Structural reforms in Europe post Brexit

Published : 13 Apr 2021 08:29 PM | Updated : 13 Apr 2021 11:13 PM

The secession of a member state has changed the context of European integration. Brexit has left the EU weakened and smaller. This realization has spurred on the quest for necessary reforms. 

There is general agreement that some of the changes that will need to be focused upon, to be in place by 2029, should include treaty revision with efforts also directed towards the following potential areas:- (i) a possible renegotiation of the Brexit deal leading to a new class of affiliate membership; (ii) completion of the constitutional framework for a fiscal union; (iii) a European Parliament fully legitimated by election from transnational lists; and (iv) a ‘European Security Council’ of defence ministers to reduce the divide between the EU and NATO. This is being proposed as a required democratic experiment. Some EU analysts are already suggesting the need to proactively implement the Treaty of Lisbon and also to identify possible areas for amendment of existing EU treaties.

It is now being acknowledged that British efforts to secede from the EU since 2015 holds significant lessons for the future of Europe against the backdrop of the Summit which had been convened in The Hague in 1969. It is also being urged that the EU relevant authorities should try to settle the controversial matter of how to elect the new President of the European Commission in 2024.

In this context it is now being considered that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was a bad deal — for both parties. Trade has shrunk. While there are no tariffs on goods, supply chains are badly disrupted by tightened rules of origin requirements, the imposition of border checks on tax and customs, and controls on health and safety. The problems of doing business across the Channel are also being compounded by the erection of a veritable frontier between Great Britain and the province of Northern Ireland, which remains inside the EU’s customs union. The TCA is practically doing very little for trade in services, for the mobility of people, or for cooperation in foreign and security policy. Fisheries also remain a bone of contention, especially with France. It is consequently being thought that by 2024, the UK is likely to ask the EU for a comprehensive renegotiation of its Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Such renegotiation efforts according to economists might give rise to the same thorny issues and bring up questions related to equivalence, reciprocity and mutual recognition as applicable to EU–UK trade in services and also environmental protection.

Some critical analysts are also drawing attention once again to Theresa May’s Chequers proposals of July 2018- later overturned by her successor Johnson. Some are consequently hinting that there is need to carefully study ahead of possible renegotiation, a Ukraine-type Association Agreement based on a deep and comprehensive free area which will be a big improvement on the TCA.

This might help in expanding the areas for possible partnership and cooperation in security and defence with partial engagement with EU’s institutions.

All these aspects are leading many to carefully consider the concept of affiliate States. Such second tier EU membership, it is being thought would make sense for the Western Balkans, Ukraine and, ultimately, Turkey. It is being felt that the addition of an alternative option of affiliate membership would relieve the Union of an intractable neighborhood problem. Affiliate membership will assist those countries who chose not to take the federal route but to wait for candidate states in preparation for full membership. One needs to point out here that according to British monitors, there is very little prospect of a British application to rejoin the EU as a full member state. 

However, it is also being tossed around that one might eventually expect the UK to seek a new form of affiliate membership of the Union, involving partial engagement with some of the EU’s institutions.

Andrew Duff, EU analyst, in his assessment of potential EU structural reforms has also pointed out the need for the EU to have a federal union with a common fiscal policy in response to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the European economy. In this context he has also referred to the EU’s decision to aid economic recovery by managing it well. He has also correctly recommended that “the Commission should only disburse the Euro 672.5 billion Recovery and Resilience Facility — of which Euro 312.5 billion is in the form of grants —to investments aimed at producing real added value with a European dimension”. It has also been pointed out by Duff that the Commission should avoid surrendering “to short term, pro-cyclical projects favored by national party politicians”.

Duff has also indicated that this could be done through the issue of Eurobonds and the “holders of these Eurobonds should be paid not from the proceeds of the normal gross national income contributions of member states to the EU budget but only from genuine own resources raised by new streams of EU taxation”.  Legal experts have however noted that such an endeavour will need “compartmentalizing the EU budget into federal and confederal sections, a reform that will not only save national treasuries but will also connect the EU citizen as a taxpayer with the government of the European fiscal union”. But, this will also require “necessary reforms to consolidate the banking and capital markets union, including the full integration under EU governance of the European Stability Mechanism”.

There is also a lot of discussion with regard to the creation of a more effective European Security Council and its potential areas of connectivity with NATO. Security geo-strategists have been underlining that the EU needs to make serious adjustments in the manner in which Europe conceives and manages its international policies. By themselves, without active participation of the United States due to the transactional diplomacy that was practiced by Trump, neither the EU nor NATO has proved itself capable of delivering the effective, intelligent security that Europe needs at this critical juncture.

In fact, there has been very little synergy in the activities of these two Brussels-based organizations. This has also affected the evolution and development of a coherent, autonomous common foreign and security policy. The departure of the British from the EU has also opened up an opportunity to think afresh about the architecture of Western security.

Some analysts have expressed their disappointment in this regard. Some others have welcomed the victory in the US Presidential elections of Biden and expressed hope that lest common denominators will now be found between the two Parties with regard to critical areas associated with Russia, China, cyber security, human rights and trade

In the recent past there has been some movement forward with the visit to Brussels by the new US Secretary of State Blinken. There have been discussions about Afghanistan, about Iran, about Syria, about China and Russia. However, this has just a beginning and more is being awaited.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the leading critics of the present arrangements. It is generally believed that if he is re-elected in 2022, he will be well positioned to propose an overarching security concept which might help to reduce the barriers that have currently surfaced between the EU and NATO. It is now being hoped that with the active engagement of the United States The North Atlantic Council and the European Council could both decide together to establish a regular system of joint meetings of defence ministers, including those from the US and UK governments. This deserves particular effort as Jens Stoltenberg the current NATO Secretary General will retire in 2022. It is being expected that his successor will be an EU Defence Minister. One needs to agree with Duff that the North Atlantic Council and the European Council could jointly decide on how to establish a regular inter-active system of joint meetings of Defence Ministers, including those from the US and UK governments.

Brussels has revealed that sooner than later they are trying to convene a ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’. The aim of this meeting will be to consult EU citizens with regard to the manner in which EU institutions are functioning. Civil society will also participate in this exercise and discussion will be held with regard to governance structure at the grass root level.

Such a Conference is being aimed at because the President of the European Commission, the conservative Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, appears to be always preoccupied and ready to delegate the matter of decision making to others. It is also being alleged that Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have also demonstrated lack of a coherent strategy and this has cast its own shadow on the paradigm of required EU reform. It may also be mentioned at this point that such a Conference could be affected by the imminent German and French elections over the next 12 months.

This scenario appears to have assumed another complex dynamics because this Conference will have to take on the task of proposing some substantive improvements to the methodology for the election of the next European Commission President in 2024. This is important because subsequently the European Parliament might be called upon to prepare the next round of treaty amendment.

Consequently, many in the EU consider that fixing the target date of 2029 for the new constitutional settlement will be a good idea considering that this year will be the 50th anniversary of the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament.

One can only hope that the proposed Conference to be held in the near future will give time to the creation of a Group of Advisors, associated with the EU in various leadership capacities and that this Group can draft a common platform to make the Union’s future constitutional treaties to be less prohibitive and more permissive- thereby enhancing the capacity of all its institutions to act decisively. This Group also needs to evaluate whether the EU needs to continue with its present constitutional straitjacket of rigid unanimity.

The EU is a valuable institution that must continue functioning with full force and vigor. Till today, in Bangladesh, we have seen its positive contribution towards our development in different socio-economic sectors. We appreciate the immense potential of this Group and will always be there for them with our arms of friendship.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.