Posted on 9/11/09 in Editorials
When you ask him about the future of Europe, he starts with… 1989. The year he started his European carrier as young and newly elected MEP. Twenty years, 4 MEP mandates and one European Parliament vice-presidential office later, his eyes still sparkle when he talks about the past, present and future of the European Union. Meet Gerard Onesta, a true European green warrior.
A “House of Talks”
When I was elected MEP in 1989, Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain, the Union had 12 member states, and from a political point of view, it was in swaddling-cloths. The Parliament was a pleasant debate chamber, a “House of Talks”. It had no codecision power, not « a few », just « none at all ».
Then, we had Czechoslovakia and Poland in the spring, then Hungary and Eastern Germany in November, Romania in December. Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia 3 days before the end of the year, when he was still imprisoned by the beginning of the very same year. Democracy was going through the continent at full throttle speed : we all had this feeling of fast forward. 1989 was so telluric.
Back then, I was waiting for a European Tennis Court Oath*. Times were demanding. I was expecting us, the Members of the European Parliament, to rise and swear, collectively, that this democracy in its infancy was over, and that we wouldn’t separate before we gave the Union a new constitution.
Well, 20 years later, I’m still waiting.
Because nothing came. The Parliament was stuck in the then-eternal debate « enlarge or deepen ? » Shall we integrate new countries in the Union first, or shall we first reform the EU institutions to modernize the decision-making process ?
By the time we reached the answer « we shall first reform » it was too late : the enlargement process was already on-going.
Nevertheless, we tried to reform. We had the treaties burst of the 90’s and beginning of 2000. Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Rome II, Lisboa : we practically had an institutional reform every 2 or 3 years. Each trying, and failing, to address this uncomfortable feeling that the institutional mechanism wasn’t working any more. We already experienced this feeling in 1989. And 20 years later, it is still there.
The navel-gazing dance
It wouldn’t be such a great deal if we were in the 19th century, with margins counted in decades. Why would we care of the delays ? Rome wasn’t built in 1 day, and it’s only been 50 years so… why would we care ?
We should care because this is not the 19th century. It is the 21st century, the global crisis is running ahead. The European Union, and its collective action capacity, is the only relevant level of action, our only chance to change the world’s pace. But the Union is getting nowhere, infected by national egoism, and each passing year puts us in a more difficult situation : financial crisis, climate crisis, food crisis, energy crisis, biodiversity crisis…
So we have two different under constructionintertwinned projects, of complete different nature : the institutions of the EU, which tools have been improved, but not with the magnitude requested, and the global crisis and its diabolical tempo. We’re fighting with tiny tools inherited from the Rome Treaty, and an institutionnal mechanism elaborated in the 60’s and 70’s. Both totally unable to address the global situation. The Union is focusing on the intergovernemental system : strong states, a Commission serving them, and a democratic facade called the Parliament ; when it should focus, to bypass national egoisms, on the community system : a strong Parliament, a Commission fully responsible before it, and States without single veto power.
And now comes Barosso. Again. His re-election as President of the Commission is, indeed, a sinister joke. He’s the symbol of the weakness of the EU system. He wouldn’t stand in anybody’s light, he’s the States’ doggie, and he will let the national navel-gazing dance continue. The European project is in decline, precisely because the will (and actions) of the States is to re-nationalize policies.
The third number after the point
It is ensured that everything that gives the impression that the European Union is working is decided through the intergovernemental (and thus national-focused) system, not through the community (and thus European-focused) system.
Sarkozy embodied perfectly this nationalization of the Union. For instance, he went over the head the European Commission on climate issues to impose a (unanimous) decision of the Council, instead of using the community system. On the paper, it could look as if it’s working. In fact, if you know how to read the texts, the price to pay for the unanimity in the Council is that this Climate Package is empty.
The budget of the EU symbolizes this nationalization of the EU.
Experts say that an state-like entity can be called “federal” when is controls a budget of at least 7% of the entity’s GDP. In the USA, the Federal Government controls a 20% GDP budget. In the EU, it is less than 1%. Even less than 0,9%. In comparison, the Stern report established the investments needed to avoid a major global crisis due to climate change at 1 or 2% of the GDP.
The whole European Union budget is now less than 0,9% percent, and the heads of states are very pleased with these cuts. Tony Blair is the most accountable of this situation, and now he’s the favorite for the election of President of the European Council.
Last UK EU presidency was in charge of EU financial perspectives. Tony Blair, as Sarkozy did later, went over the head of the Parliament to negotiate everything in the Council of Heads of State. The only debate left to the Parliament by the Blair method was about the third number after the point !
At the end of the London summit, Blair had made the financial announcment, without the agreement of the Parliament, the codecision process would have requested. While it’s not over until the fat lady sings, however, as the media bought it, the fat lady indeed had sung. In this case, the fat lady being the European Council of heads of State : everybody submit to a unanimous decision of the European Council. The commission depends on the Council because of the nomination of its presidency, while Governments call the mains political groups in the European Parliament to lay down the Governments’ decision.
The institutional tools and the surge for action
Although I depict a quite dark situation, there is still hope.
Among the surprisingly unnoticed improvements brought by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament will be allowed to propose amendments to the European Treaties, this for the first time in history.
So in January 2005, an amendment was adopted by the Parliament. It basically announced the will of the Parliament to use this constitutional power-to come. More than 600 members of Parliament voted in favour of this amendment called… the “Onesta amendment”, which I submited to the chamber for this is since long time part of the European Greens’ programme.
It is easy to oppose, while it is not so easy to propose. Which is even more true when the rules of the game over-defines the game. Until now, the Parliament talking to the other European bodies on institutional issues was like herding cats.
But the Parliament will soon have the institutional tools to oppose the working methods of the Commission. While the multiple crisis we face create the surge of action. Here’s our European Tennis Court Oath coming. It is just a matter of time.
While concluding this interview, Gérard Onesta talked about the regional elections campaign he’s leading for the Greens in the French region of Midi-Pyrénées (South-West). “What about a possible European future of yours ?” was he asked. “It is a suffering burden to be able to negotiate only on the third number after the point, he answered. A suffering burden”. Then after a pause, the sparkle in the eyes : “but there will be a European Tennis Court Oath. The Greens campaigned for it, and believe me, the Parliament will initiate a call for the writing of a new European Constitution. I can announce it to you right now : I am already candidate to this European Constitutional Convention”.
*The Oath was a pivotal event during the French Revolution. It was a pledge signed by the members of the Third Estate of the Kingdom of France on June 20, 1789 in a tennis court building near the Palace of Versailles. Opposing the King, they took the solemn collective oath “never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances demand, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations.” Back to reading