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‘How the EU political system is changing: New institutional dynamics since 2019’

Written by Joanna Apap

A very well attended policy roundtable on ‘How the EU political system is changing and the new institutional dynamics since 2019’, hosted by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) on 2 December 2020, focused on relations between the Commission, Parliament and Council, and the dynamics of the EU political system as a whole. A series of leading experts on EU politics and institutions took stock of these recent changes and explored how they may alter the way people think and write about the ‘Brussels system’ now and in the future.

Director-General of EPRS, Anthony Teasdale, welcomed the participants and opened the roundtable, noting how the last 18 months have been a period of unusually rapid change in the European Union’s political institutions. The May 2019 European elections saw a turnover of more than 60 % in the membership of the European Parliament. Autumn 2019 subsequently saw the entry into office of new Presidents of the European Commission and European Council, as well as a new High Representative/Vice President for Common Foreign and Security Policy, with the new College of Commissioners committed to a ‘geo-political’ agenda on climate change and digital issues in particular.

Heather Grabbe, Director at the Open Society European Policy Institute then highlighted how the end of January 2020 saw the first-ever departure of an EU Member State, in the form of the United Kingdom withdrawal. From March, the coronavirus crisis had huge consequences for all levels of government, including rapid moves to digitally based discussion and decision-making. In parallel, the EU’s prized achievements of free movement and the single market came under great strain. There has been an intense pressure for speedy EU action to ease the emerging economic crisis by fiscal intervention on an unprecedented scale and this has put the direction of the Commission’s role in question. Swift revision of EU policy on competition and State aid and to align other policies with the Green Deal objectives is needed. The Green Deal itself will pave the way for Europeans to get more involved through deliberative processes and co-creation of policy. This may have an impact on the EU institutions’ working methods. The way in which the Commission intends to ensure greater implication of citizens will be announced, together with the launch of the European Climate Pact, on 16 December 2020. In addition, Heather Grabbe noted that the rule of law crisis could put the whole EU system at risk.

Brigid Laffan, Director and Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute (EUI), explained how the legacy of the Jean‑Claude Juncker Commission’s working methods has been very strong. Today, with a woman in the Commission’s top job, the approach and tone are different, and having a medical expert in a position to address of the impact of the Covid‑19 crisis is certainly an advantage. However, will the EU be capable of delivering on all the major policy areas prioritised by the Commission? The next five years will be crucial and the agenda is very demanding, not only due to the Covid‑19 crisis but also as action requires cross-sectoral cooperation. The EU institutions need to engage and negotiate, ensuring transparency, keeping the electorate on board and regularly informing Parliament. This therefore calls for intense inter-institutional collaboration, continuing the approach initiated in view of the Brexit negotiations.

Olivier Costa, Director and Professor with the European Political and Governance Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges, assessed how the European Parliament exerts its powers. He pointed out that, while the European Parliament’s two largest political groups, the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, have been used to sharing its presidency, they decided to end this coalition agreement in January 2017 during the mid-term election. Media and commentators predicted a new era of more political and conflictual decision-making. However, according to Olivier Costa, the grand coalition has remained in place, albeit informally, as can be observed in the adoption of legislation (although less for non-legislative amendments). Olivier Costa concluded that coalition formation in the European Parliament is affected by institutional, inter-institutional and conjectural constraints, regardless of any deal between the three centrist political groups. With the Covid-19 crisis, a more systematic use of a coalition approach can be observed and since September 2020, Parliament appears rather ‘consensual’ in formal voting.

Former Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe and the London School of Economics, Martin Westlake, suggested looking at 2019 to see what we could expect in 2024. He noted that Parliament is the youngest of the three main decision-making EU institutions, but perhaps the most revolutionary. Agreeing that consensus between the EU institutions is key to moving the agenda forward, Martin Westlake underlined the ‘Presidentialisation of the Commission’, begun under Jean-Claude Juncker and continued strongly by Ursula von der Leyen. It might be expected that the Spitzenkandidaten procedure might be improved for 2024, and that possibly Ursula von der Leyen will take part.

Uwe Puetter, Professor for Empirical Research on Europe at the Europa-Universität Flensburg explained how consensus works in the Council and considered that the Council may need to consider moving towards enhanced cooperation to avoid stalemates such as that over the Multiannual Financial Framework and the recovery fund. He highlighted how Parliament has relatively little power in certain new policies such as the euro, but has exponentially increased in its powers in areas such as the single market regulatory framework. With respect to increasing citizen involvement, the Commission’s political guidelines include a Conference on the future of Europe, with the Vice-President of the Commission on Democracy and Demography specifically charged to lead this process. Uwe Puetter explained that, although the Commission needs to be a powerful communicator, it also needs to be an effective interlocutor with the European Parliament and the European Council and noted that the Commission needs to exercise its executive powers together with the Council rather than separately.

In his role as discussant, Andrew Moravscik, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, started by stating that the EU’s response to successive crises demonstrates it is optimistic and resilient. He described the EU as a democratic polity, reflecting what the people want and the pressures experienced. Over the last 25 years, the emergence of the European Council and Council of Minsters as dominant, thanks to greater consensus between Member States, is a big shift in constitutional terms. Andrew Moravscik concluded by stating that the issue of globalisation is driven by concrete drivers, such as national economic interests, which need to be understood in the context of international cooperation and the resultant institutionalisation of European integration. The EU has moved in a very positive direction, as it increasingly justifies its actions to show how it is protecting Europeans. Noting Ursula von der Leyen’s strong performance and agenda, he noted that for the first time, American politicians are saying ‘let’s speak with Europeans on issues of common concern, as Europeans know how to deal with these matters’, which is a very positive evolution.

Follow this link to the recording of the online Policy Roundtable

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