The next European Commission risks slipping into inertia if EU leaders do not reform the executive and allow for a stronger president to take charge, Brussels’ think tank chiefs said on Tuesday (28 January). 

Brussels-based European think-tanks gathered for their annual dialogue on Tuesday (28 January) to discuss the key challenges facing EU leaders after the next European election.

Since European party campaigns switched into higher gear, the debate over who will succeed josé Manuel Barroso as European Commission president has fuelled speculation in Brussels.

“We need strong people surrounding the president of the Commission, not a group of 20-something anonymous people [as commissioners],” said Pierre Defraigne, director of the College of Europe’s foundation Madariaga.

“We are short of European leaders – including in our member states,” Defraigne argued. The reform of the Commission could help ease the scarcity of European leadership, for which political audacity is key, others stressed.

Shaping the new Commission

If all goes according to plan, the next European Commission should take office on 1 November 2014, after a summer spent debating the distribution of key posts within the EU executive.

But “the ‘if’ in filling positions by 1 November is a rather big ‘if’,” warned Aart De Geus, the chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. “The outcome of the next EU elections [and rise in eurosceptical MEPs] could make the work of the next European Parliament rather cumbersome. We can expect a politically unstable environment in the next five years.”

Philippe Herzog, president of Confrontations Europe, argued that “the European Commission president will have to reform the body, which stands too far away from the citizens.”

The Commission President has significant room for maneuver in shaping his own institution. According to think-tankers, reducing the number of commissioners could boost the quality of policy making in Europe. So would holding individual commissioners to account.

“I would like to see a system where we put commissioners in a hot seat before the parliamentarians,” said Giles Merritt, Friends of Europe secretary-general. “We need to start with people ratting out each other”. “Accountability would increase,” Merritt continued, “and commissioners would name governments by name, instead of this Pyongyang situation where Brussels doesn’t speak out when it involves naming specific member states.”

Treaty change back on the table

Since 2009, the EU’s institutional framework has changed with the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty granted more powers to the European Parliament in EU policy making, introduced the positions of permanent president of the European Council (currently held by Herman Van Rompuy) and High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy (currently held by Catherine Ashton).

Analysts argue that the institutional changes brought by the handling of the economic crisis need to be brought into the EU’s constitutional framework. But political appetite to bring treaty change back on the table seems low.

“The T-word scares people in Brussels and in the member states,” said Michael Link, a German minister of state.

Still, the UK’s economics and finance minister, George Osborne, argued in a speech two weeks ago that the EU treaties are “not fit for purpose” and need revision. “We’re now at a point where we are stretching the European institutional architecture to its limits,” he said at a conference on Europe’s future organised by the euro-realist think tank Open Europe.

Still, many think tankers say Britain, which has proposed a referendum on EU membership, should stay. “We need Britain to stay in the European Union, but we must have a dialogue with all cards on the table," said Philippe Herzog. "And we should prepare for treaty change – as even Berlin is preparing to address this issue.”

Political groups like the Union of European Federalist (UEF) and others have been pushing for a new convention to reform the EU treaty in the spring of 2015. In October, a number of federalist MEPs presented a text that would form the basis of such a convention.

A treaty change would “codify the measures undertaken by way of crisis management” during the sovereign debt crisis and “rectify some of the mistakes made in the Lisbon treaty”, argued Andrew Duff, a British liberal democrat in a blog post last year.

While member states undoubtedly have a diverging idea of what a changed treaty should look like, strong signals point at a debate on treaty change – to emerge not long after May’s EU ballot.

'Europeanise national politics – not vice versa'

One aspect under scrutiny is the connection between national and European policy circles. “The powerbase of today’s European politics is still in the member states,” De Geus remarked. “It is important to have this debate here [in Brussels] – not only with the friends of Europe, also with its enemies”.

A key attempt of the Lisbon Treaty was to grant national parliaments powers to anticipate and respond to EU policy making in advance. This would increase democratic legitimacy and facilitate the implementation of legislation once it trickles down from EU to national level. Parliaments in Berlin, London, Rome or other capitals across Europe have a ‘yellow card’ at their disposal, allowing them to temporarily block legislation in the pipeline.

Practice shows, however, that the yellow card has only been drawn twice since it was created. In its current form, parliaments have eight weeks to file a yellow card objection. Allowing a longer period for the national parliaments to read and assess European policy proposals could strengthen the instrument, think tankers said.

“We need to further ‘Europeanise’ national politics, not nationalise European politics,” said Aart De Geus, the chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. “One improvement could be that national parliaments take the responsibility to discuss the position of their national governments before the negotiations [between governments] are done.”

The Brussels Think Tank Dialogue is jointly organised by the Bertelsmann StiftungBruegel, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS),Confrontations Europe, the Egmont Institute, the European Policy Centre (EPC), Friends of Europe – Les amis de l’Europe, the Institut français des relations internationales (Ifri), Madariaga – College of Europe Foundation and theStiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).