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Institutional Change

Institutions and institutional change have been necessary to the functioning of the EU since the outset in the 1950’s. Without those institutions the original common market could not have been achieved. And without changes to these institutions the creation of the single market we now have, which brings massive benefits to Europe’s citizens, would not have been possible; nor would the successive rounds of enlargement which have taken Europe from six to twenty seven members and helped to anchor democracy and free markets all over central, eastern and southern Europe; nor would a common foreign and security policy which underpins the fragile security of the Balkans; nor would a single currency in the thirteen members of the Eurozone.

But, ironically, institutions and institutional change have also been at the heart of many of the problems the European Union has had and of several of its most serious setbacks. This was true in the 1960’s when an institutional crisis almost shipwrecked the Community in its infancy; and it is true now with the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by the referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. Why should this be so? Firstly because European governments and the leaders of European institutions have done a poor job of explaining to their peoples the relevance of institutions and institutional change to the achievement of the broad objectives of peace and prosperity to which everyone subscribes; and they have done an even worse job of explaining the work of those institutions in a comprehensible and politically appealing manner. But secondly because there has been an unresolved tension between those who pursue institutional change as part of a grand design to create some sort of a federal Europe and those who accept institutional change where it is functionally necessary to achieve agreed policy objectives but who do not subscribe to those grand designs.

But does that mean that the European Union has reached the end of the road on institutional change? No. International institutions, like national institutions, which lack the capacity for adaptation and change, for introducing new methods and new processes for dealing with new situations and challenges, are doomed. And so far the European Union has been successful at overcoming crises, even acute institutional ones, and moving ahead with new policies which genuinely benefit all its citizens.

So do we need to go back now to square one? Again the answer must be no. Many of the innovations in the Constitutional Treaty were genuinely valuable and were based on real, functional needs. That was surely true of moving away from the present system of rotating six month presidencies which would only come round every thirteen years or so; of unifying and strengthening the Union’s machinery for dealing with foreign policy issues and giving the person at its head an enhanced role and status; of having a real subsidiarity check on new legislation so that what could be done better at national or regional level was not subjected to "one size fits all" rules; of having a longer term chair of the European Council who could provide a better focus for that body’s deliberations; of having as much majority voting as possible without trespassing on such no-go areas as tax, financial resources and the admission of new members; of having a weighting of qualified majority votes which is better balanced between population and national minima, giving the larger Member States greater influence than at present.

It is a lot less easy to defend the use of the word constitution for what was not in fact a constitution at all; or the attempt to re-package the non-legally binding charter of human rights in a Union where all are in any case bound by the Council of Europe’s Convention; or the consolidating third part of the treaty which was largely a re-hash of existing Union policies.

No doubt there will be some lively disagreements over how precisely to cut a new institutional cake, about what should be in and what should be out. The future size of the Commission and the need to avoid any further fragmentation of too many and too small portfolios is likely to be particularly difficult. Some MEPs will want to further enhance the powers of the European Parliament. There will be those who will argue that without a further extension of QMV it will be impossible for a Union of over 27 states to reach agreement in important areas of policy. The best way forward must be to adopt an evolutionary approach and to concentrate on changes where a clear functional need can be demonstrated and accepted by all. Political leaders will have to do a better job in explaining why change is necessary to their electorates; they will find this easier if they can show that institutional change reflects real need rather than the pursuit of visionary ideals.

There will remain the vexed question of the method of ratification. That will have to remain a matter for each Member State. Some will be required by their constitutions to hold referendums. Others may choose to do so. There is nothing inherently more democratic about approval by referendum than approval by parliament. Are we seriously suggesting that Germany which has set its face firmly against referendums and which approved the Constitutional Treaty by a massive vote in parliament was not acting democratically?

How will all this fit in with everything else the European Union will need to do in the years ahead? The EU must respond to climate change, to continuing world trade liberalisation, keep its door open to new members, rise to the challenge of globalisation, cope with illegal immigration and deal with several difficult foreign and security policy problems. The answer has to be that institutional change must support that wider agenda and not drive it. A refusal to contemplate any institutional change will damage those other policies and perhaps frustrate them entirely. But so will an excessive concentration on institutional change for its own sake and a failure to address the policy issues which directly affect people’s everyday lives. It should be possible to steer a course between those two extremes and to do so in a way which increases public support for a Union whose future success is essential to all of us.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

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