Policy paper 267

European Union governance in response to crises

What are the conditions for effective and legitimate European political leadership?

Abstract ▪

1 ▪ Lessons learned from a decade of “sovereignty crises”

After more than ten years of crises, the EU’s current operating structure gives primacy to the European Council. This predominance of national governments and of the diplomatic approach has ambivalent repercussions. It raises a twofold issue of efficacy (leading to complex and slow negotiations, causing uncertainty and preventing the EU from speaking with one voice) and of legitimacy (as the political legitimacy of members within the European Council is conferred on a national level, and not on a European scale).

2 ▪ The EU faces the challenge of embodying its capacity for action and decision-making

Admittedly, progress has been made during the COVID-19 crisis regarding the EU’s ability to make key decisions, in particular with the decision to issue a common debt to finance the response to the pandemic and economic recovery. However, the health crisis has underscored structural weaknesses in the EU’s crisis management capacity –in terms of forward-thinking, preparation and decision-making– but also in the actual implementation of the solidarity principle, which must be strengthened and put into greater effect ahead of future crises. European political leadership must absolutely be clarified in terms of the rivalry between institutions and Member States.

3 ▪ What can be done? Under which conditions can a European decision-making capacity and political leadership be achieved?

Resolving the EU’s “executive deficit” must entail the fostering of clearer, more legitimate and more responsible political leadership. In the short term, this would involve in particular putting a face on the response to the health crisis –for example by drawing inspiration from the “Barnier method” which highlighted a highly effective coordination between political objectives, technical implementation, the implications for the EU institutions, along with a clear leadership. In the medium to long term, three avenues emerge as key if a more legitimate, more responsible and therefore more efficient political leadership is to be developed: strengthen the “Spitzenkandidaten” system to elect the President of the Commission, reform the electoral system at the European Parliament by creating transnational lists that are likely to contribute towards bolstering the legitimacy of the choice made by EU leaders and subsequently their effectiveness. Lastly, the legitimacy and efficacy of the EU could be usefully reinforced by implementing a contract of mandate between the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council.