Checks and Balances in an EU Constitution

There is widespread agreement that the EU would benefit from further centralization of internal security, and of elements of foreign and defense policy. According to the last Eurobarometer survey of 2001, 73% of EU citizens support a common defense and security policy, and two Europeans out of three believe that the EU should have one common foreign policy. This high support for centralization of tasks in these areas contrasts with the still lukewarm overall support for the EU as a whole: only 48% support their country's membership in the EU.

But does the EU possess the necessary institutions to make these further steps in integration possible? This is one of the most difficult but relevant questions to be addressed by the convention that will debate Europe's constitution beginning this March.

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In other policy areas, European integration has meant much more than just policy coordination. Transfer of power from EU member states has always been accompanied by institution building, tailoring the institution to the specific policy area over which integration was needed. A remarkable feature of this process of integration so far is that it has preserved important dimensions of accountability and control.

But it is important to appreciate the particular way in which accountability for EU decisions has been preserved, and how it differs from political accountability in a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, elections are the ultimate instrument for holding politicians accountable. Citizens delegate decisions to representatives (governments, legislators). If citizens are not satisfied with the decisions they take, that delegation is not renewed: the previous majority loses the election and is replaced by a new government or a new parliamentary majority.

This mechanism cannot work in the EU, at least not under the current European constitution. Governments are the key decision makers in the Council. But they are accountable to citizens at home, in national elections, and they are primarily judged for their domestic performance, not for EU decisions. Other EU policymaking bodies (the European Central Bank or the Commission) are appointed, not elected.

Accountability in the EU has, instead, been achieved through methods that are typical of bureaucratic control, not of politics. Transfer of power to a EU body has generally been accompanied by a clear operational definition of the policy goals.

EU policymakers (the ECB, the Commission, the majority in the Council) generally have a narrowly defined "mission": price stability, enforcing the single market, holding prices of agricultural commodities stable. This has two advantages: it limits discretion by the EU policymakers, and hence insures that transfer of power is not abused; it also facilitates post-transfer accountability and control.

The European Parliament, the media, the Council, can blame or approve of the way in which EU decision-making power has been used. Since EU policymakers have a narrow mandate and their decisions are often inspired by external technical criteria, they can be held accountable for their behavior despite the absence of elections.

This method of bureaucratic control has (so far) worked well in the EU. It can fruitfully be extended to internal security, where it is possible to define a precise mission for EU policymakers, exploiting the Commission and designing appropriate technical guidelines to achieve clearly defined operational goals.

The method of bureaucratic control cannot, however, work in the new areas where further centralization is urgently needed: foreign policy and defense. What mandate can be given in the realm of foreign policy? The only feasible mandate is to pursue the common interest of the EU.

But what does that mean in practice? If the mandate is so incomplete that it leaves too much room for discretional judgment, there is only one way to hold policymakers accountable: through democratic elections. Only citizens can tell whether policy decisions are really in their interest. Unfortunately, this instrument is unavailable at the EU level, or at least it is seriously deficient.

Naturally, limited forms of cooperation are still possible, in foreign and defense policy, through intergovernmental coordination. They should be pursued as far as possible. But we should be aware that these forms of cooperation will not take us very far.

One reason is that both defense and foreign policies rely on well-functioning bureaucracies (a diplomatic corps, the military). How can the Council acquire control over such bureaucracies? The Commission, not the Council, is traditionally the bureaucratic arm of the EU. Developing a EU bureaucracy in foreign policy is a first step towards having an effective European foreign policy.

Here, however, the Commission competes with national bureaucracies. In the realm of foreign policy, it seems difficult to exploit the traditional vertical links between the Commission and national bureaucracies that instead have worked so well in dealing with national policy issues.

We are thus left with a fundamental dilemma. Europe is now in a situation in which big benefits would come from centralizing foreign and defense policies. But in these areas, bureaucratic control cannot work. To centralize these policies, a drastic redesign of the EU political constitution might be needed.

Europe would need to have political institutions more typical of a federation than of a confederation of states. It is no coincidence that historical episodes of unification of countries coincided with situations in which external threats or a common enemy created large benefits from centralizing defense and foreign policy. But is Europe capable of jumping to much closer forms of political integration at a time when it is trying to enlarge to the East?