We have transcended our biology. Albert Bandura

Chopping down the woods

The EU has not been created complex for complexity’s sake. But the painful truth of the European Union is that it might be exactly the complexity of its institutional structure that allows it to work.

Imagine that you are a representative of an NGO that wants some EU legislation to be changed. You share your ideas with your national government at the very moment when it is pondering its position on a draft EU-level proposal initiated by the European Commission. What happens next?

A research study conducted last year in Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Poland showed that those few NGOs that make an effort to try to influence their governments’ positions were almost never aware of whether their engagement had made any difference. Is this a case of failed communication? No. There is a much deeper problem: the nature of the European Union’s decision-making makes individual influences on the European Union’s decisions almost untraceable.

Even if that NGO knows (though it rarely does) that its position on some EU issue has been taken up by its national government, the organization has no way of tracing the internal deliberations in the various preparatory committees of the Council or to check whether its position has been exchanged for something else during the informal negotiations with the European Parliament and European Commission – for example, a Recital 27 to some directive or an added week to the transposition period.

The complexity of the EU is intentional

The matters are even further complicated by the extraordinary complexity of the European Union set-up. What, you believe that the EU is not so complex? Please, be my guest in explaining to the Latvians the meaning of the rotating presidency in the EU Council that we’re having next year!

The EU has not been created complex for complexity’s sake, just in order to make it dysfunctional. The complexity behind the European Union is purposeful, and this purpose shows itself in a remarkable ability to make decisions that move the Union forward. The painful truth of the European Union is that it might be exactly the complexity of its institutional structure and associated “dark woods” of institutional negotiations that allow it to work.

The mechanisms for making a decision are set up in such a way that the primary motivation is to find a compromise acceptable to (almost) everyone involved in a manner and time-frame that does not end in a deadlock. This is by no means an easy task in a union with 28 member states, 751 politicians in a European Parliament, and a highly skilled and motivated executive body in the form of the European Commission. Hence the complexity. To the institutional stakeholders and witnesses involved, the process seems very much deliberate and even quite transparent. It draws its legitimacy from the sheer variety of interests that are consulted and represented. And yet the rest of us can only watch as an idea enters the dark woods and comes out transformed. It’s no wonder that the transformations seem driven by shady interests.

What is to be done if we should perceive the current state of affairs as a problem? One approach would be to change the overall attitude – redefine what seems to be a problem into a normal, legitimate state of things. As long as important decisions keep being made by legitimate institutions in reasonable time-frames, all is fine. A different attitude would be to treat the European Union as a work in progress until a simpler and clearer institutional structure emerges. Unlike the first approach, this one would treat the “dark woods” phases of EU decision-making, the lack of public awareness, and the many stakeholders with blocking powers not as a normal, but as a provisional necessary evil.

How to make the EU more intelligible

Irrespective of chosen perspective, I believe there are several things that could be done to make the EU more intelligible to the broader public. First, it is the awareness of concrete things that makes the EU real, close, and understandable. An excellent objective for Europe’s leaders would be to get to the point where every European Union citizen is able to name at least three things that need to be achieved at the union level during the next five years. Juncker’s Commission is on the right track for this one.

Secondly, let’s admit it, due to its institutional set-up and working methods, the EU is frighteningly complicated to almost anyone who is not involved in its everyday proceedings! One cannot expect that a regular citizen will have time to delve into the intricacies of the EU decision-making process, but one can and should expect that the opinion-makers (editors, journalists, activists, think-tankers, academics) have simultaneously a bird’s-eye view and a nuanced understanding of EU internal proceedings. Unfortunately, usually they don’t. That’s why EU reporting at the national level usually just scratches the surface. There are many ways to solve this at both the national and the EU level.

Finally, the EU has underused its greatest asset: all those tens of thousands of people who are involved daily in the work of the EU institutions, at both the political and administrative levels, as representatives of national and EU institutions. The EU could be made less distant and more likable by sharing the personal experience of real people plunging into the complexities of the EU decision-making process and then coming out encouraged by both the process and its results. Social media is perfect for this. Just imagine having thousands of new informal EU ambassadors, vital access points for the broader public!

Read more in this debate: John Malcolm Watts, Robert Born, Dietmar Bartsch.


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