On 14 June 2022, Abraham ‘Boolie’ Yehoshua, an exceptional Israeli novelist and playwright, died in Jerusalem. Yehoshua was more than just a writer. He was, as the eponymous editorial in Haaretz put it, “the man who refused to despair“. There are astonishing parallels between the birth of both the state of Israel and of the EU. Both projects were unthinkable, if not fanciful, only decades before, but both – against all odds – became reality; historical achievements that defied what was thought to be within the realm of the possible.
Both are in heavy water right now. The problems that especially the EU is facing today are structural and could even become existential, threatening the very existence of the union. We need the courage to discuss new ideas, try new models and rework the structure to ensure that Europe will still be playing a role in the future – but then, some of those ideas aren’t even that new.
Take the proverbial Brussels’ all-night meetings, from which bleary-eyed politicians emerge to tout half-hearted compromises into the waiting TV cameras in the wee hours of the morning. It has turned into a running joke over the past few years. Why does it always have to be a 20-week negotiation marathon, culminating in a showdown to get anything done?
However, if you found it hard to bear that Europe seemed incapable of quick decisions, you need to brace yourself for worse. Increasingly, we are not only unable to act in time, these days we witness a shift in attitude and behaviour by some countries that renders Western institutions unable to act at all. We appear to have arrived at a juncture that requires us to take far-reaching decisions. We need to rebalance the freedom of the individual (or nation-state) versus the functioning of the greater whole, not only to ensure a smooth functioning of the EU but to be able to act at all.
Take the sixth sanctions package against Russia. Hungary blocked, prevaricated and vetoed until the end. It blackmailed Europe into granting it an exception from the Russian oil boycott, but Hungary didn’t content itself with keeping the oil flowing through the Druschba pipeline. As if to ram it home to Europeans that unanimity gives disproportional leverage to those who are obstreperous, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto topped Hungarian extortion by demanding a ludicrous €18bn to prepare the Hungarian economy for switching away from Russian oil. No wonder Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, fumed “the whole Union is being held hostage by one member state”.
Poland, comrade-in-arms to Hungary when it comes to its attitude towards the EU, vetoed the passing of the 15% minimum effective tax rate for multinational corporations on 5 April (a compromise proposal that had already been watered down in order to placate Malta and Estonia). This didn’t come as a surprise, as Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish Minister of Justice, had already publicly threatened that Poland would use its “veto on all matters that require unanimity in the EU”, because of Europe`s concerns over the Polish restrictions on the rule of law and the independence of judges.
How can the EU function again?
So what should we do to get out of this impasse? How can we reform Europe to keep it functioning (or keep it alive)?
European treaties know three types of decision-making procedures:
- The simple majority, if more than half of the votes are in favour.
- The so-called qualified majority requiring 55% of the EU member state votes that represent at least 65% of the EU population.
- The unanimous decisions – reserved for ‘sensitive’ topics such as the common foreign and security policy, membership questions, finances, harmonisation of taxation, justice and the harmonisation of social protection – essentially all the decisions that matter within Europe.
If everything that isn’t a technicality requires unanimity, it is hardly surprising that we will never manage to get anything decided.
The argument of course could be made that small countries such as Luxembourg or Latvia have to fear that they are overruled by the large countries, owing to their sheer size, and hence the democratic right of their people is forfeited. However, much as the citizens of Lyon might be overruled in French elections, this is a feature of belonging to a bigger entity in a democracy. If one wants to enjoy the benefits of membership, then the downsides also have to be incurred.
Solving this conflict of interest of the individual versus the whole seems all the more important given Europe’s current situation. Squeezed between the two power blocs of the US and China, countries insisting on prioritising their national interests will lead us straight into a dead end. After all, why should Dutch, German or Austrian taxpayers foot outlandish demands of politicians seeking to prepare their country for an era in which they are denied a supply of Russian gas, when their own countries are having to contend with the same problem, or bow to the vagaries of a government eager to take revenge on Europe for daring to stand up for fundamental values. The more Europe gives in to this, the more such behavioural patterns will be seen to be paying off. With this, we risk nothing short of the very survival of the European project.
Nevertheless, thinking of Yehoshua, we must refuse to despair. We have the responsibility to guard and protect – and thus reform – this incredible historical achievement called the EU. Today’s Europe is the home of a (still) strong democracy, of still-functioning health systems, and openly accessible education and welfare for all; everyone who has ventured beyond its borders will recognise that, for its citizens, it is an eminently liveable place. However, it is also a place that, in the harsh climate of the present day, needs to be defended and protected, much like pluralism and peace these days.
To reform Europe, to make it nimble again, we need to reclassify which decisions ought to be unanimous and which should be decided by a qualified majority. This isn’t even a particularly new idea. Jean-Claude Junker – notably a politician hailing from a small country – suggested as early as 2017 that we need to drop unanimous decisions if Europe wants to maintain its ability to act.
The next few years will be crucial. With geopolitical winds stiffening, we don’t have much time. Changing the structure of Europe is obviously a complex and arduous path, with many interests at stake, but we have reached an impasse where business as usual simply isn’t an option anymore. Each and everyone will have to make up his or her mind about whether defending their own national interests are worth the price of risking the very survival of the tremendous historical achievement Europe undoubtedly is.