“Consensus in EU politics has become almost an end in itself”

“Consensus in EU politics has become almost an end in itself”

Interview with a Professor of EU governance from Central European University, Mr. Uwe Puetter

P: Professor Puetter, thank you for joining us here at Politheor today. It is a great pleasure having you!

First of all, congratulations on your newest book ‘’The European Council and the Council: New Institutionalism and Institutional Change’’. Can you start by saying a few words about the significance of this book for EU studies? Give us a short synopsis of your main findings and talk about the meaning of new intergovernmentalism. How does it explain the evolution of the European Council and the Council?

UP: With the book I wanted to react to what in my view is a major puzzle for EU studies scholars. Namely that we have seen over the last 15 years or so a rise of intergovernmental decision-making outside the domain of traditional EU legislative decision-making. The European Council, the Eurogroup and Council formations such as ECOFIN and the Foreign Affairs Council play a very prominent role, whereas the Commission is often considered as being outmanoeuvred and less influential. Yet, there is no evidence of integration fatigue in general. We see more integration. Economic governance, foreign and security policy, employment, social inclusion – these are all domains in which the EU has become a very important player. The main argument of the book is that we are witnessing a new type of intergovernmentalism. Not one which implies a retreat from integration but one which is based on a decentralised governance model within the new areas of EU activity and which relies on direct involvement of member state governments at all stages of the policy process – initiation, adoption, implementation. The ambition was to show that this approach towards collective decision-making changes the parameters according to which the European Council and the Council as political institutions function. In short, the European Council develops from an institution which decides major steps in EU integration to an oversight body which constantly intervenes with day-to-day decision-making as the issues at stake in the relevant policy domains cut deep into domestic politics. Think about the euro crisis. The Council can no longer be understood primarily in terms of the EU’s main legislative body which represents the member states. It has become a forum for policy coordination. In most of the new areas of EU policy-making – economic governance and foreign affairs in particular – this role is far more important than its role as a legislator. This means we can trace a process of institutional change – an adjustment of decision-making routines and working methods. Think about the influential Eurogroup which is set up as an informal forum for face-to-face debate among euro area finance ministers, the Commission and the ECB.

Consensus as an end in itself

P: Having in mind the process of EU integration, how would you assess the institutional relations in the EU today amidst the rise of a deliberative model of decision-making? Is it more of a love-and-hate relationship or has consensus-politics become an overarching principle of EU politics?

UP: The quest for consensus-politics has become very strong and this is reflected in the way the European Council and the Council work. European integration has always relied on the establishment of consensus – at least around major steps within integration. The European Council’s role in preparing major treaty revisions speaks to this. Yet, as the community method was developed further and the legislative agenda became more complex we also saw a drive for more qualified majority voting or at least the threat of it. This is different in the new areas of EU activity which were established at Maastricht and later. You cannot rely on legislation to codify an agreement which you have reached at some point in time. The example of the Stability and Growth Pact speaks to this point. You agree on certain rules but they do not have the same status as rules say on external trade or competition policy. In fact, economic governance or foreign affairs requires constant efforts to generate and renew consensus on policy objectives as member states find it relatively easy to defect from these objectives. Thus, differences and confrontations are not unusual but what is remarkable is that member states have always continued to search for consensus. And this idea that consensus has become almost an end in itself has become manifest in the institutional design of the European Council, the Eurogroup and Council formations such as ECOFIN and Foreign Affairs. Disagreement and problems in policy implementation do not mark an end of consensus-seeking practices but rather trigger renewed efforts to enhance the consensus-seeking capacity of forums such as the European Council or the Eurogroup.

P: In relation to the previous question, you have written a lot about the crucial role of informal meetings in the EU decision-making, both between and within EU institutions and bodies. Do these informal modes of decision-making facilitate and contribute to consensus politics in the EU?

UP: Informal working methods have proliferated because of the growing quest for consensus. Legislative decision-making implies a certain formalisation even though we also see informal politics around it. Yet, policy coordination requires self-commitment on part of the most senior decision-makers within national governments and within the Commission because someone needs to ensure the implementation of EU-level agreements within the domestic arena. This is why, as I argue in the book, there is a lot of emphasis on face-to-face debate among ministers or the heads of state and government. Tightened confidentiality and the exclusion of diplomats and advisers from these meetings are considered to facilitate personal agreement and allow more room for people to backtrack from previously voiced preferences. This also explains why there is often a certain mismatch between what ministers and Prime Ministers say at press conferences in Brussels and what is happening inside the room. You portray yourself as someone who fights for national positions but inside the meeting room your credibility and influence very much depend on whether you can make commitments to work towards commonly defined objectives.

Paradoxical character of European integration

P: Recently we have witnessed the first serious attempts on the EU level to establish a connection between the formation of the European Commission, and the EP election results. More generally, the whole formation process of the European Commission received high media coverage, and the role of the EP hearings in approving the Commission representation has been stressed as never before. Do you see this as the beginning of the institutionalization of the rather vague provision of ‘’taking the EP elections into consideration’’ when nominating the European Commission President and voting on the European Commission? Does it undermine your theory in a sense that the recent institutional changes enhance the legitimacy of supranational policy-making or even mark the beginning of a more competitive process of decision-making?

UP: No. Not at all. I do not think that this undermines my argument. It is part of the paradoxical character of contemporary European integration. The period after the Maastricht Treaty until today not only saw enlargement but also an increased need to address the perceived lack of legitimacy of EU decision-making. Perhaps somewhat ironically, national governments reacted in two ways. First, they sought to increase their own involvement into the policy process at all stages and refuted the traditional idea of delegation of decision-making competences to supranational bodies such as the Commission and the Court. Yet, this happened with regard to newly established fields of EU activity. As regards traditional domains of community method decision-making such as the internal market, agriculture or trade, member state governments agreed again and again to enhance the influence of the European Parliament which became a real co-legislator. So, the two models coexist. A strong European Parliament and a strong European Council. This leads to new inter-institutional clashes but not necessarily to a situation in which one model prevails over the other.

P: In your opinion, how does the new intergovernmentalism period in EU politics answer the question of democratic deficit in the EU? How can new intergovernmentalism resolve this issue?

UP: I am not sure whether the new intergovernmentalism in itself can be considered as a cure of the democratic deficit problem or as something which amplifies it. Yet, the problem goes far beyond this. Neither the traditional community method model, even with the enhanced role of the EP, nor the prominent role of member state governments seem to have led to enhanced legitimacy. Both the parliamentarisation of EU politics and the new intergovernmentalism have emerged from the fact that the EU’s legitimacy has been challenged. National governments or even national models of government have been faced with very similar challenges domestically. One key aspect of contemporary policy-making is the dominant role of executive actors. A key question now is how do national parliaments and how does the European Parliament react to this?

P: Let us now turn to the normative foundations of the predominantly consensus-based politics in the EU political economy that you write about.  It is ‘’the ideational convergence (which has) paved the way for intergovernmental co-operation’’ to cite your latest article. By this you mean the primacy of price stability, the superiority of markets and the limits of government intervention among European political elites. If one looks at the recent economic crisis in the EU, how does ideational convergence relate to the dominance of austerity measures promoted by some members of the Eurozone, and the genuine opposition to the austerity orthodoxy arising outside the Eurozone? Do you think that there is still a truly European solution to the crisis or is the prophecy of a two-speed Europe coming true?

UP: Collective decision-making, informal agreement in particular, has often a lot to do with ideational convergence. What do policy-makers believe are appropriate responses to a particular policy challenge, is often the key question which decides about the possibility to come to an agreement or not. There is no doubt that the crisis has made agreement more difficult and fuelled controversies as member states have been affected in different ways by the crisis. Yet, one should not confuse debates about burden-sharing with fundamental disagreement about policy options. Though differences between member state governments are often portrayed as either anti- or pro-austerity, for example, such an interpretation can easily conceal the fact that political elites within the EU institutions and member state governments largely converge about the broad orientation of policy.

Barroso Commission lacked mandate for crisis management

P: A few more remarks on handling the crisis. After Jacques Delors’ milestone years as the European Commission president, the economic crisis era has probably been the second largest critical point in the history of the EU. What made the difference between Jacques Delors and Jose Manuel Barroso in the way they resolved these turbulences sucessfully (Delors) or rather unsuccessfully (Barroso)? Is it a matter of ideological foundations, a question of pure agency and character or does the institutional evolution have its influence?

UP: Not sure whether the stark contrast between the Delors and Barroso Commissions as being either successful or unsuccessful really works. Both acted under very different circumstances. Delors’ advocacy was instrumental – among other factors, notably the readiness of certain national decision-makers to move forward – in bringing about an act of delegation – namely of monetary policy. Yet, he faced severe constraints as regards the role of the Commission. The idea of the Delors Committee – as mandated by the European Council by the way – implied a limit on Commission initiative. Moreover, Delors endorsed a decentralised model of decision-making in the field of economic governance as this paved the way for the single currency. The two Barroso Commissions were perhaps the most new intergovernmentalist Commissions so far as they were complicit in developing the new model of EU policy-making – but this pretty much reflects the treaty mandate of the Commission in these domains. As regards crisis management, the Commission simply lacked a mandate to lead on economic governance and they knew this. Which did not imply that they were inactive but they certainly did not play a publicly visible leadership role. Perhaps the question in the end is more about whether member state governments successfully or unsuccessfully managed the crisis.

P: The EU-US trade deal is reaching its near end. In recent years, this Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has been kept in relative secrecy from the public, only to be witnessing a modest opening-up of the negotiation mandate to the public in the last months. Having in mind that it is the European Commission’s Directorate-Generale for Trade which has the upper say in the negotiations, how do you see these efforts of more economic integration going hand-in-hand with supranationalism?

UP: The TTIP negotiations belong to the domain of trade policy and thus are dealt with differently. This involves a greater role for the Commission and, also, for the EP. It shows that different models of decision-making co-exist in EU politics.

Future of the European Union

P:  To bring this interview to and end, what are your thoughts on the future of the European project in fifthy years? Will the EU evolve in line with new intergovernmentalism or do you see a break in this continuity?

UP: Well, the new intergovernmentalism does not imply a teleology of the integration process. My ambition was more limited! I wanted to identify what determines contemporary European integration. And, I think, it is the paradoxical insistence on both more integration while there are fundamental reservations about delegation to traditional supranational actors as under the community method. If these parameters change, we may see a different form of integration. Yet, I do not see this at the moment.

Professor Puetter, it was a great privilege interviewing you. Thank you very much!


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