On Wednesday night, Professor Nicolò Conti raised the curtain on La Pietra Dialogue´s 2014 Fall semester. Students excitedly crowded into La Pietra’s beautiful Limonaia to hear the professor speak on the topic that will become increasingly relevant to them as they travel across their new continental home: the European Union. “It’s quite a tough job I have to say,” opened Professor Conti, smiling at the idea of having to encapsulate the complexity of the EU political process in a mere ninety-minute lecture.
“When we think of the United States,” Conti began, “we think of the American government [. . . ] We know there is a President; we know there is a legislature, a Congress; and we know that these are the two bodies that make decisions. We know who we are talking about.” The European Union—comprised of commissioners, ministers, judges, and various advisors— exists as a much more enigmatic entity. “Have any of you heard of a President of the European Union?” Conti asked a silent audience. “Probably not,” he answered for them. This ignorance, however, is not uncommon, the professor quickly pointed out, even within Europe itself. The confusion surrounding the EU’s leadership is instead a “sign,” noted Conti. It is a sign that when we approach the European Union, “we should expect something different” from the conventional political institutions to which we are accustomed. After quickly summarizing the configurations of both the representative and parliamentary systems, the “two main institutional systems that we know in democracies,” Conti posed another question to the still-hesitant student audience: Does the EU’s structure correspond to either one of these systems? “Not at all,” he replied grinning.
So then how does the system operate? Conti began by breaking the EU body down into five key components: the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, the European Council, and the European Court of Justice. The executive and legislative functions are carried out by the first three bodies. This is where Conti initially focused the discussion.
He asked the audience to think of the Council of the EU and the European Parliament as “two chambers of a congress.” The professor’s word of choice to describe what these two bodies do was “co-legislate”. The European Parliament is the only EU body directly elected by the citizens. Once appointed, its members realign into new party blocks, a characteristic distinct from both representative and typical parliamentary models where elected officials maintain their original party affiliations. The Council of the EU, on the other hand, acts as ministers of the EU’s member states, functioning as an intergovernmental entity; they are the “undersecretaries,” the “key figures of the administration,” Conti explained, tasked with the various policy fields and to serve as part of the legislative process.
The European Commission functions as the executive body within the EU. Each member state appoints one commissioner who is then assigned to a particular policy field according to his or her expertise—education, agriculture, the environment, etc. “In the European Commission lies technocratic expertise,” explained Conti. “There you have the highest level of expertise you can find, maybe in the whole of Europe.” The Commission is the only EU body that can initiate legislation. It is, however, only an “approximation of an executive,” the professor acknowledged, so “don’t expect big names there.” The only “big name” would be the President of the European Commission. Once the President is determined and “ascends” via the European Parliament, however, “he will not be a leader,” Conti explained; “he will be more of a coordinator.” The President is without an individual political agenda or mandate, unlike a traditional executive administration that decides it’s own policy. Although this limited position maintains a balance among national interests, it also acts as a potential obstacle to unified action. This is an issue that students would bring up later in the evening.
To demonstrate the political interaction among these three core bodies, Professor Conti took the audience through a hypothetical legislative initiative: “Imagine, for example, that under the pressure of environmental groups, the Commission issues a draft proposal about limiting pollution.” Conti asked the audience to assume that the draft was approved by the parliament but then later rejected by members of the Council of the EU. At this time, a “switch” would have to occur as the proposal is sent back to Parliament with the Council’s modifications. This process would continue until an agreement is reached between the two bodies. The operation “starts as technical”, in Conti’s words, with an initiative by the European Commission and then “becomes political” through the European Parliament. Finally, Conti concluded, it “becomes national” under the Council of the EU.
The process is not, however, self-contained. The European Court of Justice serves the necessary function of legal supervision. The European Commission exists to ensure EU laws are implemented, clarified Conti, but should a “breach” occur within the European legal system itself, the Court of Justice must intervene. The Court also acts as a safeguard against the abuse of power and fiscal irresponsibility.
The real oversight responsibility, however, exists with the European Council. “There was a need to give guidance—leadership—to the decisions in the different fields,” explained the professor, “and certainly the president of the European Commission could not do that—someone who is not directly elected by the citizens, who does not have a popular mandate.” The Council, however, is “not there to monitor the daily work” of the Commission, but to instead set long-term agendas that will be “translated into decisions” by the Commission.
It was during this discussion that the students began to express concerns. The European Council must decide by consensus, Conti stressed, but “how you can bring twenty-eight heads [of state] to agreement is not easy.” One student expressed his concerns over the contradictory interests of the Union’s various members, asking how such nationalistic schisms could be resolved. “The only way to come to terms with these situations,” replied Conti, “is to develop a culture of consensus-building.” In order to maintain common interests, “commissioners—once they reach the European Commission—have to forget where they come from.”
This consensus-building becomes incredibly challenging—even more so when the European Union lacks strong authoritative leadership. “It’s very difficult to associate executive politics with a single person,” Conti explained. “Many say, well, this is one of the reasons why the EU is so weak.” The professor continued, “If it lacks leadership, how can a body of over 500 million— that’s including twenty-eight member states—decide over the more contentious issues?” The dilemma over leadership is a “problem.”
Consolidating leadership, however, may lead to underrepresentation. This issue was addressed later in the evening when a student pointed to the electoral college of the United States, raising the concern of political representation within the EU. With the demographic variations among European nations, she asked, how are issues of representation resolved? The EU comprises twenty-eight nations, each of which varies significantly in population size, yet each is granted one seat within the European Commission. In other words, “you have an incredible disproportion,” professor Conti bluntly admitted, “[ . . . ] but that’s the Golden Rule of federalism: you cannot just forget about the small ones.”
The EU’s consensus-building prerogative can, however, stand in the way of progress.One student’s question best underlined this issue, which became the most contentious topic of the night—that of the EU’s political efficacy. It had been addressed repeatedly throughout the evening, but it was this question that brought to light the international ramifications of the EU’s limitations : “What responsibility or role does the EU play in international crises such as the crisis in Ukraine?” the student asked. Professor Conti dispiritedly smiled and answered, “very little.” “There are some policy fields,” he continued, “that are very difficult to integrate.” EU policy, Conti pointed out, has always centered itself around economics. “Foreign policy is probably the least integrated among the policy fields,” he admitted. This point, of course, raises fundamental concerns regarding the EU’s authoritative potency.
Professor Conti then posed the night’s big question to the audience: “Should Europe become more supranational?” This shift would perhaps help integrate foreign policy and strengthen the EU’s international response. Supranationality, though, would mean the subordination of national interests and the power of national governments in favor of a “unitary whole.” The current system remains a hybrid of supranational and intergovernmental functions, Conti reminded the audience. The European Commission functions in a supranational manner, whereas the Council of the EU is more intergovernmental. The price of absolute supranationality, however, may be the sacrifice of minority positions for the policy of the majority. But if “there are losers within this game,” Conti reasoned hypothetically, “well that’s democracy.” The current system “has been shaped in a way to guarantee that there are either no minorities or there is [the] minimization of minority [positions].” Today, “consensus is more the rule.”
But is this current system effective? Throughout the evening, the answer holding sway in the room appeared to be an unequivocal ‘no’—the apparent invisibility of EU leadership, the failure to adequately integrate foreign policy, and the overall lack of consolidated power. “Can [the EU] become something like the United States?” Conti challenged the audience. Can it adopt this supranational position where majority interest may preside over that of the minority—where winners and losers may exist? Despite earlier concerns of the European Union’s current efficacy, the students appeared unconvinced that any supranational shift could occur.
“I think the European Union best serves its function as an intergovernmental institution,” asserted one student. “It’s hard to have a democracy when there are different languages, and there are different interests, and there are different cultures, and there are different histories. There’s a lot that unites Europe, but at the same time it’s different than the U.S.” Europe lacks much of the cultural and linguistic continuity found in the United States, she concluded, “and because of that it’s hard to have a really democratic institution that’s representative of all the countries.”
Her position was common, Conti admitted. “Some people believe that there is no future for Europe if not deeply united, deeply integrated,” he explained, but “there are those who believe that integration has already gone too far and should step back.” The debate between a supranational vs. intergovernmental system continues to divide European citizens.
Professor Conti concluded the night’s discussion with an appeal to the student body. When it comes to European Union politics, “students have a great opportunity to see something that is so unique and so much evolving,” he explained. EU politics is something “that is not very common to find in American [academic] departments.” The interest has instead shifted to other geopolitical areas. “This opportunity you have here is to, let’s say, open the mind a little bit,” Conti encouragingly suggested.
With five minutes remaining in the discussion the issue of Turkey was raised, prompting an excited response from the professor. “I’d love to talk about Turkey for hours and hours,” Conti replied, “because I find it so fascinating.” And while many in the room were ready for such a discussion, the topic would unfortunately have to wait for perhaps a future dialogue.