The Left Should Call for Europe to Become a Democratic Federation

The EU has launched a discussion about transforming its basic constitutional framework. The Left should push for changes that expand democracy at the pan-European level and make it easier to carry out progressive social and environmental reforms.

Probably because it is the most responsive to democratic pressures from the European citizenry, the European Parliament also tends to be the EU institution that takes the most progressive stances on social and environmental issues. (CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP / Flickr)

Over the past two years, the European Union has been engaged in an exercise of what is fashionably called “deliberative democracy,” namely the Conference on the Future of Europe. The conference brought together members of national assemblies and the European Parliament with randomly chosen European citizens to debate changes to the way the EU operates. Although the conference’s debates have received scant media attention, it may prove to be the first step in a new round of treaty reform, revising the EU’s basic constitutional framework.

For EU member states, which now comprise the vast majority of European countries, the union’s institutional architecture and the legislation it enacts shape the contours of political possibility, for good or for ill. The fact that these subjects are often discussed in a forbiddingly technical way should not deter us from giving them the close attention they deserve. There is no sign of the EU disintegrating in the foreseeable future, despite the predictions that many commentators made in the thick of the eurozone crisis, so it will continue to be a major factor in Europe’s political landscape for a long time to come.

The current political conjuncture has opened up a window of possibility for the union to become more open and democratic in its functioning. Socialists should be taking a keen interest in what is happening and doing whatever they can to push developments in the right direction.

A New Agenda

The conclusions of the conference offered the European Parliament an ideal opportunity for urging the European Council — the heads of state and government of the EU’s member states — to convene a convention to discuss treaty change — in other words, reforming the union’s constitutional settlement. On June 9 this year, the Parliament adopted a resolution inviting the council to do so and sketching out the main changes that it wants to see adopted as part of the process.

Crucially, these changes involve an end to the need for unanimous voting, “full co-decision powers on the EU budget,” and the right of the European Parliament to initiate and amend legislation. Many on the European left have espoused similar demands in the past. Those who want the EU to stop a race to the bottom in tax rates, for example, have long decried the need for unanimity in questions of fiscal policy.

The Parliament knows that its call will not fall on deaf ears. Most of the EU member states — including the most populous and influential ones — agree that a convention should be convened, and so does the European Commission. A simple majority of member states is sufficient for that to happen. The question now for the advocates of a convention is how to whittle down to a minimum the number of member states that will vote against it, so as to minimize controversy and generate as much momentum as possible.

Once a convention has been set up, the debate will no longer be hidden from public purview. The media and the public will tune in. A major opportunity for advancing left-wing objectives will arise.

No Longer a Talking Shop

Here I want to focus on the democratic question. A future convention, in which the Parliament’s powers are at the center of debate, will be a major opportunity for democratic advance in the EU. The Parliament is the only EU institution elected directly by universal suffrage.

Moreover, in contrast with the US House of Representatives, for example, or the UK House of Commons, European elections are held under a system of proportional representation. Most people on the Left favor this model over majoritarian, single-member district systems. The Parliament thus enjoys the greatest democratic legitimacy of the EU’s institutions (within the bounds of capitalist democracy, at least).

Probably because it is the most responsive to democratic pressures from the European citizenry, the Parliament also tends to be the EU institution that takes the most progressive stances on social and environmental issues. For example, when it came to the common EU borrowing and spending plan adopted in 2020 — NextGenerationEU (NGEU) — the Parliament supported the most ambitious targets in terms of volume and levels of borrowing and expenditure.

In relation to the “adequate minimum wages” directive that was debated and adopted between 2020 and 2022, the Parliament came to the negotiating table with a much more ambitious proposal than the commission’s original draft — one that would strengthen the negotiating position of unions in collective bargaining and wage setting. Finally, in the debate over the 2030 emissions reduction target to be adopted as part of the EU’s climate legislation in 2020–21, the commission initially proposed a 55 percent reduction target, while the Parliament wanted 60 percent (many on the left side of the parliamentary aisle called for a 65 percent target).

While many left-wing critics of the EU still see the European Parliament as a talking shop, in reality it has long ceased to be that. Since the Treaty of Rome first created the EU’s institutions back in 1958, the Parliament has steadily grown in stature, especially from the 1980s on.

However, this was not merely a natural and gradual process. The Parliament’s standing crystallizes a political conflict over the EU’s constitutional settlement that goes back to the 1960s. Over the last twelve years, which have seen successive crises of different types, many of the original obstacles to a democratic, parliamentary, and federal EU have been eliminated, while some new ones have taken shape.

The Federal Vision

The EU’s origins go back to constitutional debates that took place in the immediate postwar period of the 1940s and ’50s. Continental European states adopted new constitutions that were largely shaped by the forces that took part in the wartime resistance to Nazism.

Those forces generally introduced democratic parliamentary regimes — this was certainly the case in Germany, France, and Italy, the most important states that signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The other three members of the “Original Six” founding members — Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg — also had a tradition of parliamentary democracy.

The Communists, who were the main opposition parties in France and Italy when the Treaty of Rome was concluded, followed the Soviet line in opposing moves toward a federal Europe. However, the other political forces that were active in the resistance had gravitated during the war towards the idea of a democratic European federation incorporating a democratic Germany.

These forces envisaged the institutions of a future federal European Union as functioning in the same way as they conceived of the constitutions for the separate member states. The Italian Communists later developed a more sympathetic view of federalism under the influence of Altiero Spinelli, a left-wing opponent of Benito Mussolini’s regime who had published a manifesto in favor of European unity during World War II.

An ad hoc committee, comprised of delegates from the national parliaments of the proto-federalist European Coal and Steel Community, drafted extensive plans for a European Political Community (EPC) in 1952–53. The EPC they had in mind would be comprised of a Chamber of the Peoples elected by direct universal suffrage, a European Senate whose members would be appointed by member-state parliaments, and an Executive Council (a government) responsible to the Chamber of the Peoples, whose president would be appointed by the Senate. Power would lie largely with the legislative branch.

The proposal elicited a guarded response from the member-state governments. But we will never know how far things could have gone, because the whole project was abandoned in August 1954, when the French National Assembly refused to ratify the treaty creating the European Defence Community (EDC). This would have created a European army incorporating German divisions: as a result of the French veto, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration implemented its alternative plan by bringing West Germany into NATO. EPC plans had been the by-product of the EDC treaty and so were abandoned when the French parliament threw out the latter.

In parallel to these negotiations, the Dutch government suggested intergovernmental talks on a customs union. These discussions ultimately formed the basis for what became the Treaty of Rome. In that treaty, the original constitutional design was preserved, albeit with different names for the institutions, much fewer powers for the federal level of government, and a rebalancing of power away from the legislature.

In this schema, the European Senate became the Council of Ministers, whose members would be government ministers, rather than being appointed directly by the national parliaments. The Chamber of the Peoples became the European Parliament, but this was initially composed of delegates from the national parliaments who were not elected by direct universal suffrage. The Executive Council became the European Commission. Crucially, the treaty did not provide for the European Council — the body that is today comprised of the heads of state and government.

Gaullist Countermoves

One key figure in the wartime resistance did not share the parliamentary, federalist outlook that informed most of the drafters of the Treaty of Rome. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French army, resigned in 1945 from his position as French prime minister because of disagreements over the constitutional settlement for postwar France. He thought the constitution of the French Fourth Republic was much too similar to that of the Third Republic, which had collapsed after the Nazi invasion in 1940.

De Gaulle believed that this constitutional structure would give rise to unstable governments with squabbling parties due to the primacy of the legislature over the executive. He wanted a constitution in which power lay in the hands of the executive, with the legislature largely confined to serving as a rubber stamp for the executive’s policy. In terms of European policy, De Gaulle rejected the model of democratic federalism in favour of confederalism, with states retaining national sovereignty instead of pooling it.

When De Gaulle returned to power in Paris on the back of a coup by the French army in Algeria in May 1958, the Treaty of Rome had come into effect less than five months earlier. De Gaulle oversaw the adoption of a new French constitution that subordinated the legislature to the executive and concentrated power in the hands of a directly elected president, who also had the right to dissolve the National Assembly. With a few alterations, this remains the basic structure of the French Fifth Republic.

At the same time, De Gaulle set about derailing the implementation of the Treaty of Rome’s constitutional blueprint. He favored the moves toward economic integration entailed in the customs union project and did not withdraw France from the treaty itself, seeking instead to alter its institutional provisions.

De Gaulle’s views significantly affected the development of the European Community. The first example was his torpedoing of the Dehousse Plan. Fernand Dehousse was a Belgian socialist who headed a group of delegates to the European Parliament tasked with making proposals for the organization of direct elections to that body. In 1960, they proposed that two-thirds of its members be elected by direct universal suffrage, but De Gaulle’s emissaries in the Council of Ministers, which had to make a unanimous decision on the plan, killed the proposal.

The debate simmered throughout the 1960s. Majorities in the Italian, French, and German parliaments backed direct elections of European Parliament members, as did all the parties — with the exception of the Communists — in the other three member states. Yet De Gaulle stood firm. It was only in 1979, ten years after he left office, that the first direct elections for the European Parliament were held. On that occasion, the Italian federalist Spinelli ran successfully for election as an independent on the list of Enrico Berlinguer’s Communist Party.

The second example of De Gaulle’s influence was the Fouchet plan. Christian Fouchet was a Gaullist politician tasked by the French leader with proposing a confederal structure for political cooperation among the six member states. The heads of state and government would regularly meet to discuss and adopt a common foreign policy. France, as the only nuclear power among them, would be installed in the driving seat of such an arrangement.

The aim was not merely to give Western Europe some measure of strategic autonomy from the United States. It was also to create a confederal structure overlooking the federal institutions created by the Treaty of Rome. The other member states rejected the plan, because of their Atlanticist inclinations and also because they were suspicious of De Gaulle’s ambitions for French primacy over the community.

The British Veto

Something had to give, because the Treaty of Rome provided for the abandonment of the need for unanimity in the Council of Ministers in 1966, as well as for direct elections to the European Parliament. In July 1965, De Gaulle had his ministers withdraw from the institutions of the Treaty of Rome in what became known as the “empty chair crisis.” He then negotiated the Luxembourg compromise, which preserved the unanimity rule until the mid-1980s.

De Gaulle left behind several legacies for the institutional development of the EU: the delayed rise of the European Parliament, the inauguration of the European Council as a confederalist institution, and the persistence of the unanimity rule for longer than had initially been planned. His overriding concern was the restoration of Western Europe’s capacity to act with geopolitical independence from the United States. For that reason, he twice vetoed the prospect of the UK joining the European Community, in 1963 and 1967.

However, by the time De Gaulle left office in 1969, most members of the French ruling class no longer shared his opposition to British accession, and his successor Georges Pompidou moved quickly to lift the French veto. The UK joined in 1973 with Ireland and Denmark — the first of several rounds of expansion for the project of European integration.

Pompidou wanted to join forces with the UK, seeking to develop large, pan-European industrial corporations in advanced technology sectors. But the French leader also had a second motivation for supporting British membership. As a man who was still a loyal Gaullist, he maintained the general’s distaste for the union’s federal institutions and saw London as a potential ally on this front.

Pompidou was right in this calculation. Over the space of nearly five decades, the UK government proved to be a determined opponent of attempts to broaden the scope of qualified majority voting in the Council and extend the European Parliament’s legislative powers. In 2003–4, for example, during the negotiations over what would become the Treaty of Lisbon, British prime minister Tony Blair opposed the abandonment of unanimity on fiscal policy.

Reviving Federalism

The clash of political visions in the construction of the EU between intergovernmental confederalism and parliamentary federalism has never yielded a decisive victory for one camp over the other. Over time, however, the federalist constitutional vision has gradually reasserted itself. The European Parliament has steadily gained more powers to legislate, approve, and discharge the EU budget, supervise the executive branch, and ratify international treaties.

When the Parliament first met in 1958, it had no legislative powers at all. Until the late 1980s, the Council of Ministers had to adopt legislation unanimously. The Maastricht treaty introduced the procedure for codecision between the Council and the Parliament for the first time in 1993, which later became known as the ordinary legislative procedure. This meant that both the Council and the Parliament would have to agree on proposed EU legislation, with the Parliament gaining the power to veto it.

Subsequent EU treaties (Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon) extended the remit of codecision. Since the latest revision came into force in 2009, around 90 percent of EU legislative acts are adopted in this way. Of course, that percentage has to be put into perspective. Since the EU does not adopt much fiscal or foreign-policy legislation to begin with, the actual political weight of the Parliament remains less than this figure might suggest.

The Parliament had no budgetary powers at its inception either. The 1971 Treaty of Luxembourg introduced the first change to this, creating limited pan-European taxes and Parliamentary powers to codecide on the allocation of the funds. A more substantial change came in 1977 with the Treaty of Brussels, which granted the Parliament power to reject or approve the budgets proposed by the Commission.

Finally, the Treaty of Lisbon gave the Parliament the final say over the EU budget. Crucially, however, the Parliament could only exercise its budgetary powers on the expenditure side, where the Council has to make a unanimous decision. On the revenue side, the Parliament still has no powers. The EU’s revenues are decided by unanimity and then have to be ratified by each of the member-state legislatures.

The power to raise revenue through taxation lies at the core of modern state sovereignty. The structures of the union lack this vital power. In that respect, the EU still displays features that are typical of international organizations or confederations rather than federations.

Stretching the Limits

The Parliament has also gradually extended its power to supervise the Commission, which is the EU’s rough equivalent of an executive in national political systems. From the start, it had the right to censure the Commission, but this required — and still does require — a two-thirds majority of MEPs. As such, it more closely resembles the power of the US Congress to impeach the country’s president than the typical European practice of voting confidence in the executive through a simple parliamentary majority.

In 1993, the Parliament received the power to approve the Commission. Since 2009, it has been able to approve the European Council’s nominee for the presidency of the Commission. The Parliament also has the right to scrutinize individuals nominated to serve as commissioners.

In 1999, the Parliament forced the Commission headed by Luxembourg’s Jacques Santer to collectively resign over allegations of corruption. Five years later, another Commission president, Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, had to withdraw his proposed lineup for the Commission. Most recently, in 2019, the Parliament forced Emmanuel Macron to retract the French nominee.

In addition, the Parliament must ratify international treaties signed by the EU, including trade agreements (a power that the US House of Representatives does not possess). However, the Parliament remains the least powerful of the three EU institutions involved in the adoption of legislation, overshadowed by the Commission and the European Council.

It does not have the right to initiate legislation. Nor does it have the power to raise taxes or define a common European foreign policy, since these prerogatives still lie with the member states and require unanimous agreement between them.

While the Parliament is definitely no longer a talking shop, there are still clear limits to what it can do. If it gained the powers to initiate legislation and raise taxes, that would make a big difference to how the EU functions. The threshold for censuring the Commission is also much too high.

Levels of popular engagement with the Parliament have fluctuated over the years. Turnout for the first direct election in 1979 was 62 percent but then declined steadily, during a period when there was a general trend toward lower electoral participation in Western Europe. It fell below 50 percent for the first time in 1999 and reached an all-time low of 42.6 percent in 2014, before rising to 50.6 percent five years later.

These figures are lower than the norm for national elections in most EU member states, but broadly similar to participation in US midterm elections. Average turnout for the latter between 1978 and 2014 was a little over 47 percent, with a low point in 2014 (41.9 percent) before it rose sharply to 53.4 percent in 2018. The average figure for the union as a whole conceals some wide national variations: in 2019, two-thirds of the Danish electorate cast a vote, but less than a quarter of their Slovakian counterparts did so.

The Way Ahead

Brexit has removed the most significant obstacle to granting further powers to the Parliament, since the UK was the strongest opponent of greater federalism. Since the eurozone crisis, the French government has embraced proposals for a substantial federal budget and the right of the Parliament to initiate legislation — even though Emmanuel Macron has made extensive use of the antidemocratic devices that the structures of the Fifth Republic allocate to him on the home front.

However, some of the East European member states — Poland and Hungary in particular — have picked up the baton discarded by the British political class. These right-wing nationalist governments are trying to reduce the powers of their own legislatures, and they have found the European Parliament to be among their toughest critics over breaches of the rule of law. One way of overcoming such resistance would be to promise greater fiscal transfers through an enlarged EU budget to fund green investments. This would also facilitate the implementation of an ambitious green agenda for swift decarbonization of the European economy.

The coming convention will reopen the debate about the Parliament’s powers — and thus about the EU’s overall political regime. Socialists in Europe should support demands to grant the Parliament the right to initiate legislation and to raise taxes. But what do we have to say about the Parliament’s powers over the Commission? In itself, constitutional design rarely stirs up the passions of the masses. But it still deserves careful consideration from activists and parties.