Hidden by the crisis: Uncontrolled explosion of national EU actors

One aspect of the current EU financial crisis has been the proliferation of EU actors within the Brussels circle and the exclusion of national-level actors, something that can endanger the idea of European integration in the future, I warn in “Opinions” at EurActiv.com.

“Crisis, crisis, crisis. Many connect the current financial turmoil to an allegedly weak common currency, the euro. Others blame the institutional framework for an inadequate response to the crisis. A high number of commentators fear radical treaty changes as the outcome is unpredictable.

The EU as such, but especially a dubious Brussels system, is made responsible for confusion and fear. This is especially true from a Berlin perspective: European affairs seem to be just related to a small group of high-level players: “Chancellor Merkel” and “President Sarkozy” are the lonely ones visible in the German media. The rest is “Brussels” itself.

But the crisis is not only negative for the Europeanisation of German politics. Today, at least, the EU is present and Europe matters. Why is that? It pays of to think back to less chaotic times. In 2003 European Movement Germany, a network of today 224 interest groups, was criticised with words such as “Why are you still working for European integration? A Single Market, the euro and even – very soon – a constitution is ensured”. Comments like this, even by government representatives, were in juxtaposition to a widespread feeling of irrelevance of EU affairs to the day-to-day politics in Germany.

With its long 60-year-old pro-European heritage, the European Movement was in a trap: between a lack of challenges and a lack of relevance of its topics in the German public discourse. Today we know that European integration for many years was not sufficiently established in German politics.

But beside this crisis-driven intuition, is there any evidence for an increasing importance of Europeanisation in domestic politics? There is, and we have the numbers. When European Movement started a new stakeholder (information and consultation) strategy it had a small database: 200 addresses of German lobbyists in Brussels.

Today EM Germany can identify Europe-wide nearly 6,000 German actors dealing on a regular basis with European affairs without a differentiation between work backgrounds or status. Everybody, from trainee to ministers, is included.

This can be an environmental activist as well as a desk officer of a German State in Brussels. Important is that the actors are mainly working on European dossiers. They do not just follow issues; they are part of the pre-legislative process and advocacy in the EU. Quite invisible but incrementally German EU actors intensify their involvement in domestic day-to-day politics.

Another figure: In 2003 European Movement Germany could identify 200 Berlin-based professionals that worked for a longer period in Brussels. Today it counts over 1,200 Brussels alumni. Personal European experience from “the streets of Brussels” also reached government, parliament and lobby offices.

Outside the work of EM Germany the increase of German EU actors happened nearly without public and academic attention. The verdict that only Brussels is “controlled” by 15,000 lobbyists – a figure which has not been proven so far – overshadows the national and regional multi-level EU lobby environment and their ministerial counterparts: EU coordinating civil servants both from federal and state level.

The explosion of EU activism in Germany has its main origin in the “community method”, since two decades of practical implementation of single market regulation. The Lisbon Treaty aimed to ensure a better governance and democratic legitimacy of EU politics.

The financial and economic crisis overshadows all of this. The German Federal Chancellery even unsuccessfully tried to invent a “union method” – a nicer word for “intergovernmental method” – in contradiction to the supranational “community method”.

Treaty and crisis made it possible that the European Council developed a new role by strengthening heads of state and government. But is this new intergovernmentalism the realistic future of the EU? The crisis does not put an end to the Europeanisation of stakeholders. 6,000 German EU actors are not without work.

The unexpected gain in relevance of European politics will increase even this number, as the communitarian policy making is still at work. Behind the scenery of crisis management EU actors will continue to Europeanise German politics.

The flipside of all was recently well described by Bernard Bulcke in the Belgian newspaper “De Morgen”: Brussels “Diplomats of the Permanent Representations to the EU are assuming more and more power from the ministries in their capitals, leaving them rather offended.”

Therefore two developments need to be addressed: on the national level EU coordination has to take care of the increased numbers of uncontrolled EU actors and a small group of high-level civil servants in the government headquarters must ensure better communications between stakeholders on all levels. The tragic victim of all this is the European Parliament.

Especially in Germany. Although the Lisbon Treaty strengthened the power of Parliament the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe degraded repeatedly the people’s chamber of the European Union.

In combination with the increased power of the Chancellery this provoked CDU EU-Parliamentarians to force their own party to back clearly the Parliament friendly “community method”. Without doubt insecurity of EU actors is widespread and not only due to this the construction of the European Union is in danger.

But its actors and interest driven multipliers have too much to lose in case the EU was to fail. The supranational community institutions need to take EU actors on all levels of integration as partners.

Article 11 of the Treaty of the European Union gives enough legal background for a new strategy to include representative organisations and citizens’ initiatives. But transparency, consultation and participatory democracy shall not be just part of the European level.

EU institutions must be better communicators at national and regional state level. The concentration just on Brussels EU actors is dangerous for European integration. Pro-EU Alliance building strategies for common interest on all levels will be an important precondition for a stronger European Union. Collective intelligence is needed to achieve a new supranational framework.

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