I finally got around to reading Jean-Claude Piris’ The Future of Europe, the book that was the basis for his lecture here in Florence in April. While I still don’t agree with his policy recommendation – a new Schengen-like treaty that creates further European Integration among a subset of EU Member States – there’s not much point in arguing over it here. That difference of opinion simply comes down to the costs and benefits of adding even more complexity to the European framework. Where he sees an avant-garde that will inspire the European people, I see even more clutter that will test their patience and make them suspicious of whichever politicians come out in support of this plan. Even as it is, European voters are too (rationally) ignorant to know the name of the President of the Council, or the President of the Commission, or any other EU politician. They don’t know how the EU works, they don’t bother to find out, and they complain anyway. Whose fault is that? I don’t know. But I do know that it will hardly be solved by adding even more complexity.
There is, however, a specific part of his analysis that fascinates me in a broader sense, because it is a point that you hear quite frequently in recent months, especially coming from France: When law is made for a subset of Member States, only the Commissioners and MEPs from those countries should have a say.
In its Parliamentary version, this discussion has been going on for quite some time already in the UK, where Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs get to vote on laws that apply in England, while the reverse is often not true. Just like in the UK, a complicating factor is that MPs or MEPS don’t necessarily have to be from the constituency that they represent. In the UK, Winston Churchill famously represented Dundee for a significant part of his political career (1908-1922, to be precise). In the European Parliament, the most famous examples are in the Green Party, which seems to have somewhat of a policy encouraging candidates to stand in constituencies outside their native countries: While Daniel Cohn-Bendit (first representing Germany, now France) is actually not such a good example, Monica Frassoni is. She served her first term representing Belgium, and only her second term as an MEP for an Italian constituency.
Add to that that I’m generally critical of any kind of naive “lawyer-model” of parliamentary work, i.e. the approach where the job of the parliamentarian is to do what his voters would want him to do, rather than what is in the best interest of all constituents or even the country as a whole (in case those two are different), and it is clear that even in the case of the European Parliament I have significant sympathy for the view that MEPs all work for the best interest of all EU citizens, and should therefore all get to vote on matters concerning the Euro or Schengen. Nevertheless, though I am loathe to admit it, I think in the case of the European Parliament on the balance their connection to the country that elected them is such that it is preferable if MEPs from outside the Schengen-area or the Eurozone do not vote on legislation that affects only those Member States. (Participating in the debate is a different story, of course.)
M. Piris, however, also applies this argument to the European Commission. The factual basis of his argument I can only support: for a variety of reasons, the Commissioners are not as independent from their home countries as originally intended, and this shortcoming has been getting worse over the last decade or so, in the wake of the most recent enlargement and the entry into force of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. With a large Commission (too large), and with one Commissioner per Member State (instead of two, as the larger Member States used to have), the Commissioners act ever more as representatives of their home countries. We should count ourselves lucky that the change of government in the UK hasn’t yet caused them to try to force Baroness Ashton to resign.
That said, I’m not sure that the solution is to treat Commissioners like duplicate MEPs or Council Members. Instead, I am reminded of one of my favourite Shaw quotes:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
In other words, if you treat Commissioners like they cannot be trusted to do their jobs properly, then they won’t. But if instead you insist all the more that they observe strict neutrality, then perhaps you will end up with as much neutrality as is possible in this mortal realm. This is not just wishful thinking. There is ample literature from management and agency theory that shows that people respond positively to trust, and negatively to mistrust: Putting extra safeguards in place to guard against unwanted behaviour X often results in more of X, not less. I shudder to think how much (more) procrastinating I would do if my bosses made me clock in & out every day, just to make sure I put enough hours in.
So instead of creating a Eurozone-Commission to go with the Eur-Council and the Eurozone-Parliament, why not make yet another attempt to fix the Commission, if only to make it actually work? Let’s go ahead and implement my two-tier Commission idea, or even actually cut the number of Commissioners this time. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, after all. A convenient side-effect would be that we might actually be able to trust them not to put the interest of their home country ahead of everything else. Wouldn’t that be a more constructive way to go?