Compared to the formulation initially laid out by President Sarkozy at the French Ambassadors’ meeting last August , the mandate given by the European Council to Spain’s former PM, Felipe González, to chair an “Independent Reflection Group” amounts to a substantial shift.
First, the group’s mandate has been carefully drafted so as not to imperil the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. The Group will not reflect on existing policies, it will not discuss institutional reforms and it will not meddle with the major budgetary revision in sight. Moreover, as its conclusions are to be presented well after the European elections (i.e. in June 2010), the European Commission and the European Parliament need not fear that the Group’s conclusions dictate their political agenda and priorities. Still, these caveats have helped member states swallow the creation of the Group but have not necessarily make them happy (“It is not our idea. We will support the group today, but we think we are able to reflect by ourselves [..] It’s something that we reluctantly agreed to because it is important for one big member state said Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen).
Second, though the ivory-tower flavour of these initiatives is somehow difficult to overcome, the mandate makes an opening to citizens’ concerns (“particular attention should be given to ways of better reaching out to citizens and addressing their expectations and needs”). Also, the Group will be allowed to consult externally with (presumably, experts, civil society, national parliaments, think-tanks) “as it deems appropriate”. In other words, the Group should not only examine the “supply side” of Europe’s challenges (what the EU institutions and leaders are willing to deliver) but also the “demand side” (what citizens want the EU to deal with). This means that the Group may want to make extensive use of tools such as the Eurobarometer and other recent initiatives for dialogue with the citizens (a special Eurobarometer survey would probably help the group acquire a clearer vision of citizen’s priorities and visions for 2020-2030).
As for its definitive composition (postponed to March 2008), the Group is not meant to be representative of European citizens or institutions, so no fixes quotas for groups, interests or institutions should be expected. This does not mean, however, that the Group should not be encouraged to establish a live link with the two institutions representing European citizens and Europe’s general interest (the European Parliament and the European Commission). Therefore, since the composition of the Group is still open, González and his two vice-presidents have time enough to reflect on how to best balance generational, geographic and political sensitivities when selecting the remaining “independent experts”.
Doubts remain however as to how far the European Council has dismantled the “Turkish connection” – i.e. the link with the debate about Turkey’s accession. Sarkozy had originally wanted the Group to reflect on the borders of Europe and come up with a special association status for Turkey (“If the 27 undertake this crucial discussion about the future of our Union”, Sarkzoy had said, “France will not object to new chapters in the negotiations between the Union and Turkey being opened in the coming months and years”). Now, the situation is a bit unclear: whereas the draft mandate did make a reference to borders, the final mandate omits such a reference. Asked about this issue during the press conference following the European Council, Sarkozy made clear that the borders issue would be on the agenda (“in this new European dream, the question of borders is bound to be posed, not simply first of all the question of Turkey but should Europe set borders or not or whether it should it enlarge indefinitely”), thus upsetting the Turkish government and other enlargement-friendly member states.
The polemic on whether the Group will deal with Turkey has rapidly reached the Chair of the Group, Felipe González, as newspapers reproduced two statements (one from earlier December this year and another from 2004) which would theoretically show that González was not enthusiastic at all on Turkey’s membership. In the most recent statement, González cited Helmut Kohl (who has always been against Turkish membership) to argue than EU’s willingness to honour existing commitments was not incompatible with the need of devising an alternative solution should membership prove not possible. In the second, González was quoted as expressing his view that “because of social and cultural differences”, “Europe should stop at the borders of Turkey”, UK’s Foreign Ministery, David Miliband, rushed to defend González (describing as “extremely partial” allegations that Gonzalez was against Turkish membership), while Gonzalez’s spokesman Joaquín Tagar commented that in both occasions” he was just expressing a theoretical opinion, not taking a definite position on the matter”. Therefore, some ambiguities remain on whether González favour just “privileged partnership” status with Turkey or not.
Finally, it is fairly obvious that one additional problem is the exceedingly broad range of topics the group is supposed to cover: the European social and economic model; sustainable development, global stability, insecurity, migration, energy and climate protection, international crime and terrorism. It will be near impossible for the group to deal successfully with all these topics in one swoop (and completely impossible not to overlap with existing policies such as the Lisbon Agenda, the European Security Strategy or the Neighbourhood Policy).
Experience shows that in the past, expert committees focusing on narrow topics have proven more efficient (see, e.g. the Werner, Delors or Kok Committees) than those with very wide or mostly political content (such as the Westendorp, or the Dehaene, Weizsäcker and Lord Simon). Based on González’s past record there is no doubt than the Group will adopt a highly political profile: González is one of the heirs of one of the most intense periods of EU integration, that which saw the full development of Economic and Monetary Union, citizenship, structural and cohesion policies, Schengen and the Mediterranean Policy. González first statement after his nomination has been quite revealing of his intention to be an active Chair:”I really hope that the Committee is not a compromise (of that sort so fashionable these days) aimed at procrastinating on important decisions”.
To conclude, if the past teaches any lesson is that political issues should not be approached and dealt with in a technical manner. The EU has had enough technocracy over the last 50 years (and the Lisbon Treaty is in fact closer than it should to enlightened despotism) so it should really avoid the image of wisdom replacing politics. An important reality the group would do well to consider is the fact that the EU integration process has created winners and losers, and that costs and benefits are unevenly distributed among various social and economic groups (think of students, entrepreneurs, manual workers or shopkeepers). Part of the legitimacy problem the EU faces stems from the ongoing neglect of this fundamental issue. The sooner the EU addresses it, the sooner it will be able to deal with euroscepticism and disengament.
All this amounts to a simple fact, namely that the committee will prove its wisdom as much in the selection of topics and the approach it chooses as by its capacity to formulate practical solutions. Over the coming months, González and the two appointed vice-presidents (Mrs. Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Mr Jorma Olilla) will have to ponder their choice of issues: their first independent and – hopefully – wise reflection.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.