A New Structure for Political Europe

By Steven Hill, IP Journal (Berlin), July 29, 2013

It is time for Europe to move beyond hypotheticals and start discussing concrete measures promoting further steps in European integration. Author Steven Hill proposes a reorganization.

Much vigorous debate, as well as some initial steps in response to the eurozone crisis, have established groundwork for a more integrated economic and monetary union. But much less discussion has been devoted to how to redesign European-level political institutions, despite widespread unrest over a “democracy gap” at the European level. Clearly, a political reset is the other side of the coin. What might a new Political Europe look like? What structures would cultivate accountability, transparency, inclusion, and effective governance, as well as nurture over time a more cohesive European electorate?

The following proposal outlines a new, two-tiered political structure for both the eurozone and the European Union: first, a more federalized and integrated eurozone based on well-defined political institutions, including a eurozone parliament and chief executive; and second, a more decentralized – but also more streamlined – structure for the European Union, with these two structures co-linked in sensible ways.

Eurozone Governance

One design that would result in a more democratic and effective eurozone would be the establishment of a eurozone parliament with two chambers, upper and lower. One chamber would be directly elected by voters (like the current European Parliament) using a system of proportional representation, with the number of representatives per member state a close reflection of each state’s population. Thus, the more populous member states would have more representatives.

The second chamber would be selected by member state legislatures, as the European Council and Council of Ministers to a degree are now. The number of representatives would be mostly proportional to the population of each member state, but with a few additional representatives granted to lower population states so that they are not easily outvoted by more populous member states. It also would be wise to establish an amendment process allowing the second chamber to evolve over time into direct popular election, especially as a pan-European political consciousness and culture takes root.

This sort of structure would mirror what a young United States of America originally adopted at the federal level, which then evolved over the next two centuries. Granted, the American example is more of an inspiration than a blueprint, due to historical and cultural differences. But initially the US empowered member states’ legislatures as well as individual voters, not only because each member state was sufficiently diverse to have legitimate state-based interests, but also because they needed buy-in from the political elites of each member state.

So while early American voters directly elected the federal House of Representatives, the member states’ legislatures were given the mandate to elect the powerful upper chamber of the Senate. For the next century, both the member states and the elites played a significant role in selecting the political leadership of the federal government. But eventually the US amended its constitutional structures to empower individual voters over the state legislatures (both with popular direct election of US senators and with state legislatures agreeing to abide by each state’s popular vote in selecting presidential electors).

In drafting a more federalized political structure for the eurozone, it would be wise if both a direct popular vote as well as member states’ legislatures were initially empowered in a parliament. German statesman Joschka Fischer and others have proposed such a design.

The lower chamber of this eurozone legislature (the one directly elected by the voters) would then select a prime minister. The prime minister in turn would nominate her or his government cabinet, with one cabinet member from each eurozone member state (similar to the current selection process for the European Commission), to be approved by the upper legislative chamber.

In addition, a largely ceremonial post of president of Europe would be directly elected on a continent-wide basis (similar to what various leaders such as Guy Verhofstadt, Wolfgang Schäuble, Tony Blair, and Radosław Sikorski have expressly supported). And, if ever required at some point down the road, this directly elected president could be invested with more power via the amendment process.

This kind of streamlined structure – a two-chamber parliament that provides direct representation to both voters and eurozone states, empowers an executive branch selected by both types of representatives, and endorses a directly-elected figurehead – would do much to simplify continental governance for eurozone citizens. It would additionally clarify lines of authority, make decision making more efficient and transparent, and increase accountability by better connecting the public with their continental government.

The Reality of Two-Speed Europe

The likeliest scenario is that the eurozone’s approximately 17-member core will be the entity that adopts this sort of federalized structure, as the momentum of monetary union drives the need for a more cohesive and effective political union. This entity would have its own common laws, political institutions, budgetary agreements, banking union, and tax policies. The eurozone states would merge their political economies and bind their destinies together in a way that is irreversible.

This new eurozone-based entity would coexist with a more loosely confederated European Union, composed of the current 28 member states. The EU could retain both its present governance (albeit with the streamlining recommended below) and its degree of confederation while operating under much less pressure to integrate more than its disparate members are willing. And those who want to use the euro currency would be able to forge ahead, not only with fiscal and monetary union, but also with the political institutions that are necessary to regulate a monetary union properly and to maintain democratic legitimacy.

Just as important, this two-tiered structure should be constructed so that individual member states would have the possibility, when sensible, to move from the non-euro EU into the eurozone.

There are historical precedents for such a two-tiered, inside-outside arrangement, such as the 54-nation British Commonwealth (now known as the Commonwealth of Nations), or even the current United Kingdom, where there is a core Great Britain and other “members” (like Northern Ireland) that are more loosely confederated.

Note that this design has to do more with the structure of government and less with the function and specific powers attached to each player within said structure, which requires a separate but parallel conversation. But as we have seen again and again during this eurozone crisis, in which inadequate EU structures have prolonged the crisis and made decision making excruciating, function in many ways follows form. So it’s important to get the structure right first.

Streamlining the EU

The EU also could use some streamlining. There are several institutions and practices that are ripe for a redesign. On a basic level, the EU should employ more originality in naming its offices and institutions. Currently the terms “president” and “council” are frequently overused, with a European Council and a Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers, or simply “the Council”). Outside the EU, there is the Council of Europe. All of them have their own president, as do the European Commission and the European Parliament. With names so similar, few but the most ardent of Europhiles can tell them apart.

The EU is also governed by an odd form of tricameralism (or even quad-cameralism) between the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of Ministers. That’s too many branches, even for a decentralized confederacy. And the Commission being both the executive and the legislation-proposing branches fosters additional confusion and a loss of checks and balances.

Europeans have passed only the first few bends in the road of a decades-long journey to overhaul their key economic and political institutions. It is important to understand that, just like a young America in its Articles of Confederation stage and before its first government in 1789 – which had neither a common currency nor federalized institutions – Europe today is entangled by many contradictions and tensions as it tries to fashion its union and decide how integrated it wants to be. The integration process took decades for Americans to sort out; indeed, those “united” states fought a civil war over not just slavery, but also states’ rights and member states’ sovereignty a full 70 years after its founding. The road toward union is long and winding, because it takes time for people, cultures, and laws to adapt. Europe is a “work in progress,” and it may require a change of a generation or two for a new identity and institutions to form and take root.

Clearly this is a big step, yet at this point it’s also clear that the demands of a monetary union require it. Either that, or abandon the euro. There appear to be no other options. And given the economic rise of population behemoths like China and India that are increasingly assertive in international markets, globalized forces will continue to put great pressure on Europe’s much smaller member states to band together or become less relevant and secure.

The proposal above is meant to inspire discussion and debate, not to be the final word on a very complex subject. Sometimes the best way to instigate debate is to provide something very concrete and simplified that people can react to. If people could see a vision for the future and get used to the idea of a more federalized eurozone alongside a loosely confederated EU, then the public might be more at ease over the integration process. Beyond proposals for enhanced economic governance, isn’t it time for European leaders to begin a parallel debate by putting forward specific ideas for a redesigned Political Europe?

STEVEN HILL (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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