Rethinking Europe

Toward a Europe of the Regions?

The crisis in Catalonia and the European Union’s options?

Credit: Nicolas Raymond www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • The unanimous support by the Heads of State and Government for Spain’s Prime Minister was highly predictable.
  • Should the EU remain totally passive when social disorder threatens to erupt within one of its Members?
  • Evaluating the respective merits of a supra-national (federal) Union versus an intergovernmental (confederal) one has become essential.
  • It is paramount that partisans of a “Europe of Regions” should not let themselves be absorbed by the nationalistic Eurosceptic crowd.

The unanimous support by the Heads of State and Government for Spain’s Prime Minister, expressed by their refusal to interfere in the battle between his government and Catalonia’s, was highly predictable.

Indeed, neither the Union nor its Members can easily intervene, in a conflict concerning the application of a country’s constitution, without risking to create a dangerous precedent.

The caution shown by the Union reflects the fact that the controversy is unrelated to Spain’s compliance with its “European” undertakings; the situation is therefore not comparable with the procedures initiated by the Commission against Poland and Hungary which fall within its remit as “Guardian of the Treaties.”

This position, in which the “legal” argument overrides any “political” consideration, satisfies all the Members of the European Council, alleviating their fears that similar claims emerge, whether in Flanders, northern Italy or elsewhere; they would, if successful, constitute markers on the path of the ultimate disintegration of the EU.

Preference for inter-governmentalism

The Council’s unanimity expressed last week is also – unsurprisingly – a reaffirmation of its member’s visceral preference for inter-governmentalism. Such a posture contradicts implicitly — and thus weakens significantly — the pertinence of elements of the reform agenda put forward recently by President Macron, as well as the political will expressed by those who welcomed it.

The automatic exclusion of separatist entities from the EU and the need of a unanimous vote to secure their readmission, constitute serious obstacles to achieving a negotiated settlement.

This becomes even harder when, as in Catalonia, the Region belongs to the Eurozone: Indeed, in addition to the difficulties created by leaving the Union, as is being demonstrated by the laborious Brexit negotiations, jeopardizing the currency increases significantly the uncertainties and the risks as perceived by citizens.

This gives a strong incentive to the “national” government (as currently in Spain) to remain inflexible when challenged.

Should the EU remain passive?

Nevertheless, should the EU remain totally passive when social disorder threatens to erupt within one of its Members? There should be no question of intervening in the (legal) measures that the Spanish government envisages to enforce the rule of law within its territory.

On the other hand, any devolution of powers by Members to subordinate regional entities is liable to interfere with a member’s European commitments and as such should be subject to EU scrutiny.

When Belgium’s sixth constitutional Reform devolved powers unilaterally to its federated entities without consulting its EU partners, serious problems arose subsequently in securing the ratification to the Free Trade Agreement with Canada.

Considering that questions concerning the independence (or at least a greater degree of autonomy) of entities are presently relevant within several Member States, would it not be appropriate to consider these concerns within the broader framework of the reform process that the Union is about to embark on?

Evaluating with no taboos the respective merits of a supra-national (federal) Union versus an intergovernmental (confederal) one has become essential and should not be further delayed.

The challenge to the current institutional architecture of the Union, as expressed by different regionalist and nationalist movements, creates the perfect opportunity to consider the relevance of an “alternative Europe,” closer to its citizens, that so many are yearning for.

A Europe of the regions

One interesting option would be to revive the concept of a “Europe of the Regions.” Regions would enjoy a large degree of autonomy, allowing them to take full account of their cultural particularisms while respecting the principles of subsidiarity.

In parallel, the Union would assume its truly “federal” character, having been recognized as the only entity capable of delivering, within a globalized world, a satisfactory level of living standards, of security and of protection for the values shared by a majority of its citizens.

This division of competencies must also be reflected in the financing of the actions undertaken at each level. The federal budget should cover the areas of defense, foreign affairs, external border controls, economic and financial policies, the management of the single market, “federal” judiciary, police and intelligence systems, etc., relieving the burden on regional budgets commensurately.

Economies of scale combined with the suppression of large tracts of “national” administrations, should free significant financial resources which – at an unchanged overall level of taxation – should allow both increased efficiency and the implementation of a “transfer mechanism,” true expression of an indispensable transregional solidarity.

The main obstacles

One should recognize that the main obstacle to such a vision does not always stem from an objective assessment of the respective merits of a supra- or inter-governmental institutional framework but rather from the fear of the removal of a large number of entrenched prerogatives and powers exercised by civil servants and political appointees at national level whose preoccupations are often far removed from those of the majority of citizens.

It is also paramount that partisans of a “Europe of Regions,” who aim to benefit from a high degree of autonomy while remaining within the EU fold, should not let themselves be diverted or absorbed by the nationalistic Eurosceptic crowd.

The latter are advocating an egotistical inward-looking program, leading ultimately to the dismembering of the European construction. Their alliance (as is the case presently in Catalonia) is highly dangerous as it can create the illusion of a majority able to impose “democratically” its views, with potential catastrophic effects for ourselves and our children.

Though an intransigent position, aimed at making sure that the rule of law is respected throughout the Union, must be conveyed by all Member States, it should be accompanied by support for instituting a Union-wide dialogue with the broadest agenda as well as the largest possible citizen’s participation (as suggested by President Macron).

It should be closely monitored by the European Council (as proposed by President Tusk), with input from the Commission and the European Parliament.

Europe’s future

The complexity of the subject and the pursuit of objectives, that at times appear incompatible, make it very difficult to have a good understanding as well as a comprehensive overview of the challenges of shaping Europe’s future.

Citizens can then be easily tempted, as was the case with Brexit, to adhere to simplistic and misleading proposals liable to make them victims rather than beneficiaries.

More than ever, a pedagogical effort, explaining the Union’s important achievements, as well as the huge potential it continues to represent within a globalized, fast changing and polarised world, should be at the centre of the debate concerning our future.

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About Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt is former Director, EU Commission and Member of the Advisory Board of Stand Up for Europe.

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