social pillar of the integration project. In the Commission Communication, only the first (purely economic-functional) rationale is mentioned.
Overall, there is no intention in the Communication to, next to completing financial, economic, fiscal and political union, also finally establish a genuine social Union. While, following Jacques Delors’ triptych “Competition that stimulates, cooperation that strengthens, and solidarity that unites”, real integration in social protection could be a vision that rallies European citizens. Now, the focus is –again– predominantly on cooperation that strengthens the governance of EMU through disciplining Member States.

Dr Ferdi De Ville is assistant professor at the Centre for EU Studies, Department of Political Science, Ghent University where he teaches and writes on economic and monetary union and the euro crisis.