Isn’t it high time for skillful leadership at the European Commission? ǀ View

 Comments
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.
Text size Aa Aa

Opinion piece by Radosveta Vassileva and Panicos Demetriades

The decline of EU values in individual member states has, sadly, demonstrated the failure of the European Commission to fulfill its most important task – to serve as ‘Guardian of the Treaties.’

Partly because of ambitious compromises in the name of developing the European project and partly because of the personal realpolitik of politicians from the European People’s Party (EPP) and Party of European Socialists (PES), the EU seems incapable of surviving the current storm, unless there is a change of leadership.

Sinking ship

While the democratic decay in Hungary and Poland has attracted much commentary, a quick glimpse at reputable indices not only shows that EU values are challenged in many member states, but also demonstrates the huge - if not widening - gap between EU countries, which a long line of Commissions has struggled to address.

The 2018 Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit categorized 17 EU member states as “flawed democracies,” along with candidate states like Serbia.

In the latest 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Denmark received 88 points and was ranked as the least corrupt EU member while Bulgaria received only 42 points and confirmed its title as the most corrupt EU member.

The difference in scores between the two countries is more than double. Moreover, Bulgaria has been receiving almost the same poor marks since the time of Barroso’s Commission.

Worrisome trends have also been confirmed by the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. If one compares the scores in the Rule of Law indicator in 2007 and 2017, one notes that the rankings of Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Malta have palpably worsened. Austria, Germany and Spain have also recorded noticeable declines in their rule of law ranking.

In turn, there is a stark contrast between members like Finland, which were placed in the highest percentile in both the 2007 and the 2017 measurement (99th and 100th), and members like Bulgaria, which were placed slightly above the median percentile (53rd and 52nd) in both measurements.

When it comes to the Control of Corruption indicator, the list of countries that have recorded sizeable declines in their ranking is even longer. In addition to Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Malta, it also includes Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

These declines have been particularly deep in the case of Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Netherlands and Spain, suggesting that the problem is not limited to the periphery.

Only skillful sailing assures a prosperous voyage

Neither Barroso’s Commission nor Juncker’s Commission navigated the EU through a prosperous voyage. However, as is well known, the success of a voyage depends not only on the ship and the weather, but also on the skills of the sailors and the captain.

The case of Bulgaria is particularly problematic because the country is subjected to the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism under which the Commission is supposed to encourage and verify progress in key areas, such as corruption. Yet, 11 years after entry, Bulgaria - which has been governed for the most part by Boyko Borissov - is in the same (if not worse) shape, as when it joined the EU in 2007. As Borissov’s GERB party is part of the EPP family, the Commission became complicit with his regime and missed the opportunity to steer the country in the direction of much needed reform.

Equally disappointing is the recorded deterioration in Cyprus and Greece, not least because the Commission had the opportunity to strengthen the rule of law and the fight against corruption through the conditionality attached to their respective economic adjustment programmes.

Greece’s record is particularly troublesome, not least because it has emerged from a decade of reforms that should have reinforced economic governance. Even in Cyprus (which the Commission often refers to as a “success story”), notwithstanding the improvement of macroeconomic indicators, the deterioration in the rule of law and corruption indicators suggests that the deeper causes of the country’s banking crisis in 2013 have not been adequately addressed.

Specifically, the business model centering around politically connected law firms, that served the needs of wealthy Russians, remains intact. If anything, it has returned with a vengeance through the sale of “golden” EU passports to foreign “investors” that has fuelled a construction boom in high-rise luxury apartments. This is far from sustainable growth.

In fact, the latest “Investor Citizenship and Residence Schemes in the European Union” report by the European Commission clearly recognizes that the schemes introduced in Cyprus, Malta, and Bulgaria pose risks for the EU’s security as well as money laundering, corruption and tax evasion. The case of Cyprus seems most serious because of its scale. How a report, which was long overdue, may alter the consequences of years of malpractice remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, it is striking that the same report ignores an even more dangerous phenomenon in Bulgaria, where citizenship is free for people of Bulgarian heritage. In 2018, whistleblowers raised concern that Bulgarian officials have issued thousands of fake certificates of Bulgarian origin against bribes in the range of €500 to €5,000 in a scam protected by the highest ranks of government.

The horrifying murders of journalists investigating corruption in Malta, Slovakia, and Bulgaria in the last year or so add the final touches to the grim reality facing the EU.

Don’t build a new ship out of old wood

Sadly, the election of Spitzenkandidaten gives little hope for the future. Both the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber, and PES’ candidate, Frans Timmermans, have not shown their commitment to EU values when the need has arisen.

Weber notoriously provided his support to Orbán’s regime until the very morning of the vote on Hungary and Article 7 in the European Parliament. He continues to show his admiration for the disastrous regime of Boyko Borissov in Bulgaria, too.

Timmermans serves as Commissioner for the Rule of Law but has surprisingly achieved very little in light of the rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary and the monitoring of Bulgaria and Romania.

Unless there is better leadership at the Commission, which will enforce EU values rather than merely talk about them, the EU ship will almost certainly sink in the sea of populism and far-right nationalism.

The EU needs a captain who is not afraid of bad weather and has a clear vision of how to respond adequately to emergency situations which are undoubtedly on the horizon. Some hope that the ALDE-Macron initiative and the rise of the Greens may shatter the status quo at an EU level; yet, it seems too early for predictions. While Emmanuel Macron may appear like the “knight in shining armour” that ALDE needs as an ally, the current political tensions with the Gilets jaunes in France may put a halt to his ambitions and good intentions to change Europe as he needs to focus inwards. The Greens may be dedicated and vocal about preserving the rule of law, but one needs to remain realistic about their true potential. At this stage, one thing is certain - Euro elections 2019 will be decisive for the future of the EU, including the preservation of EU values.

Radosveta Vassileva is Teaching Fellow at University College London. Her research interests encompass comparative public and private law and EU law; Panicos Demetriades is Professor of Financial Economics at the University of Leicester, former Governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus and author of “A Diary of the Euro Crisis in Cyprus: Lessons for Bank Recovery and Resolution”, Palgrave Macmillan (2017).

Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.