Saturday 27 June 2009

Open Europe's EU reform

Open Europe lobbies actively on European issues through critical comment, a daily press summary highlighting almost every derogatory news item available, media appearances, op-ed articles and participation in events.

The torrent of negative comment raised my interest to find out what Open Europe is lobbying for, in other words what the “reformed” European Union would look like.

I found a web document called Our vision. When I asked, Open Europe admitted that they do not have one document that sets out their reform agenda in one place. However, for specific reform proposals they recommended Chapter 5 of their publication Out of control? Measuring a decade of EU regulation and The European Parliament – What does it do and how does it affect your everyday life?



Every member state has signed up to the aim of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. This aim is the first one stated in the preamble of the Treaty establishing the European Community (since the Treaty of Rome, 1957, EEC Treaty). Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union sets out that the establishment of the EU marks a new step in the process of creating this closer union among the peoples of Europe.

The process and the direction are clear, but the treaties do not spell out the speed or the ultimate goals (finalité) of European integration.

Since I am primarily interested in the overall vision of Open Europe, Our vision remains the main source for assessing their alternative vision. For systematic reasons, I will choose the order of the issues and the comments.

Main aim

By calling for a flexible European Union, based on voluntary cooperation, Open Europe rejects the basic aim of the treaties, at least for the United Kingdom.

It looks hard to reconcile a repudiation of an organisation’s main aims with continued membership. The logical option would be for Britain to withdraw from the European Union.

Practical alternatives


Open Europe sees that the current process of integration leads to failure, deadlock and crisis. The UK (and other member states) could seek a looser relationship with the centre - for example replacing their current mode of membership by free trade and single market agreements with the other member states.

Logically, the “looser relationship” would mean secession.

This option would be clear-cut, with participation in the single market through international agreements with the European Union (member states). The models already exist.

Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway together with the 27 EU member states form the European Economic Area (EEA), which allows them access to the internal market as well as the option to participate in EU programmes of choice. (In addition, they are part of the Schengen area of free travel and common controls at the external borders.)

Then there is the Swiss model, marginally more independent. Switzerland concludes bilateral agreements with the European Union (including Schengen).

The drawback of both models is that the outsiders can mainly accept (or reject) what the European Union has cooked up. They can influence outcomes through consultation and lobbying, but they are not present when the EU institutions reach the internal outcomes.

In my opinion, Open Europe needs to do much more to indicate the course of action to take and to assess the consequences if Britain withdraws from the European Union, which would be the logical option considering its rejection of the basic treaty aims.

Dismantled EU

Open Europe’s other option is that the EU as a whole could be restructured to accommodate different members’ conflicting interests.

Apart from a minimum core of common rules, participation in EU policies should be voluntary. The less integrationist member states should not stop groups of other countries from pursuing deeper integration among themselves within the EU framework.

Countries would be allowed to opt in or out of: the common foreign and security policy; border control; justice and home affairs legislation; the CAP and CFP; cross-Europe emissions trading; external aid and other EU spending policies (e.g. on research). It would also mean allowing member states to take back control of regional aid and to repeal some legislation which is currently tacked inappropriately onto the internal market (like the Working Time Directive).

In my view, Open Europe’s view of the future European Union is incompatible with the aim to achieve ever closer union, under the existing treaties, as expressed by the timid reforms in the Treaty of Lisbon and especially with regard to the global challenges of the 21st century. Beyond the Lisbon Treaty, a unified foreign and security policy, including a future common defence, are prerequisites for Europe as an influential actor on the global stage. Effective powers require democratic government at EU level. Economic policy, resources (taxation) and some internal policies need to be strengthened.

But Open Europe’s vision of the dismantled European Union à-la-carte has one redeeming feature, worth further study.

Open Europe recognises that less integrationist countries should not stop (groups of) other countries from pursuing deeper integration within the EU framework. It does, however, raise a number of questions, which need to be addressed.

The European Union is based on international treaties, concluded between the member states, subject to unanimous agreement and ratification by all member states. The powers (competences) of the EU are laid down in these treaties, in some detail.

The enlarged European Union is almost impossible to reform, as shown by the painful road since the Nice summit in December 2000. The proposed reforms (Lisbon Treaty) are at the level of the least reform-minded countries.

Open Europe’s principles of unhindered progress and voluntary participation require new ground rules. In the near future, as long as intergovernmental conferences (with or without conventions) agree on treaty reform, a qualified majority of member states should be allowed to progress, as long as the minority is allowed to opt out of the policy area and future implementation.

It is hard to believe that anti-integrationist countries would abide by a promise to let the majority progress, or that future treaties would be ratified by all member states. Therefore, the European Union would have to agree on coming treaties entering into force among the ratifying states.

It is more natural that the minority opts out, than that the majority is forced to establish special procedures among itself, such as enhanced or permanent structured cooperation. The participating countries would constitute the Council with regard to each policy area. Governance would be messy, but somehow possible.

The supranational institutions of the European Union would, however, give rise to more serious questions. Should the MEPs of the opting-out nations be allowed to legislate on all matters, if their states of origin are exempt from duties pertaining to important policy areas? Should the fringe nations be given the same weight in the Commission, the Court of Justice, the consultative bodies and agencies?

On the other hand, after massive opt-outs some member states would be quick to demand lower contributions to the EU budget.

Open Europe needs to look closer at the implications of a European Union à-la-carte, if it wants to present it as a credible alternative.

Long term, the EU treaties need to be replaced by a basic law, which can be amended at EU level, by democratically legitimate institutions, by qualified majorities. How does Open Europe envision the situation of fringe countries in this context?


Open Europe has been consistently long on critique, but short on constructive proposals. It is high time to set out the alternatives for the United Kingdom (and perhaps some other member states) in much more detail, both secession and some sort of minimal membership, which would satisfy not only British preferences but the aspirations of the European mainstream.

Ralf Grahn

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