Why is it that the EU sometimes has problems moving forward?

With the European Parliament elections ahead, CESI has been receiving an increasing number of questions from members as to why things sometimes cannot “move forward” a little faster in the EU. A commentary by CESI Secretary General Klaus Heeger and Policy Adviser Hendrik Meerkamp to explain what the “EU” really is and who is responsible for decision-making (or the absence of decision-taking).

At the end of the day, who makes decisions in “the EU”?

If things aren’t “moving forward” in Europe, this is often not the fault of “Brussels”: indeed, it is frequently the result of the unanimity rule that applies to some political fields as per EU treaties, and which was jointly decided upon by the governments of the Member States some time ago. In such cases, if one single Member State decides not to go along with the others’ opinion, decisions are blocked. An example thereof is migration policy: European solutions often fall prey to egotistical choices. Even in tax policy (e.g. the taxation of digital multinationals and the financial transaction tax) or important elements of social policy are subject to the unanimity rule.

In confidence, Commission staff and MEPs have repeatedly told us how frustrated they are when solutions are rejected in the Council due to the decisions of a single or a handful of governments.

Towards more majority votes

This is why we urge Member States to transition towards the majority vote principle in areas such as taxation or social policy too, as opposed to applying the unanimity rule. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly allows for this. In that case, individual Member States would not be able to block important decisions at the expense of others. It is important to expressly highlight that this has nothing to do with the transfer of new competences to the EU. The idea is to enable the EU to make more efficient use of its existing competences.

National governments as a hinderance to Europe

Please note that this would not automatically enable our trade unions’ hopes to become reality. We have often witnessed situations in which ambitious Commission proposals supported by CESI have fallen through or have been watered down due to a lack of unanimity at the Council. Amongst others, during this legislative period, this has affected the revision of the Posted Workers Directive and new directives for an improved work-life balance for parents and for minimum standards for transparent and dependable working conditions. A proposal for a recast EU Maternal Leave Directive was simply ignored, until the Commission withdrew its proposal in frustration.

As a result, we must defend “the EU”. In many areas, admirably, the European Commission and the European Parliament have tried to design a more social Europe. So instead of placing all the responsibility on the EU, we should consider the responsibility of government representatives from Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, as well as from Paris, Rome and Berlin.

Torn between ambition and lack of initiative

On the other hand, CESI is also disappointed that the European Commission stands in the way of a more social Europe on other fronts. The “new start” for social dialogue in Europe which was announced after the last European elections has been a failure. Calls to Member States to encourage greater investment to pour more money into education, healthcare systems and public administrations and remedy investment shortfalls have been largely unsuccessful.

And our demand for the completion of economic and financial policies of the open European Single Market with its four fundamental freedoms (free movement of goods, people, services, capital and payments) by a true social dimension, in order to fight the loopholes permitting abusive working and employment conditions, is only gradually beginning to receive concrete attention now.

Like before, we are fighting plans for the increasingly greater liberalisation in the post and transport sectors, while the Commission is finding it hard to create improved regulations for exceptions in the public sector concerning competition and state aid rules. Sometimes, less Europe can represent more Europe too.

If one thinks about the past discussions on refugee quotas or debt thresholds under the Stability and Growth Pact, one can also blame the European Commission for its attempts to resolve the issues at hand without applying the necessary political finesse and for trying to implement purely “administrative” solutions. Communication can have a social component too.

In any case, a differentiated approach to Brussels’ day-to-day politics is required in order to determine who can be held responsible for what.

Picture: Klaus Heeger, Hendrik Meerkamp © CESI 2019