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Liekuut| Sideline the treaties of the European Union more often!

21 May 2024

In ‘Liekuut’, which is the Groningen dialect for straight ahead or straightforward, we regularly share the perspective of one of our academics on a topical issue. In this way, we show how UG researchers are contributing to the societal debate.

The European Union is a legal community. Details of the powers that EU institutions have, the powers that they don’t have, and the procedures they have to follow, are set out in the treaties that underpin the EU. Numerous eagle-eyed lawyers make sure that no-one oversteps their boundaries. But recent years have shown that even in Europe, necessity knows no law. Is this a good thing? Pieter de Wilde , Professor of European Politics & Society doesn’t see a problem. In fact, to his mind, the EU should actively sideline its treaties more often so that it can become more political and democratic.

Mainly for the market

‘If you’d asked me ten years ago what the European Elections were about, I’d have said: mainly about the internal market. Which goods and services do we allow, and which do we ban? For an internal market to function properly, everyone needs to comply with the same rules and uphold the same standards. This prevents unfair competition. Take the pesticide glyphosate. Should this be available to farmers? It’s a highly effective substance, so farmers who don't use it simply can’t compete. At the same time, studies are pointing to a link between glyphosate and Parkinson’s disease. So it’s important that Europe decides whether this pesticide may be used or not.’

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

‘But: times have changed, and over the past decades, Europe has been acting in matters that are outside the agreed policy areas and protocols. Examples include the Euro crisis, the refugee crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine… it seems that necessity knows no law. These were problems of a magnitude that meant that Europe had to act even when the Treaties said it didn’t have the competencies. If enough heads of government think that something that is outside the scope of the treaties needs to happen, they find a way to do it. All those eagle-eyed lawyers are also highly skilled in finding ways around the rules.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And so it’s the politicians, not the lawyers, who decide what happens.’

Sideline the treaties

‘Is this a good thing? I think it’s high time that we reconsidered what the European Union is. We’ve always seen the EU as a legal community, but it’s become blatantly clear that it’s also a political entity, which therefore could and should be managed politically. We are still facing huge problems, problems that people care about, and which they should be able to vote on. So I say: sideline those treaties. Let the EU appropriate the power to decide about more things and give it more room to negotiate. Because we’ll be facing more crises in the future, and we really need the authority to act. After all, if a crisis affects the whole of Europe, stepping up as the EU is our best bet.’

Changing rules

‘Legislation states that you can change treaties, but only with approval from the member states. This is a lengthy and tricky process, which might not even work. Take the unanimity rules for foreign policy, for example. The EU can’t make foreign policy unless all member states agree. So if one leader digs their heels in (naming no names), you can forget it. You can try to circumvent the treaties, via desire paths, but this undermines the legal entity of the EU. So I’d rather see us creating more room to organize things within the institutions that we already have.’ 

Cattle market

‘I understand that this sounds a bit scary, particularly here in the Netherlands when we talk about protecting the constitution. But it’s important to realize that there are innumerably more rules in European treaties than in our constitution. What’s more, the treaties will never be completely dispensed with. There’s so much diversity within Europe that it’s always a bit of cattle market, with leaders trying to get a majority to back their plan. If we acknowledge the political side of the European Union, the voice of the majority would have more clout and we’d have a choice. Most importantly, the EU would be in a better position to act during the next crisis.’

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Last modified:27 May 2024 12.03 p.m.
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