From the eurozone’s sovereign debt and banking emergencies to the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU has responded with innovative resolve when confronted with financial stress and existential crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a geopolitical threat of a different order. Peace, democracy and freedom on the European continent are under attack. The EU is capable of rising to this challenge, but its leaders and peoples need to grasp quickly that far-reaching financial and institutional change will be necessary.
So far, the EU has displayed admirable unity and determination in its response to Russian aggression. Acting with the US, the UK and other democracies, it is supplying Ukraine with military aid, absorbing millions of war refugees and initiating plans to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. Yet these are only the first steps in what must be a more ambitious collective endeavour to strengthen the EU and enhance the “strategic autonomy” of which its representatives have spoken.
The starting point is to recognise the immense financial costs required to boost the EU’s military defences, increase its energy security, contribute to Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction and pay for other necessary projects from climate change and border security to technological innovation. These will surely far exceed even the combined spending of about €1.8tn contained in the EU’s 2021-2027 budget and post-pandemic recovery fund. Yet the larger the sums spent at EU level, the more vital it will be to improve transparency and accountability to European taxpayers.
Already the risk exists that the worthy objective of closer EU fiscal integration will fall into discredit, should some governments misuse the grants and cheap loans available from the recovery fund. As EU spending programmes expand, it will not be enough to rely on the European Commission and other unelected agencies in Brussels to monitor good behaviour. Substantial powers of oversight must pass to the European parliament, and national legislatures too, for otherwise the EU will continue to be vulnerable to accusations from its ill-wishers of inefficiency, remoteness and lack of democracy.
Such a change might strengthen the case for other reforms such as giving the European parliament, at long last, the power to initiate legislation on its own, and encouraging transnational electoral lists for voting to the EU assembly. These were among more than 300 recommendations that were submitted to EU leaders on Monday in the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which billed itself as a citizen-led initiative to set the EU’s priorities. They are not necessarily to the taste of many member states, for in every crisis of the past two decades national governments have had a much bigger say than the EU legislature or commission in crafting the bloc’s responses.
Like another proposal, aired by Italian premier Mario Draghi, to eliminate the national veto over EU foreign policy, any significant extension of the European parliament’s powers would require changes to the EU’s basic treaty. Arguably, the need for unanimity has not seriously hampered the conduct of EU foreign policy since Russia launched its war. Nonetheless, treaty change may be necessary in the future. EU leaders should not shy away from it just because achieving approval for the 2009 Lisbon treaty, the last big overhaul, proved an exhausting and divisive process.
Similar political courage will be needed for EU leaders to open the bloc’s doors to western Balkan countries — and potentially Ukraine. But they must do so. All the fine talk of European integration and a lasting peace will ring hollow unless these countries become full, equal EU members without needless delays.