The strength of the European Union

Jan Store Two years ago, in the summer of 2008, I was making preparations for my move back to Brussels. I made a whistle-stop tour of Helsinki to find out what expectations people would have of me as Permanent Representative of Finland to the European Union. A great deal of useful input was forthcoming, but some advice that has stayed with me more than most was that given by Teija Tiilikainen: always remember the community method. That was one of three pieces of advice given to me by the then Political State Secretary at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

A slightly more distant memory. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen was on a visit to Paris a decade or so ago. As head of European affairs at the foreign ministry, I was a member of his delegation. French President Jacques Chirac extended a warm welcome to Lipponen at the Elysėe Palace. An extremely positive atmosphere prevailed at the talks. We were gearing up for the Constitutional Treaty, and, in line with the position adopted by Finland, Lipponen stressed the importance of having a strong Commission for the Union and especially for its smaller member states.

Chirac moved a little bit closer to Lipponen, thus indicating that an important message was to follow. Indeed, two such messages followed. All the institutions need to be strong, not just the Commission, Chirac said. And what is more, when an ill wind blows – ‘Cher Paavo’ – you will find your closest friends at the European Council. We listen to You, we understand You as politicians, and You can turn to us for help in hard times. Chirac had been a defender of strong institutions and also emphasised the strong links that bind heads of state. And in actual fact there was something of the intergovernmental approach in what he said too.

Having left my meeting with Tiilikainen, I began to think more closely about the community method. Or to be more precise, to refresh my memory about it, since it had indeed been a key guiding principle for Finland since it had joined the EU. I revisited the subject in January of this year, when reminiscing about Finland’s first EU presidency in 1999. The seminar was entitled “Where are you going, EU?” and, fittingly, listening from the front row were my fellow speakers Lipponen and Tiilikainen.

According to the core definition of the community method, the Commission has a monopoly on initiatives. Legislation is produced by two co-legislators that are now equally powerful – the Council and the European Parliament. At the Council, legislation is adopted through decisions taken by qualified majority, while the normal legislative procedure, which was previously known as the codecision procedure, is applied with the Parliament. The Commission has a leading role to play in ensuring that legislation is actually implemented. If disagreements come to light between the institutions as to the interpretation of the Treaty or the proper implementation of legislation, the Court of Justice of the European Union makes a ruling, which is binding on all parties. The definition also covers the idea of balance between the various institutions.

A report by the Finnish government last year on EU policy makes the very same point succinctly: “Finland has a clear vision of how the EU operates: the Union must be based on strong institutions and common rules. In practice, this manifests itself in the community method, the basic idea of which is that issues are dealt with in joint institutions according to a clear set of ground rules.” The report goes on to describe the role of the various institutions in more detail.

Jacques Delors, who was President of the Commission from 1985 to 1995, is considered to be the great augur of the community method. He had a vision of the future of Europe, he established the internal market having pushed through qualified majority voting as the principal form of decision-making, and he advanced the European agenda through his own sense of initiative and determination. His job was doubtless made easier by the fact that he could rely on the unfailing support of two strong leaders, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. Nostalgia is still felt for the days of Delors.

The first term of office of the current President of the Commission, Josė Manuel Barroso, was spent settling twelve new member states into the Union. The way things are done changed, and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, there was a focus on policy-making through small steps and on generating European added value. The Lisbon Strategy proved a let-down and the Constitutional Treaty that had turned into the Lisbon Treaty ran into problems at the stage of national ratification. Furthermore, Barroso had to ensure his own re-election, which in itself led him to adopt a cautious approach to policy.

What is the situation today? How is the community method faring? Two factors have had a decisive influence on the course that events have taken. In autumn 2008 the financial crisis landed in Europe, and since then it has affected us in different ways and taken a heavy toll on Europe. It has required exceptional action to be taken. The other factor is the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. These should not be seen as separate developments.

In the context of the Lisbon Treaty and the financial crisis, the European Council under the leadership of its permanent President, Herman Van Rompuy, has taken the bull by the horns. Many meetings have been held and far-reaching decisions have been taken. Given the negative experience with the Lisbon Strategy, the EU2020 Strategy has been drafted using a top-down approach. The heads of state decide the policy and everybody else implements it. This action is bearing fruit. When a house in on fire, the fire must be put out.

Seen from the perspective of a supporter of the community method, recent events give cause for concern, even though I too agree that when your house is on fire, you need to put the fire out: first things first. I have basically three requests:

  • The heads of state and government, i.e. the European Council, have to keep things firmly under control. Negotiations must be conducted at the European Council and under Van Rompuy's leadership. Bilateral or multilateral negotiations that are held before a meeting or that even delay the start of a meeting do not give all member states an equal opportunity to participate and influence the outcome. The only exception to this is the Eurogroup, which has a specific status and a specific responsibility. The European Council should not start micromanaging the economy or negotiating legislative matters. We have the Council of Ministers for such things.
  • The Commission must reclaim its powerful role. It must show initiative, act in a timely fashion and be bold. In difficult times someone has to lead from the front and even take risks in the face of increasing adversity. The Commission also needs to press ahead when not all member states share its objectives. Such issues can be thrashed out when the time comes to negotiate.
  • The balance between the institutions needs to be redressed. When the Commission takes a tougher line, so too should the Council. At the core of the community method is the notion that the Council and the Parliament should work together to produce effective legislation on the basis of Commission initiatives.

Let us now go a little bit further back in time. Finland’s Accession Treaty was signed at Midsummer in 1994 on the island of Corfu. We became active observers in the preparatory bodies of the Council and even at ministerial meetings. Being active meant not just being present but also having the right to speak and express our opinions. This was a major change. In psychological terms, an even bigger change was learning to see the Commission in a different light. Previously, it had often been a kind of adversary in negotiations and not always easy to influence the views of. Now it had turned into our most important partner and we were able to take a new approach to it without major difficulties.

Against this backdrop, it has been rather baffling to see that such an attitude has not taken root quite so readily in the new member states. The Commission acts in the interests of the Union as a whole and makes sure that all member states are treated fairly. Making life difficult for the Commission for no good reason serves little purpose.

The more of a community we are and the better the community method works, the more easily we can sleep. This means that we have to play according to common ground rules. The rules are what matters and the power conferred on a member state by its size is less of an issue. This is what makes the European Union strong.

Jan Store

Permanent Representative