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The Community Method: Historical Evolutions and Political Challenges

Notre Europe publishes the concluding remarks expressed by António Vitorino during the seminar on the Community method* organised by Notre Europe together with the European Commission’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) in Brussels on 28 February 2012.

Concluding remarks of the seminar

on the Community method
* organised by Notre

Europe together with the European

Commission’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) in Brussels on 28

February 2012.


I would like to thank

you all for the discussions that we have had in the course of this long day, allowing

us to probe the “Community method” in detail.


Barroso’s opening speech
and the dialogue that it prompted, the lunchtime

debate with the Secretaries General of the Commission, of the European

Parliament and of the Council, the speeches from the members of our two panels

and the questions and comments from all of you: all of this has been extremely

useful in fuelling and prolonging the debate which Notre

has been endeavouring to foster since spring 2011, and of which this

seminar is, of course, a salient moment.

Naturally, we are

going to pursue this debate over the coming months because its outcome is

crucial to the future of European construction. As you know, Notre Europe has already produced

numerous publications on the topic, and indeed I am glad to be able to say that

many of those publications have been quoted from here today. You may rest

assured that further publications and possibly even further events are going to

follow in the short and medium term.

It is, of course,

difficult for me to summarise here in a comprehensive, in-depth fashion the

lessons learned at this seminar, though we will be producing a written summary of

them, in close conjunction with the BEPA, in the near future. So for the moment,

I shall confine myself to making a few conclusive remarks on what I consider to

be the most important points to have emerged from today’s debates, while adding

a few personal observations here and there.


A broad consensus leads us to highlight

the benefits of the Community method in terms of flexibility.

As we have seen, the

application of the Community method has come a long way since the signing of

the treaties that set up the ECSC and the Common Market. On each occasion,

European construction has had to mediate between the imperatives of efficiency,

of legitimacy and of necessity, and, more often than not, it is the Community

method that has surfaced in the centre of this triangle.

And indeed the example

of the recent announcement of a referendum in Ireland reminds us that a triangle

is still unavoidable, even in the event of a treaty which is not yet a

Community affair at this stage. The legitimacy of such a referendum is

unquestioned, its effectiveness uncertain, and the need for it crucial inasmuch

as while Irish approval may not be compulsory for the treaty to enter into

force, it is crucial if the Irish wish to benefit from the “European

Stability Mechanism’s” financial aid…


At this juncture the European

Council is part and parcel of the Community’s institutional system.

The European Council

was first set up in the 1970s, since when, its role gradually became formalised,

and it was sanctioned as a European institution by the Lisbon Treaty: thus it is now part and parcel of the

Community’s institutional system, so that we should no longer be speaking of an

“institutional triangle” but of an “institutional


The other consequence

is that we should not confuse the European Council’s intervention with the

“intergovernmental method”, the latter term being reserved for

cooperation forged outside of the Community framework (for instance, the

Schengen agreement).

At this juncture, the

European Council is an institution which is part of the Community method, a

method that is sufficiently adaptable and flexible to acknowledge its role,

primarily in terms of political input. There is absolutely no need to invent a

new “method” for that!


The constant strengthening of the

European Parliament’s role has had a major impact on the functioning of the

Community method.

The development of the

European Parliament’s role is in singular contrast to that of the national

parliaments’ role: at the national level, political oversight has gradually but

effectively replaced their traditional legislative function in the sphere of

“European affairs”; while the gradual expansion and extension of the

European Parliament’s role has occurred above all in terms of legislative

powers (and budgetary powers, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty), but rather less so

in connection with powers of political oversight.

Yet we should

highlight the strong lack of symmetry in the oversight exercised with regard to

the Council and the Commission, and the perverse effects triggered by the

European Parliament’s temptation to cause difficulties for the Commission over “micro-management”

issues – a fact which has done nothing to boost Europe’s

legitimacy. This situation is a result, in particular, of the “framework

agreement” which the Commission and the European Parliament thrashed out

after the fall of the Santer Commission when the Commission was in a position

of major weakness, which is not the case today.

The increasingly

frequent conclusion of “early agreements]” between the European Parliament and the

Council has had another important consequence in terms of institutional

balances: while extending co-decision procedure is extremely positive from the

standpoint of legitimacy, in practical terms it leads the European Parliament

and the Council to negotiate directly with each other and causes the Commission

to show far greater hesitancy in the exercise of its right to withdraw its

proposals. That is a practical consequence which needs to be underscored –

without any moral judgment being implied one way or another.


The joint empowerment of the

European Parliament and of the European Council has had a major impact on the

Commission’s exercise of its right of initiative.

As highlighted in a recent study published by Notre

, the Commission is coming under the increasing influence of these

two players in its exercise of the monopoly that it holds in the field of

legislative initiative.

This situation is

understandable as long as we make a clear distinction between two aspects: the

agenda setting of initiatives that require to be promoted at the European

level, a register on which the European Council and the European Parliament

play a far from negligible and a perfectly legitimate role; and the definition

of the scope and substance of the initiatives proposed, which is extremely

important in order to put the debate and the final decision in their proper context,

and in connection with which the Commission always plays a crucial role, which

it must maintain.

In view of this, a

proposal on the table that aims to offer the European Parliament the right to

initiate legislation demands close and careful examination. Such a proposal

could help to strengthen the European Union’s democratic legitimacy, but it

would have a crucial impact both on the balance of powers among the various

European institutions and on the Commission’s influence – an aspect which I

feel the need to stress, even at the risk of sounding unpopular. What is

certain is that an innovation of this magnitude could not be implemented

without there being a “price to pay”, in other words, without the

need to mediate between the legitimacy and the efficiency of the Community



The organisation of

“differentiation” within the EU is an acid test for the Community

method, as shown by the adoption of the “Treaty on Stability, Coordination

and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union
” (“TSCG”).

The reform of Economic

and Monetary Union governance currently under way demands a response to the

crucial issue of a differentiation compatible with the application of the

Community method.

I would like to point

out in this connection that the “enhanced cooperations” instituted by

the Amsterdam Treaty are, in theory, an ideal formula because they allow

willing member states to move forward while leaving the door open for those

that may wish to join them at a later date. Yet I have no choice but to note

that to date it has proven possible to launch only two of these cooperations,

in connection with the right to divorce and with the European patent – because even

though the Schengen agreement harks back in spirit to such a step, it was in

fact concluded outside the treaty framework.

The reform of the governance

of the EMU – which it is worthwhile stressing, is not an “enhanced

cooperation” – is renewing the terms of the debate, in particular as far

as the involvement of Community institutions is concerned. As the member states

see it, it is only logical that the EMU should only concern the members of the

“euro-group”, even though we have seen that a majority of

non-eurozone member states were eager to sign the TSCG. But it is difficult to

envisage a similar rationale being adopted in connection with the Commission or

with the European Parliament, because it is hard to see why and how only their

members from eurozone countries should take part in debates and decisions

relating to the eurozone when the two institutions represent Europe’s general

interests and the European citizens in the broader sense of the term.

This is a choice which

I feel to be crucial for the future, and one which is pregnant with

consequences. It is a matter of safeguarding the foundations of the

Commission’s and the European Parliament’s political legitimacy while also

safeguarding the EU’s institutional unity. At the same time, we need to

envisage the prospect of an enhanced cooperation being subscribed to by only

nine states yet which, in view of the issues in play, could well involve a

majority of, or even exclusively, members of the Commission and of the European

Parliament from the other eighteen EU member countries. That is a political

challenge that we are going to have to probe well in advance.


The various institutions’ political representativeness

affects the degree to which they participate in the Community method’s


To describe the

challenge of political representativeness, I could mention the European Council

or the European Parliament, but I shall focus here on the Commission and its

statute because they have been very much in the limelight today.

The Commission

currently consists of a national from each member state, and at the same time

it is vested with its authority by the political majority in the European Parliament.

Should the President of the European Commission be directly nominated by the

European Parliament rather than by the European Council, as happens today, in

an effort to clearly reaffirm the Brussels college of commissioners’ parliamentary

legitimacy? Or on the contrary, should a dual legitimacy be preserved by

maintaining the link with the European Council and avoiding forging an

exclusive link with the European Parliament, which would help to impart a

strong political connotation to the Commission?

I well remember that, during

the Convention that elaborated the European constitutional treaty, John Bruton

suggested merging the posts of President of the Commission and President of the

European Council, and to then proceed with the direct election of this new

president. Michel Barnier, for his part, suggested adopting both national and

transnational lists in the European elections, specifying that the number one

candidates on those lists would be the natural candidates to the post of

President of the Commission.

Be all of that as it

may, it is incumbent upon me to specify that the Commission should continue to

enjoy the backing of a broad political coalition, and that it would be

dangerous for its internal functioning to be based on the co-existence of a majority

and of an opposition. Nor should we lose sight of the goal involving a

reduction in the size of the Commission, which would make it possible to

strengthen both its collegial nature and the exercise of its responsibility

towards the European Parliament and towards the European citizens.


The functioning of the Community

method is finally facing a challenge in terms of democratic oversight

In this connection,

interaction between the European Commission and European Parliament appears to

have found its level, while democratic oversight exercised over the Council is

further from that goal due to the variety of national practices in the way

parliaments monitor the work of their individual national governments.

There is a key issue

here on which I would like to dwell for a moment, namely the joint

strengthening of democratic legitimacy and parliamentary legitimacy at the national and European

levels. The strengthening of European legitimacy must not become synonymous

with the weakening of national democracy, because the two levels must interact.

One of the most

difficult obstacles that we encounter is that national elections only rarely

focus on European issues, but that should not discourage us from seeking ways

of involving national parliaments to a greater extent, not only with regard to

their governments but also at the Community level.

This increased

involvement is envisaged under the Lisbon Treaty, and it has become a necessity

following the adoption of bail-out plans connected with the sovereign debt

crisis. But it is obvious that the specific modalities of this involvement have

yet to be defined, as do the ways in which the national parliaments and the

European Parliament interact, because the “TSCG” has failed to dispel

the ambiguities in that area.

In this connection, I

would simply like to point out that the viability of the creation of a third

chamber, a proposal which has occasionally been mooted, seems to me to be questionable.

I fear that it would only make the institutional system more top-heavy and more

complicated without necessarily making it much more democratic, particularly in

view of the fragmented and varied nature of the oversight powers exercised by

the national parliaments.


That winds up my “concluding remarks”, which are of course

mere pointers that beg future development. Thank you again for your attention,

and I would also like to thank the BEPA and the European Commission for helping

to make this day such a success.