Brussels has become a Moloch, says Letta

Enrico Letta. Modena, 2007. [Enrico Letta/Flickr]

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said yesterday (3 April) that it was important to show to European citizens that the EU is not Brussels, adding that the former system of holding summits in the capitals holding the rotating presidency of the Union was better than the current system of having all summits take place in Brussels.

Speaking at a public event organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels-based think-tank, Letta, who was the head of the Italian government from 2013 to 2014, said there was “something wrong” with holding all the EU summits in Brussels. Since the second half of 2003, in fact during the Italian Presidency, regular EU summits have been held in Brussels. The system of having EU leaders’ meetings in countries holding the presidency was abandoned partly because of cost.

The decision to move all the summits to Brussels had been “not easy”, Letta said, adding that now it was the time for the Union to measure the consequences of such move.

Brussels, he added, has become in the eyes of citizens “a Moloch, a symbol of all that is bureaucracy, awkwardness of political decisions”.

Europe is 28 national capitals, he said, reminding that in the past, many EU historical milestones were achieved in the capitals where leaders met for taking the decisions.

It is important to demonstrate to EU citizens that Europe is a wide space, it is not just “Brussels against the rest”, Letta said.

However, it is highly unlikely though that EU leaders would reverse their decision to hold summits in Brussels, especially since a new building, called by many “the Van Rompuy egg”, is taking shape alongside the Council building. The new structure, the €240 million pricetag of which famously infuriated British Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2011, is designed to host future such gatherings.

The former prime minister said there is a discrepancy between what happens at summits in Brussels, and what is reported by the press in national capitals. The narrative is somewhat off, he said. 

It almost seems like “everybody participated in a different summit” and that “nobody is defending the general picture”, Letta stted, referring both to the communication of the national leaders and the coverage by the national media in Europe.

New narrative for Europe

As the public event was dedicated to the upcoming European elections, Letta insisted that the challenge of rising populism, in his opinion, should be turned into an opportunity for mainstream politicians to create a new narrative for Europe.

Letta said that populists had been very successful in convincing citizens that the euro and the removal of internal borders, the two big projects of the Union in recent years, had been a failure.

“Maybe this political challenge will oblige us to fight the political battle,” Letta said. He acknowledged that the Union was suffering from “a dramatic lack of dream” and called for a new big project, the Union needed to invest in a major educational and cultural project, an investment “missed” in the past, he stressed.

The legislative blockage

Simon Hix, Professor of European and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, also speaking at the event, said he expected the large anti-federalist and populist coalition of 200+ MEPs to play as a force against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). He also added that some EU laws passed in current and recent legislatures would be blocked in the next Parliament. As an example, Hix mentioned the the Directive of Services in the Internal market.

He also said that it was still unclear whether the nomination by political parties of a candidate for Commission president would make a difference. The challenge, he said, is whether national media will write about these leaders or ignore them.

Next May’s European elections are the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty, which grants the European Parliament the power to vote on the president of the EU executive, the European Commission.

Up until December 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty came into force, EU leaders in the European Council selected the Commission president behind closed doors and in a package deal with other EU top jobs.

According to Article 17.7 of the TEU, EU leaders now have to “take into account” the results of the EU elections, and nominate their candidate “after appropriate consultations" with the newly elected parliament.

Parties have taken things into own hands by nominating their own candidates for the top spot. These ‘single candidates’ will lead a pan-European campaign and, after the elections in May, the largest political force in the new European Parliament is presumed to put their nominee forward to succeed the current commission president, José Manuel Barroso.

>> For more background see our LinksDossier on top jobs.

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