The initially considered as heretic idea of UK's Prime Minister David Cameron for a reform of the EU is expanding with such a speed that it catches many of the European institutions and citizens completely offguard. The London call is being joined by voices from Berlin, Stockholm or Amsterdam. In the autumn, the European Commission tried to ease the drive for a change because this would mean putting the Union in another decade of internal complacency while the outside world will continue to spin with a dynamic the EU will be unable to follow as a Union. In the beginning of October, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said precisely this: "What is difficult, or even impossible, is if we go for the exercise of repatriation of competences because that means revising the treaties and revision means unanimity. From my experience of 10 years, I don't believe it will work".
During his second term in office, Jose Manuel Barroso played the role of the biggest driver of the deepening of European integration, inspired by the flaws the eurozone debt crisis revealed. In 2012, Barroso came up with a vision of his own about the future of the euro area (Economic and Monetary Union) and was among the people who preached a political union. In spite of all that, however, in his annual state of the union address Barroso moved into reverse his ambitions for deepening of the European integration saying that not everything needed a European level. "Not everything needs a solution at European level. Europe must focus on where it can add most value. Where this is not the case, it should not meddle", Mr Barroso noted in Strasbourg.
The reason why the Commission pulled the parking brake is the gaining speed and volume populist and eurosceptic forces in Europe. And if even a few months ago Commission members prophesied Barroso's vision of a new EU that includes a political union, since the autumn they have been singing a new mantra. In an interview with the German daily Tagesschau Michel Barnier, the internal market commissioner, said the eurosceptic arguments had to be taken seriously. "These populist movements have some arguments we have to take seriously, such as that there is too much bureaucracy and too much Brussels in general. Over the coming years we need a debate about this. We need to see what we can do less in Brussels and what can be done simpler".
Alas, the gin has been let out of the bottle. Some of the most influential member states are in the offensive and wish a renegotiation, reforms and, all in all, a change, forcing the Commission to excuse itself which has led to an unprecedentedly blunt tone in Barroso's address in September before the MEPs, when he explained the EU was not to blame, but the member states. The European voice, however, is much weaker in the member states and that can clearly be seen in the reactions on local level. In the autumn, in a letter to German MPs, quoted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German association of family business called for "a fundamental re-calibration of the EU Treaties" that should include also the return of some competences back to the member states. The letter points out that "the future of Europe cannot be jeopardised through the progressive pooling of debts with foreseeable cuts to the German budget or the disempowerment of national parliaments in favour of centralisation in Brussels".
In a special article, again with the British The Daily Telegraph, Barroso said the Commission was determined to address all those concerns. He presented the REFIT programme the purpose of which is to review the European legislation and to propose which procedures can be simplified to make the legislation lighter and cheaper. In that article of his, he pointed out that not everything needed to be done in Brussels. It seems, though, that less and less people believe in this. In an article for The Financial Times Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans proposed in the next five years a manifesto to be negotiated for Europe's governance. That manifest should be the foundation of the work of the next Commission and Parliament. Timmermans said, however, reforms need to be in the framework of the existing treaties and to avoid entering in the long and exhausting process of treaty change.
One of the parties in the ruling coalition of Germany, the Christian-Social Union (CSU), also joined the campaign with an internal document quoted by Der Spiegel, where they, too, insist on specific reforms of the EU among which, again, the main one is a return of powers. Not only that, but in the CSU document is proposed the establishment of a court that will monitor when it is necessary Brussels to intervene and when not. All this creates huge tensions within the Union and the European elections will not be a sufficient valve to ease the pressure.
Two years ago I wrote that the EU needed a new goal because the romanticism from the unification of the continent has been depleted. More than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and the enlargement of the Union toward countries from the former communist block, the situation in the EU is, to put it mildly, divergent. EU is a medley of 28 countries with a different level of economic, political and social development. Their economic traditions are different as well as their perceptions of the fundamental European values like democracy, rule of law and human rights. In the entire enlargement process the EU applied the same criteria. Something that proved harmful in the approach toward solving the debt crisis in the euro area. 'One size fits all' proved to be a formula that made a sad work out of it.
The same is the situation with enlargement. The EU's transformative powers are fading and disappear with membership. Cries, some quite hysterical, are heard from various parts of the Union against the inflow of migrants from the poorer parts of the Union. Just like there was hysteria on whether the defaulting eurozone countries should be helped with Greece on top of the list. An environment of intolerance is being created against those who are slower in the European integration. Not only this, but there are no mechanisms to make the laggards go faster and pursue results. I am completely convinced that if Bulgaria, for instance, had made a radical transition from dictatorship to democracy, at least in terms of national consensus that includes burying the past, an overall legal and institutional transformation, today it would not have been among the poorest losers in the EU. Therefore, its citizens would not have been perceived as such a big threat for the welfare systems of the rich countries.
However, as Vice President Viviane Reding acknowledged, after the accession there are not many mechanisms to demand reforms. That is why, currently, Bulgaria is a burden for the EU. Greece, too. Its presidency, that started on January 1st, will pass under the star of a new deal for a debt haircut. A never-ending story that will continue to feed the populists who are asking how long will the financial assistance for Greece continue. That is why it is necessary a new deal on Europe to be concluded and that deal definitely cannot pass without changes to the treaties now or at a later stage. Something Barroso asked for a year ago in his annual address.
Now or never
The European elections will not cover the entire range of topics that we need to renegotiate. Moreover, the European political parties are not capable of responding to the growing need of reforms. They are paralysed by the terror of a forthcoming defeat by eurosceptic parties and do not see beyond their own survival. This was clearly seen in Martin Schulz's interview, the European Parliament chief, who is also a candidate for European Commission president. For the British The Guardian he points out that instead of demanding a return of powers from Brussels it is necessary to discuss "re-delegation of duties". In his words, the Commission is too big and has tried to do too much. Nonetheless, Schulz is of the opinion that David Cameron's desire for reforms is a wishful thinking.
To believe that Cameron's desire is a wishful thinking is, at best, an underestimation of the situation. For months the EU reform has been the only issue in the British public domain and it is obvious that the United Kingdom will not cease until it has received what it wanted. The problem is, though, that what these British efforts will achieve, if they do not receive an appropriate European response, is to break the Union apart without any concern about the consequences. Cameron has for two years used the peremptory rhetoric when talking to his European partners and his battle with the UKIP for the hearts and minds of the voters will only make the situation worse.
Equality among unequals?
One of the key problems, stemming from the fast expansion of the Union in the past 10-15 years has been that this process happened on the basis of presuming that all are equal. This means that countries with serious problems with the rule of law, for example, or with public finances management are treated as equals to others who manifest excellency on each of the criteria for European integration and apply the European values at every step, by even fighting to expand them and update them. This, quite logically, raises the issue of whether treating all EU members as equals is a good basis for solving problems. Let's take the example of Bulgaria's attitude to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) in the area of justice and home affairs.
On January 13, Kristian Vigenin, the Bulgarian foreign minister, said that "the introduction of a common mechanism for all member states [on the rule of law], although not so detailed, is a more adequate solution because then it can be seen where each country stands in the EU. Because, currently, the focus is only on Bulgaria and Romania. Not all countries are so perfect to assess only us, drawing the attention not to themselves but to someone else". The member states do not like to be told what their mistakes are with a tough tone. Such is the Perkovic case as well, in Croatia, where the prime minister and some media commentators never miss to note what is the European Commission's fundamental role. That is to ensure that the European legislation is applied. Some of Ms Reding's reactions on the Perkovic case are perceived in Croatia as excessive and going much beyond the role of a commissioner.
Such an attitude gives sufficient grounds not to solve the problems but to send the ball back to the Brussels's playground. And if the European Parliament and the Commission often criticise and demand a solution to problems, in the Council these things are not discussed. For me it would be much better if there was a kind of a friendly court in the Council when a prime minister or a minister infringed the common norms. Instead, each member state is pursuing its own agenda and is seeking the support of allies. Often the price is closing the eyes for problems, like the return of totalitarianism in Hungary and Bulgaria. This also leads exposing the others to risk when recommendations are not applied, as is the France's case, which refuses to accept the recommendations under the European semester. The semester is one of the biggest achievements in the past years as a response to the crisis and has been agreed by all member states and the European institutions.
However, applying it when convenient again puts at risk the integrity of the eurozone and the EU at large. The lack of unity in the vision how to move forward leads to everyone pulling the rug towards themselves. In Bulgaria, if any discussion at all takes place it is not about how to complete the delayed reforms and to fulfil the accession criteria. It is about more Europe and more EU funds. On the occasion of the Greek EU Presidency, Kristian Vigenin, the foreign minister, said that Bulgaria "will work for more Europe, better Europe, and more converged Europe". However, for Bulgaria the most important thing is the flow of EU funds not to cease. For Croatia it is important not to be told from the outside to cut spending and to do reforms because there are other countries that do whatever they want.
With each delay of the conversation in an a little bit more binding format like, for instance, a convent, the problems are practically being swept under the carpet. In the first decade of the 21st century, the EU decided not to have a constitution because it got scared by its name. It is time to again talk about a constitution that is capable of ensuring that what is agreed at European level will be applied and that national interests will not threaten the common future. A constitution that will ensure that the younger members that have still not tackled the remnants of a dictatorship will not be discriminated and will not be left unreforming. A constitution that will ensure that some more influential countries in the EU will not abuse their power to circumvent the European legislation through intergovernmental arrangements.
A constitution that will require a commitment for deepening of the European integration when the appropriate conditions are available, without however allowing a deliberate lack of the right conditions. Such is the case with the euro area enlargement. Many EU member states, who are obliged in their treaties to join the common currency "when ready", postpone their membership by consciously maintaining themselves in a condition "not ready". This should change now. Later will be too late and the price will be too high. In 2012, the EU got the Nobel Peace Prize because the peace on the continent was the only motive for unification of the continent. If the present moment to find a new goal and for deep reforms is missed, I'm afraid the Nobel Peace Prize will prove undeserved. Moreover, this could send the continent back to the times of hostility.