Anthony Teasdale, the director general of the European Parliamentary Research Service, gave a talk February 8 at Deutsches Haus NYU, replacing Klaus Welle, who had been scheduled to speak. Welle, secretary-general of the European Parliament, was called back to Brussels on short notice to for the build-up to negotiations over David Cameron’s proposed European reforms.
It’s fitting that Teasdale should step in at precisely this moment—when the apparent shortcomings of the European Union seem to widen the Channel every day—to offer an optimistic view. In his estimation, the European Union does not get nearly enough credit for the efficiency with which it completes its routine tasks and is therefore unfairly cast as a doomed polity.
“I am basically allergic to the defeatist or declinist assumptions and philosophy which we very often find in public discussion about the European Union,” he said. “I have been surprised and encouraged by the ability of the member states to work together. This is not a Panglossian view about how the EU operates, don’t get me wrong, but we should always bear in mind the underlying resilience that the system seems to have established.”
This is well and good. The doomsday prophets have indeed struck out so far: Greece hasn’t been ejected (though its economy is a shambles); public opinion on the EU is lukewarm, not icy; and the British PM, who was raised to office on his promise to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership, is turning into Britain’s foremost advocate of staying in.
So the system does seem resilient, and far from Panglossian naïveté, Teasdale’s limited optimism is well-supported by the facts. You just have to be looking at the EU from the right angle. When it comes to the contentious policy areas of justice, home affairs, immigration and defense, precisely there is sovereignty sharing, essential to the EU method, most controversial.
“In other more ‘routine’ areas—transportation policy, environment policy, most of energy policy, development policy … there the new political system that evolved during recent decades works—majority voting where the Commission is reempowered through majority voting in the Council, and each member state understands that it cannot exercise a liberum veto,” Teasdale said.
Similarly, the EU institutions are actually quite effective at adopting laws, contrary to their popular image as a hulking colossus. Most legislation is passed two years after it’s proposed, even though this requires the agreement of three institutions, the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament.
“This is a remarkable human achievement,” Teasdale said, “and it goes largely unnoticed in terms of political reporting, because that is the nature, perhaps, of journalism. The successes of political systems don’t get reported, it’s only their failures.”
The case of treaty change
I take it that Teasdale has very limited expectations for the EU: the Union is successful if it accomplishes limited goals in a handful of uncontroversial policy areas. If you hold this view, then the single market, Schengen, and the single currency look like titanic accomplishments—which they are—buoyed on a small ocean of minor compromises. Teasdale makes much of the EU’s routine, and rightly points out that the Union is the only legislative body with a mandatory process for evaluating legislation (the Interinstitutional Agreement on Better Lawmaking).
So the EU does a good job when legislating in a small way. What about its grander projects? The major accomplishments of the EU I mentioned above—Schengen, the Euro, and the single market—were all the results of intergovernmental negotiation, not legislation, so Teasdale’s optimistic account doesn’t so clearly apply. It’s difficult to cast the various stages of treaty reform as “routine”—unless, that is, you believe with Teasdale that the “whole history of the EU” is of adaptation in the face of “changing conditions.”
The repeated and seemingly ad hoc revisions to the EU treaties are often held up as a sign of “Eurosclerosis,” a symptom of a fundamentally broken system. But by comparison with the United States, the EU comes off quite well on this point. The last amendment to the US constitution was ratified in May 1992, three months after the Maastricht Treaty was signed. That amendment, number 22, had been waiting in the wings since 1789. The last amendment to make a major change to the voting structure of the US government, as has been routine in the EU’s treaty reforms, was the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and establishing the direct election of senators.
Instead of a fault, the EU’s continual renegotiation of treaties is perhaps a sign of health: the successive treaties have each extended majority voting in the Council and expanded the powers of the European Parliament, where it has proven impossible in the United States to diagnose and treat most structural political problems. What began as checks and balances has morphed into partisan straitjacket. So if 28 national parliaments can agree to amend the EU’s political structure, maybe the Union isn’t so moribund after all.
CORRECTED February 11, 9:42 am: Anthony Teasdale is the director general of the European Parliamentary Research Service, not its secretary general as this post originally claimed.