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European Union and Citizens

Debate: The European Union and its "methods"

on May 4, 2011, 10:31
Tribune - Notre Europe
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The new permanent presidency of the European Council (an innovation of the Lisbon Treaty) and a succession of international and economic crises have lead to a multiplicator of EU summit meetings over the last few semesters. These meetings have given a new urgency and relevance to the classic debate between supporters of the “community method” and those of the “intergovernmental method”. The debate already surfaced at the time of the European Convention, in particular, see the contribution by Michel Barnier and Antonio Vitorino, and was recently fed by Angela Merkel’s “method speech” in Bruges on 2 November 2010.

In her speech, the federal chancellor affirms that “a coordinated European position is not necessarily the result of applying the community method. Such a common position is sometimes also the fruit of the intergovernmental method. The essential point is to have this common position on the important subjects.” The chancellor also evokes a new approach: “A coordinated action in a spirit of solidarity, each of us in our respective sphere of responsibility, but all of us sharing the same goal. For me this is the new ‘Union method’ which we so need.

Notre Europe has asked two eminent specialists and practitioners of European integration to clarify the terms of this debate and to describe their vision of the current developments and the consequences – positive and negative – for the EU.

Paolo Ponzano, special advisor to Commissioner Maros Sefcovic and senior fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, reminds us of the merits of the community method and warns against intergovernmental backsliding in a Notre Europe Policy Brief entitled “Community Method or Intergovernmental Method: an Irrelevant Debate?

Paolo Ponzano cites the memoirs of Jean Monnet: “Bringing governments together and making national civil services cooperate – the intentions are good but this method will fail at the first opposition from established interests if there is not an independent political body capable of taking a common viewpoint and arriving at a common decision.” Paolo Ponzano states that “this assertion, taken from long experience of intergovernmental cooperation, seems relevant to the current phase of European integration”, and highlights the “more balanced and satisfying character of the community method and its central feature, the role played by the Commission in identifying the shared interest of the Union”.

Philippe de Schoutheete, former Belgian permanent representative to the EU and director of the Europe department at the Institut Egmont (Royal Institute for International Relations), produces an analysis which is less critical of current developments. He points in particular to the virtues of involvement by heads of state and government, in a Notre Europe Policy Brief entitled “The Form of Decision-Making in the Union”.

Philippe de Schoutheete calls for a distinction to be made between types of European decision-making: “Let us call it ‘institutional’ when the decision is taken – according to rules which may vary – within institutions. And let us call it ‘intergovernmental’ when the decision is taken outside the institutional system.” He concludes his analysis by observing: “It is understandable that supporters of the community method are on their guard. [...] But given this framework which has served us well, we should avoid doctrinal quarrels which are often based on words whose meaning has changed. Let us use the variety of methods which suit the variety of situations. Above all, we need to work at making decisions.

Notre Europe will invite researchers and interested observers to respond to these contributions and to participate to this debate – superficially theoretical – with an uncertain outcome which is decisive for the future of European integration.

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