An Open Letter to ANYONE Who Thinks Progressive Reform of the EU is Possible.
Can the EU really be reformed in a progressive way? No one seems to want to tell me how.
Dear Supporter of Progressive EU Reform,
Over four weeks ago (February 15th, since followed-up) I emailed an open letter to Another Europe Is Possible asking for some information regarding the prospects for their campaign (for Britain to remain in the EU and to fight for progressive reform from within). Two months prior to that (December 3rd) I had written a piece regarding the prospects for #RemainAndReform and forwarded it to various ‘progressive’ Remain campaigners and groups (many of whom had use the #RemainAndReform hashtag themselves).
With the honourable exception of DiEM25 (of whom more later) I’ve not received a single, adequate reply. So I’m opening up my open letter (in slightly amended form) to ANYONE AT ALL who thinks progressive reform of the EU is possible. If you’re so sure that it is, then tell me how — I’m all ears…
My problem (which I will detail more fully in my Notes below) is that I’ve not seen any ‘Road-Maps’ to reform that take fully into account the political context of the EU. I have seen nothing that considers the current electoral landscape across and within the EU member-states, the present make-up of the European Parliament, Commission and Council, the corporate capture of major institutions (particularly the ECB) or the apparently heavily pro-market ECJ (where the Four Freedoms almost always prevail over worker and civil society organisations).
Similarly I have found nothing that takes into account the current direction of travel of the EU reform agenda, which so far has been anything but progressive — with the published intentions of the Commission giving no cause for optimism either (see notes).
I have seen nothing by way of specifics as to how reform could be achieved — where should pressure best be applied, by whom, to what purpose and in what timescale? What are the numbers required in the Parliament, Council and Commission? Who are the key Commissioners and civil servants? Who are our potential allies across Europe and how well are they performing at home or in the European Parliament?
In contrast to this near silence, I have seen a number of very well-reasoned explanations as to why major progressive reform of the EU is either very unlikely or impossible. I’ve linked to some of these below, but in short, the power structures are too diffuse, too cosy, too corporately captured and too remote (whether this was by design or path dependency is by-the-by now).
It is hard to see where our allies might come from for any significant progressive reform — in 11 of the 28 memberstates there is NO radical/progressive representation in the national Parliament, and in 7 more they hold less than 6% of the seats (see Notes below). Added to that, the unanimity requirements of Article 48 mean that any reform can essentially be scuppered by any ‘neoliberal stronghold’ member-state (of which there are likely more than one).
It is also highly likely that there would not be a huge appetite within the EU governing structures for any reforms that were significant enough to demand ratification by referendum in any of the member states (some of which are bound by their own constitutions to hold them) — they might not get the results they were looking for.
Finally, it is likely that continued membership of the EU will result in nothing more than a series of desperate rear-guard actions against further neoliberal impositions with precious little political space left for meaningful progressive reform . (See, for example, the appalling ‘Notification Procedure’ proposal of the Services Directive and the very corporate friendly TTIP-by-the-back-door ‘Trade in Services Agreement’ (TISA) negotiations).
Oh, and of course ‘we’ would be attempting to negotiate ‘our’ way through this as representatives of a country whose current ‘leadership’ has systematically and cynically destroyed most of the trust and all of the goodwill that we once may have enjoyed.
Can you help me? Have you any examples of any work that you or anyone who you know has produced that can convince me that Another Europe Is Possible?
Hove, East Sussex.
Further Explanation and Notes:
My initial open letter to Another Europe Is Possible:
My challenge to users of #RemainAndReform (December 3rd, 2018):
The Irreformability of the EU.
Just as I was writing this extended open letter Lee Jones (of Queen Mary University of London) published this excellent article that puts in very stark terms the huge improbability of socialist/progressive reform of the EU. He states clearly the high bars necessary to initiate reform and the low ones required to scupper them (see the section ‘EU Reform: Mission Impossible’ if you’ve not got the time to read the lot). He has been asking similar questions to mine from before the referendum in 2016 and has received no adequate replies either. This is essential reading:
Joe Guinan & Thomas Hannan’s 2016 Open Democracy article ‘Is Another Europe Possible’ highlights the heavily right-leaning make-up of the political parties in the 28 member-states and the non-existence of any radical/progressive parties in far too many of them. It also highlights many other obstacles to reform (which they conclude are almost certainly insurmountable).
Cambridge University’s Chris Bickerton’s book ‘The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide’ (Penguin is essential reading too. Written from a Brexitly neutral position it details (in very readable fashion) the diffuse structures that have evolved in the Union that now stand in the way of progressive reform (the Kindle version is only £2.99).
SOAS Professor Costas Laprivistas’s book ‘The Left Case Against the EU’ is also scathing regarding the prospects for reform. I recommend you buy it, but you can read a positive review here:
Another ex-Syriza politician now teaching in London, Stathis Kouvelakis is likewise adamant — this link includes and excellent anecdote about Jeremy Corbyn’s (perfectly correct) Euroscepticism:
Finally (for this short selection) a report from the Rosa Luxemborg institute regarding the kind of reforms necessary is also very pessimistic that such reforms could ever be acomplished, noting in their Introduction (p4):
“We are also aware that reform of the existing EU treaties is extremely difficult in view of the existing political majorities and the rules on amending the treaties that are in force, since the unanimous agreement of the Member States would be required.”
The EU Reform Procedure:
As I understand things (and please feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted any of this), the process by which significant, Treaty, reform of the EU is conducted is detailed in Article 48 of the Treaty for the European Union (TEU). Under this Article (A48) National Governments, the European Parliament or the European Commission can pass a recommendation to the Council of the European Union for consideration. Then, if the Council approves of the changes, a convention will be called comprising of representatives of National Parliaments, National Governments, the European Parliament and Commission. This Convention discusses the proposed reforms and, if consensus is achieved, a Conference of National Governments is convened where, it is hoped, the reforms will be accepted. The prospective reforms, however, must still be ratified by each of the member states before they come into force.
The Lisbon Treaty introduced a ‘simplified’ procedure by which the Council consults the Commission and Parliament regarding prospective changes and, providing unanimity is achieved, the reforms can be implemented without the need for the full Convention or Conference of National Governments. If the reforms are financial though, the Council must also gain the approval of the European Central Bank (ECB). Again though, the reforms would not actually come into force until they were ratified by the governments of ALL of the member states.
To further complicate the matter, the rolling six-month rotating presidency of the Council has a hugely significant effect on what particular reforms are considered at any particular time and what priorities are given to each.
So reform of the EU is theoretically possible, but requires unanimity or very strong consensus within and between numerous institutions and very careful timing before any reform (of whatever nature) could be achieved.
The Political Landscape.
The political landscape across the EU also gives great cause for concern regarding progressive reform (significant or otherwise). According to Joe Guinan & Thomas Hannan’s excellent 2016 OpenDemocracy analysis (linked above), there is no radical progressive left at all in 11 of the 28 member-states and in 6 others they have less than 6% of the Parliamentary seats. That the left in sufficient numbers of countries could be mobilised in a timely fashion to ensure progressive governments in a majority is highly unlikely.
This is before we consider how those governments (even if they were all progressive) would choose to interact at Council or Parliamentary level, the role of their particular civil servants, histories and individual priorities (agriculture, industrial, fisheries, environmental etc etc)..
At Commission level the situation is similarly problematic — we would have to ensure that sympathetic individuals were in place in most, if not all, of the key positions. How could this be achieved and in what timescale?
Reform of the ECB (whose agreement is required for most financial reforms) is just as unlikely. A 2017 Corporate Europe Observatory report showed that 98% of the members of the Advisory Groups who inform the ECB on financial matters came directly from private finance companies (a recipe for capture for an institution with very few rules and very high opacity — and to confirm, that was 98% it is not a typo).
Finally there would also likely be a considerable amount of institutional inertia to overcome across the board. The myriad interacting EU and member-state agencies are used to doing things in certain ways and likely labour under similar (neoliberal) assumptions. Changing this significantly would be a huge undertaking.
I understand that significant reform has taken place in the past — notably in the early 2000s when centre-left governments were in power in 12 of the (then) 15 states, but then they were all pushing in a very corporate/bank-friendly ‘third-way’ direction and the subsequent near-doubling of member-states has made the chances of such circumstances reoccurring very much less likely.
The Direction of Travel of Current Reform.
The direction of travel of EU reform is clear from the ‘Structural Reforms For Economic Growth’ report from the European Commission and Roadmap to further integration. Reading them is like playing neoliberal bingo “liberalisation”, “competition”, “efficiency”, “markets”, “markets”, “markets” all very much in the framework of the status quo:
Professor Bill Mitchell has written a lengthy, but absolutely spot-on, take-down of the Roadmap here:
The Necessary Reforms:
Probably the most comprehensive (and in my view best) proposals for EU Treaty reform have been laid out in a report (mentioned above) “Bringing Democratic Choice to Europe’s Economic Governance’ co-published by The Rosa Luxemborg Foundation and PRIME Economics. It’s excellent and well worth reading in full.
A shorter list of recommendations was presented by Professor Richard Murphy (of City University):
As I mentioned in the main body of the letter, the only substantial reply I have so far received to my (ongoing) emails and twitter badgering, came from the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25). They replied by pointing me to their Green Paper on this matter. While their recommendations are excellent and, if implemented, might just be able to prevent the collapse of the EU that they themselves predict.
The Green Paper itself, however, is rather short when it comes to the consideration of who the actors are in Europe and how well they are performing in their own Member States. The numbers required for each level (Council, Commission, Parliament, ECB) are not directly addressed, nor is there any specific reference to how this fits into the reform processes as laid out in the Lisbon Treaty. The document itself is actually rather fatalistic with respect to the prospects for success.
You can read more about it and download the full report here:
Other References & Reading:
You can find and read the EU Treaties here:
There’s a wealth of compelling Lexit material at the Full Brexit website — I highly recommend that you read the lot, but Analysis 1 and 23 are sufficient:
The appalling corporate capture of the European Union is detailed in disgusting clarity by the Corporate Europe Observatory — this article focuses on the ECB, but there’s a wealth of other information there too:
The dangers of the Services Notification Procedure are explained here: