Thursday, 25 March 2021 11:50

A dozy dozen

The EU needs democratic rebalancing. Veto powers have given the EU multiple Achilles heels that have been exploited by the likes of China, Russia and Silicon Valley. But the signals coming ahead of the Conference on the Future of Europe are not promising, writes Sophie in ‘t Veld.

A dozen EU member states have pre-emptively signalled that they are not willing to go along with any structural reform that may come out of the Conference on the Future of Europe, without even knowing what those reforms might entail or how far-reaching they will be.

They seem to be under the assumption that any reform that makes the EU easier to govern and more democratic, will come at a cost to their significant privileges as veto-wielding smaller member states.

These twelve member states, representing about 68 out of 450 million Europeans, may be correct in their analysis, but they are not right. The EU has not experienced any meaningful political integration since 2007. It has stood still, as the world rushed by.

Keeping it that way will be a mistake. There are many fault lines within Europe. The one between small and large member states should not be one of them. If the EU-27 fail to once again pool sovereignty in a significant way, the outside world will come crashing in. Swallowing the little ones first.

Where to start? The EU needs democratic rebalancing. It’s downright undemocratic that the entire EU can be paralysed by minorities as small as a fraction of one percent of the EU’s population. Veto powers have given the EU multiple Achilles heels that have been exploited by the likes of China, Russia and Silicon Valley.

A more persistent problem than the eye-catching vetoes, however, is the concentration of power within the European Council. This is also something that the twelve want to preserve.

The Council, this most dysfunctional of the EU’s institutions, is where Europe’s national leaders convene. It has been in permanent crisis for over a decade now, unable to resolve the migration crisis nor the Covid-19 crisis.

It is unwilling to protect the rights of Polish and Hungarian citizens from their respective governments, and blind to the need for better economic integration. This dysfunctionality has captured the entire EU. No conference will ever be a silver bullet to this problem, but keeping things the way they are today is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

This failure is already in progress. The problems that are piling on the EU’s squeaking and creaking structures far outweigh the gains that the twelve think they get from their power to do nothing. The Netherlands, in particular, with its huge open economy, should not belong in this group of obstinate countries. It is a stupefying example of short-sightedness.

The Dutch government has struck down repeated invitations to sit at the grown-ups’ table, but it is about time it takes a seat there. What makes the Dutch government think that it can just sulk in a corner?

The answer is that the Netherlands has been taking a geopolitical nap for some decades now. Comfortably cocooned between the great powers of Europe and completely fine with leaving the dirty work on the international stage to Berlin, London, Paris and even Washington D.C.

That vacation is over. The dozy dozen, if you will, have to wake up to the geopolitical reality that Europe is in a vulnerable position. Rejecting reforms that give the EU a fighting chance is a dead-end.

China is picking off member states from the larger EU flock through modest investments in their economies. American companies have so much sway over certain member states that those governments refuse to take the taxes they’re owed.

Russia has decided it will play vaccine hardball, even during a pandemic. Only when these outside powers have to deal with the European Commission on trade, are the tables turned. Europe knows how to get outcomes that are bigger than the sum of its parts.

It has been a shining example of cooperation and integration replacing conflict and alienation. The time when national leaders instinctively understood that this was thanks to strong European institutions has to return. Let’s start with the Netherlands, as one of the grown-ups in the room.