Time for deputy prime ministers for European affairs

Member states are seizing power back from Brussels – but instead they should be engaging ever more deeply


European top jobs have always been subject to heavy scheming. Heads of state and government try every trick in the book to get their favourites into the important offices in Brussels and Frankfurt. Once you have ‘your’ people high up in the system, you can control them. 

This time around, the battle was extra hard fought, for two reasons. First of all, national leaders wanted to seize control back from the European Parliament, which took them by surprise with the Spitzenkandidat system during the previous election in 2014. Heads of state and government wanted to have the power to appoint their own candidates again, like in the good old days. That is why their fight against the Spitzenkandidat was not just about particular individuals, but much more about power: who runs Europe, the parliament or the member states? The intriguing result seems to be that the leaders have not just managed to kill the Spitzenkandidat system – but also to produce, the old intergovernmental way, a list with the most federalist candidates ever.

Secondly, Europe is becoming ever more important, with one market, the Schengen zone, and the single currency. China and the United States want the world to play by their rules. The world has become a world of giants. European countries only get a say when they pool resources and act as a bloc. As former Belgian prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak once said: “There are only two types of state in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realised that they are small.” Those who run or represent this European bloc are thus becoming more powerful.  

Because of this changed international context, the federal structure that the EU was already endowed with has started to function better and better over the last few years. This system resembles systems in federal countries like the US and Germany. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, does its job rather well. European heads of government and ministers take more and more decisions in Brussels. Because national parliaments can hardly control or correct them (let alone co-decide in Brussels) the European Parliament is increasingly empowered. As a result, citizens have more grip on the legislative process in Brussels than before. Lastly, the EU has a federal judiciary in addition to controlling bodies such as the Court of Auditors – just like any other federal system. Most importantly, this system approves laws that apply directly to citizens and can be invoked in national courts.

National politicians dominating European politics is comparable to the Dutch province of Drenthe vetoing on the budget of the Netherlands

Member states do not like this very much, and want part of their power back. This is why they wanted to kill the Spitzenkandidaten, and attempted to impose their strategic agenda on the European Commission. They constantly try to bring EU decisions on trade back to national level, by turning trade agreements into ‘mixed’ agreements, for instance; and they sue the Commission over competences. In doing these things, they are making it very difficult for the EU to function properly.

European leaders and their ministers have always run Europe as an afterthought. Their priority is, of course, to run their country. Only when it is really necessary do they drop by Brussels to take European decisions – tired and already with an eye on the clock to be ready for the return flight. Fighting for their national interests is what they were chosen and appointed to do, not to govern Europe. This lack of attention has always been problematic. Now that issues such as the environment, migration, or even defence must be handled on a European level, the problem is becoming urgent.

There are four levels of governance in Europe: municipal, regional, national, and European. Each level has its own tasks and responsibilities. We elect or appoint officials who are competent for that level – not the level above it, which never takes priority. There is, however, one exception: the European level. There, decisions are taken by people for whom Europe is not a priority. National politicians dominating European politics is comparable to the Dutch province of Drenthe vetoing on the budget of the Netherlands. Or to the minister-president of Bavaria bending Germany’s foreign policy to his will. Under such a system the Netherlands and Germany would be weak and dysfunctional countries.

But in the EU, with its top-heavy level of national governance, this is precisely how we do things. The Council keeps a tight grip on all European matters, while at the same time blaming the federation for mediocre outcomes.

Running a country is becoming increasingly complex. Governments have less time for Europe than before – while Europe, too, needs more attention rather than less. For Council meetings in Brussels, sometimes no more than five or six ministers show up. There used to be four European Council meetings a year. Now, depending on the circumstances, there are dozens. Setting a date for 28 heads of state and government is hellishly difficult. Many dossiers have become too complex for them. Often they want ministers to follow up on their decisions, but this does not happen: the ministers, too, are too busy running their departments.

There is only one solution. Slovakian foreign affairs minister Miroslav Lajcak said last week at ECFR’s annual meeting in Lisbon: “All member states should step aside and let European leaders take the decisions on behalf of all of us”. But this is obviously not going to happen. Member states want more control of Brussels.

There is, however, a quick fix: all member states should appoint a deputy prime minister (and not a junior deputy minister, as some countries now have), a political heavyweight who only does European affairs and is not in charge of any national ministry. His or her job should be to follow European dossiers exclusively and full time, to permanently be in touch with colleagues in other member states, to prepare meetings of heads of state and government, and to remind ministers to follow up on European Council decisions. This will help to keep the focus of governments on the European interest, which is their interest too. It would give increased visibility to European discussions, and increase the quality and legitimacy of European decisions.

Europe needs care. It needs attention. If member states insist on doing everything by themselves in Europe, the least they can do is try to do it well. 

Caroline de Gruyter is Europe correspondent and a columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC & an ECFR Council Member. This piece is adapted from a recent column.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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