The homepages of the websites of three principal institutions of the European Union all show the same things: sanitary questions, travel within the EU and economic recovery. Although the Council is the only one with anything to say about the threat posed to Cyprus by Turkey (see EUROPE B12770A1), the European Parliament and the European Commission are also laying emphasis on climate action and the democratic opportunity opened up by the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Without question, the adoption of the “climate law”, the impressive legislative package proposed by the Commission on 14 July to realise the Green Deal (Fit for 55), and its forestry strategy unveiled three days later are major steps forward (see EUROPE B12762, B12764A1). The common anti-Covid action has been a success: 70% of the adult population of the EU has had at least one dose of vaccine (see EUROPE B12770A9). While the Delta variant represents a new challenge, there may be a shortage of candidates for vaccination, but certainly not of reserves of it. European digital Covid certificate was adopted in record time and is making it easier for people to travel. The “European Health Union” has made stellar progress at the Council of the EU. In all matters concerning global warming and the pandemic, therefore, the institutions are in step with the concerns of the citizens voiced in Eurobarometer surveys.
Furthermore, the economic recovery strategy is taking shape: 16 national plans have so far been adopted, paving the way for loans to be taken up by the Commission with payments to the States concerned. The Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU managed to push through a global agreement on the Common Agriculture Policy. The fields of energy and space have been given a shot in the arm. Serious proposals to tackle money-laundering are now on the table. The Union remains unmoved and immovable on stringent respect for the Brexit agreement. It has established useful cooperation with the new American administration. The European Council can chalk up to its credit punitive measures against the Belarusian dictatorship.
All of these positives are well worthy of praise. But are they solid indicators of the EU’s robust health?
One blatant failure is its inability to make progress with enlargement to the Western Balkans. The decision to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania was made in March 2020. Since then, 26 countries have effectively rallied behind Bulgaria, which is blocking everything, invoking a cultural clash with the Macedonians. Which will be the authority to step forward and say that enough is enough? The EU is haemorrhaging credibility and will one day pay dearly for its passivity.
It is also labouring under the misapprehension that it may be possible to normalise relations with Russia and Turkey, two authoritarian regimes that are prepared to use force, versus a major entity that declines to; the Crimea and Cyprus are both clear examples of this. Further away from home, the EU remains divided over the situation in the Middle East, placing some hope in the new Israeli government, whilst standing by and watching the infrastructure it paid for on Palestinian soil being destroyed. The Council prefers to focus on possible sanctions against certain Lebanese politicians, on the grounds that they cannot agree on forming a government; these sanctions would set quite a precedent, to say the least.
Meanwhile, back at home, it is time to ask a few questions about the development of the relationship between the Parliament and the Commission. The fact that MEPs are complaining about the lack of transparency in the contracts for the supply of vaccines and the susceptibility of the Commission’s services to the actions of certain lobbies (gas, nuclear, pesticides, etc.), is nothing compared to the double legal dispute recently launched.
Firstly, the Parliament has by no means digested the agreement of the European Council of December on the implementation of the regulation on conditionality to protect the EU budget and, more specifically, the role thrust upon the Commission. The tone of its resolutions of 25 March, 10 June and 8 July has grown progressively more strident. The guidelines prepared by the Commission with a view to giving effect to the regulation have been described as redundant; notwithstanding a letter from President Sassoli, the deadline of 1 June set by the Parliament was not met. A legal case against the Commission is being considered, while the same institution awaits the judgment of the Court of Justice (further to suits brought against the regulation by Poland and Hungary) to fine-tune its guidelines. But the judges, who were of course not party to the December agreement, remain unmoved by timetabling imperatives. Although the regulation was intended to enforce the rule of law from 1 January, the guidelines are looking every day a little more like a shameful pretext not to bother.
Then, although the “new own resources” package was on the agenda of the meeting of the College of Commissioners of 20 July, it has been postponed until the autumn, sparking further protests from the President of the Parliament: this package was the precondition for the MEPs to agree to the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework, was set out in the inter-institutional agreement of December 2020 and is instrumental in the repayment of the recovery plan.
For both of these reasons, the Commission is running the risk of beginning to lose the Parliament’s trust. This will not exactly facilitate the adoption of its ambitious climate package, which is missing not only a solid social impact assessment, but also any reference to the new own resources, which is probably why Commissioner Hahn voted against it at the meeting of the College.
Even worse, the insidious spread of a far-right culture within the EU cannot be denied. The first indicator of this is the pact on asylum and migration, which has been on the table for nearly a year and has split the crowd. Progress on solidarity with the countries of first entry has been zero. Humanitarian considerations have very much taken a back seat. The details that made it possible for consensus to be reached are the expulsion of non-natives (organising returns, an unspecified role for the agency Frontex on refoulements) and elitism (letting in economic migrants, based on their level of education).
The second indicator is the unashamed nationalism, which is reflected in challenges to the primacy of EU law and the decisions of its Court of Justice, infringements of the freedom of movement of persons and the systematic undermining of the Schengen agreements and jointly-adopted recommendations, the official creation of a coalition of nationalist states or political parties and even the use of a referendum procedure counter to the values of the EU, as we have seen in Hungary.
The third indicator is the ongoing attacks on the values of the EU and the rule of law, such as curbs on the judicial system, an imbalance of powers, homophobia and attacks on LBGTIQ+ individuals, diminishing freedoms for the press and the safety of journalists, the inadequate fight against corruption and pressure on sections of civil society who dare to speak out against the regime. If you have not already done so, please read the 2021 report on the rule of law published by the Commission on 20 July (see EUROPE B12766A2). Admittedly, it does report a number of positive developments and reforms, but the overall picture is bleak. For instance, international classifications put the independence of the media at high risk in Bulgaria, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovenia.
How can the values and rule of law be enforced in the EU? Not by dwelling on the inefficacy of article 7 TEU and its ridiculous wording. The aforementioned regulation on conditionality was adopted precisely to tackle this inefficacy, amongst other things; we have seen how it has fared. All that is left, then, is to trigger targeted infringement proceedings, as already decided upon by the Commission on 15 July against Hungary and Poland. But a long time can pass between a letter of formal notice and a Court of Justice judgment, which a regime can put to use in taking further illegal measures. This means that our institutional system is forced to run after regimes in breach, which are therefore always a few steps ahead.
Should Hungary remain a member of the EU? The question was asked out loud at the European Council of June. It has also been asked by the Parliament, but about Poland. This gives you an idea of how far the situation has declined.
If it is to better uphold the rule of law, whilst also making progress on other challenges, the EU must amend its primary law. Here, we have little to expect from the Conference on the Future of Europe. Our institutional system has the capacity to make energy, climate, demographic, economic and technological projections up to 2030 or even 2050 in some cases, but apparently not on the evolution of the system itself. The Commission, futuristic in its very essence, has nothing to say on the matter.
And so the Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed in a different life, will continue to apply for the coming decades. It therefore remains only to wish the decision-makers all the good luck they will need to achieve all of our lofty objectives while dragging a ball and chain behind them!