The longest meeting in EU history

While negotiations at the European Council continue unabated, an evident fact emerges from the European session: the current decision-making system is not adequate to deal with relevant and urgent problems.
The European Council is the EU institution which “defines the general political priorities and guidelines of the European Union”. Therefore, it adopts “conclusions” (not decisions) “by consensus”, that is, unanimously. It is composed of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, its President and the President of the Commission. It is not part of Union legislators and therefore does not negotiate or adopt legislative acts. Instead, it establishes the Union’s political agenda, through the “conclusions” of the European Council meetings, which “identify the problematic issues and the measures to be taken”.

The Council must vote unanimously on issues considered sensitive by the Member States. The Council website lists a number of examples: common foreign and security policy (excluding some well-defined cases requiring a qualified majority, for example the appointment of a special representative); citizenship (granting new rights to EU citizens); EU membership; harmonization of national indirect tax legislation; EU finances (own resources, multiannual financial framework); some provisions on justice and home affairs (European Public Prosecutor’s Office, family law, police cooperation at operational level, etc.); harmonization of national social security and social protection legislation. Furthermore, the Council is required to vote unanimously to depart from the Commission proposal when the latter is unable to accept the changes made to its proposal.

This rule does not apply to acts to be adopted by the Council on a recommendation from the Commission, for example in the area of ​​economic policy coordination.

The flaws in this system can be glimpsed – periodically – when negotiating very important issues. In the last few days, more than ever, the consensus voting system turnsout cumbersome and difficult.

The meeting of the European Council, the body that gathers EU heads of state and government, which began on Friday morning and Brussels, is not yet over. After three days and three nights of negotiations, European leaders were unable to agree on the two main points of the negotiations: the Recovery Fund, which will become the main European instrument to stimulate the economy after the coronavirus pandemic , and the 2021-2027 budget of the European Union, that is, the vehicle that in addition to the Fund will contain the so-called structural funds, that is, the main reservoirs of money redistributed by the Union to individual states.

The current meeting has already become one of the longest in the history of the Council: the record belongs to that in which the Treaty of Nice was approved in December 2000, which lasted four days.

The meeting in progress was one of the most awaited in recent years, as well as one of the most delicate: in a single negotiating session, European leaders had to discuss the most ambitious European measure in recent years – that is, the Recovery Fund, which provides for summary of the issuance of European government bonds to finance a huge transfer of resources from northern to southern countries – and how to spend common resources in the next seven years, amid a pandemic, an economic crisis and a transition necessary to avert the effects of climate change.

The initial draft envisaged a fund of around 500 billion in grants and 250 in loans, as proposed in May by Germany and France and endorsed by the European Commission, and a seven-year budget of 1.074 billion euros. In the following days, the negotiations moved away a lot from the draft, mainly due to the positions of the Northern countries – the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Finland – traditionally more economically rigid and skeptical of greater political integration.

As for the Recovery Fund, the northern countries have worked above all to lower the share of subsidies: their latest proposal provides for 350 instead of the 500 imagined by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Austria and the Netherlands, the two most intransigent countries in this negotiation, have also asked to take away from the European Commission the competence to control the use of the Fund by individual countries, and proposed to assign it to the Council of the European Union ( that is, the body where the governments of the 27 countries are represented). The same countries also asked that national governments have a veto right on the release of funds to individual countries.

Germany, France, Italy and Spain said they were against, but given that the proposals must be approved unanimously in the European Council, in the last two days we have focused mainly on the size of the Fund – Bloomberg writes that the latest draft provides 390 billion in subsidies, Germany, France and Italy would not want to drop below 400 – and on the control mechanism, on which there is still no agreement: Germany has proposed to assign it to the Council but without any veto rights of individual countries.

Lateral discussions also focused on the distribution criterion of the Fund – some countries ask that the unemployment rate be cut in the last five years, which makes the audience of beneficiaries very wide – and the proposal to link the release of funds to respect for the state of right, very opposed by Eastern countries led by semi-authoritarian governments such as Hungary and Poland.

On the multiannual budget, however, the discussion is only preliminary. Politico notes that “until Sunday evening, the leaders had not even started talking about the size of the multiannual budget, which before the coronavirus had engaged them for more than one Council meeting at the beginning of the budget conversations”. The countries of the South have tried to put on the table the maintenance of the rebates – that is, substantially of the discounts on the contributions that the national governments pay to the Union, guaranteed above all to those of the North – to convince the most skeptical not to reduce the Recovery Fund ; but it seems that the northern countries even want to ask for even higher rebates.

However, many observers suspect that the leaders are continuing to negotiate for a matter of image: none of them want to return to their country after four days in Brussels without having something to sell to the public. That it is above all a question of image is also understood from the information passed to the press – journalists are informed of the state of negotiations by officials, collaborators and assistants who periodically take a walk in the Europa building press room – and published on social networks during the summit.

We await – with bated breath – that a compromise will be reached so that the reconstruction of the European economy and support for European companies can begin.

By Domenico Greco

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