Column | Member States increasingly powerful in the EU

MEP Bernard Guetta lost his federal faith when European government leaders decided in 2020, during the pandemic, to borrow 750 billion euros (‘Eurobonds’) for projects to get the 27 economies back on top. His colleague Sophie in ‘t Veld had the opposite reaction. According to her, a federal Europe is needed more than ever.

Both liberals wrote books about the power struggle that is going on in Europe between the member states and European institutions such as parliament. Or, says In ‘t Veld, ‘between power and counter-power, with democracy at stake’. Both note that the Member States are becoming increasingly powerful. But they differ strongly on whether the European elections next year can change this.

Guetta (72), former correspondent for Le monde in Moscow, now an MEP for French President Macron’s Liberal Renaissance party, has always been in favor of Eurobonds and the “political Europe” we are increasingly seeing as a result of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Europe, writes Guetta La nation europeanenne, should rather have used Eurobonds, formed an energy union and set up European defense and geopolitically oriented foreign policy. He is pleased that Europe is now taking these steps. Then why did he fall from his federal faith? Because many of his liberal colleagues ‘made long faces’ when they heard about those Eurobonds. Parliament barely got a grip on the spending of that 750 billion. The heads of government decided to cancel projects from the current EU budget as compensation, over which parliament had co-decided and did have a say. A number of liberal colleagues sounded the alarm: they saw this as a seizure of power by the government leaders. He does not mention names, but In ‘t Veld was probably one of them.

Government leaders themselves make Europe undemocratic, writes In ‘t Veld

Guetta understood their anger. Parliament must be a counter-power to the European Commission and the Member States – just as national parliaments are a counter-power to the government. That countervailing power, essential in any democracy, was dealt a blow. But in their excitement about this, Guetta writes, those colleagues hardly appreciated that those Eurobonds were “a huge step” for Europe. That’s how it goes all the time, he writes: parliamentarians constantly put salt on the wrong snails. Government leaders finally appoint a capable Commission president, parliamentarians complain that they do not like the procedure (Von der Leyen was not a ‘Spitzen candidate’). And then vote in anyway. According to Guetta, MEPs are fighting rearguard battles that they lose anyway and “wasting their time with MeToo statements, glass deposit schemes and other fashionable things”. Meanwhile, the heads of government are – indeed – getting behind the European wheel. His conclusion: that federation will not be created for the time being and ‘the European Parliament will remain a sham parliament’.

D66 member In ‘t Veld (59) has been focusing sharply on the same crucial contrast between power and counterpower for twenty years. In her book, Naked Power, she also notes: government leaders are becoming increasingly powerful in Europe. They pretend that Europe is still a technical club that no one can reach, neither governments nor citizens. Citizens fall for it and complain that ‘Europe is so undemocratic’. In reality, Europe is becoming increasingly political and the member states are increasingly calling the shots. It is the heads of government themselves, she writes, who make Europe undemocratic. They are increasingly arranging things outside the European treaty – bypassing the parliament, which represents European citizens. Such as with the Eurobonds, European top appointments and the ‘European Peace Facility’ with which the Member States finance arms for Ukraine outside the EU budget and therefore without parliamentary scrutiny. And also in the voluntary ‘solidarity mechanism’ for the distribution of asylum seekers, for which the EU has competence. In the event of rule of law violations in Poland or Hungary, government leaders postpone measures. Member States do not like the fact that parliament, in a rare assertive impulse, wants to vote on a resolution on Thursday to deprive Hungary of the EU presidency in 2024.

Guetta does not think that parliament can rival the member states. The motto of his book is from the 18th-century French diplomat Talleyrand: “You only believe in those who believe in themselves.” In ‘t Veld wants parliament to fight back hard. She thinks that citizens, when they vote next year, will show government leaders that they will no longer be fooled. According to Guetta, they mainly deceive themselves.