A Report from Budapest: “Reforming the European Union – Central European Perspectives” workshop at the Central European University, 18th March 2017

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Report kindly written by Oliver Garner, 2nd year researcher at the EUI and member of the ConstPol team

On Saturday 18th March 2017, the Central European University in Budapest hosted the workshop “Reforming the EU – Central European Perspectives”. The event was organised by the Hungarian European Society and the EUI Professor Gábor Halmai and former EUI Professor László Bruszt, and was funded through the patronage of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. In addition to bringing together EU law, constitutional law, and political science academics from Europe and beyond, the workshop also saw the participation of members of Hungarian civil society. The event proved to be an illuminating insight into the often-neglected perspective of the Central and Eastern European Member States on the ongoing process and potential reform of European integration. It is hoped that the ideas from the workshop will be developed further in a follow-up event in October and an edited collection. More saliently, the diagnosis of the current state of the European Union and the reform proposals advanced by academia will hopefully be disseminated amongst the stakeholders in civil society who are most affected by these issues.

The workshop commenced with an evocative address from the President of the Hungarian European Society and former Member of the Hungarian Parliament István Hegedűs on the turbulent current state of European politics. Hegedűs considered whether 2017 may be the year in which the tide of populism is turned, and voiced his hope that the alternative legal, constitutional, and economic ideas deriving from the Central European countries could be illuminated through the workshop initiative. The first part of the first panel of the day concerned the diagnosis of the challenges facing the European Union. Lászlo Bruszt called for reflection on what the question was that the Commission is seeking to answer in its recent White Paper on the Future of Europe. Bruszt pithily dissected the five scenarios for European integration presented by the Commission, and presented his argument for deeper economic integration coinciding with deeper democratisation of European politics. Building upon this, Daniela Lenčéš Chalániová, dean of the Anglo-American University in Prague moved on to consider what the implications of the Commission’s proposals would for deliberative democracy in the EU. Accordingly, Lenčéš Chalániová advanced a compelling warning against the dangers of the ostensibly preferred scenario of “multi-speed Europe”. Former EUI Professor Christian Joerges concluded the panel through his provocative consideration of “The end of the Eurocrats’ dream”. Joerges pertinently reiterated that the conduct of the European Union institutions – particularly the Commission and the European Central Bank as members of the “Troika” with the International Monetary Fund – means that they should be wary of throwing stones at the Eastern Member States with regard to democracy and the rule of law.

The second part of the first session commended with the stirring treatise of Tomasz Tadeusz Koncewicz, Professor of Gdansk University on the growth of the politics of resentment in the Member States, what it means for the prospects of European (dis)integration. Koncewicz’s presentation provided a timely reminder of how, in its mission for ever-more inclusiveness, the European project has also excluded and alienated many nationals of the Member States who are thus drawn to nationalist political projects which promise re-empowerment. Kálmán Petőcz subsequently provided a practical viewpoint on democracy and human rights in the Visegrad countries, drawing upon his experiences as the chairman of the Slovakian Helsinki Committee in increasing awareness amongst young people of democracy, human rights, and Europe. Petőcz’s presentation was a timely reminder of the importance of educating future generations for the strength of the European project.

The second session of the workshop concerned the principles which form the constitutional foundations of a united Europe. Dimitry Kochenov, Professor of the University of Groningen provided an impassioned critique of the disconnect between the substance of the EU’s fundamental values and the capacity for their enforcement. He concluded with a defence of the Commission’s third proposal for “those who want to do more doing more” by outlining how such a new configuration of Member States willing to go further could help enable enforcement through strict political conditionality. Renáta Uitz, Professor at the CEU continued the panel through consideration of what is left of the European constitutional project. Uitz emphasised the importance of the commitment to pre-determined values in constitutionalism, and how adherence to such pre-commitment can provide an “insurance dimension” against deviation from foundational values. Laurent Pech, Professor of the Middlesex University concluded the panel with his outline of the rule of law as a foundational value of the EU. Pech provided an incisive account of the current rule of law crisis in Hungary and most proximately Poland, concluding with the powerful argument that on a cost-benefit analysis the Union and its Member States have far more to gain than to lose if they finally cross the rubicon and trigger the Article 7 TEU enforcement mechanism for breaches of the Union values against Poland.

The final session of the workshop considered the alternatives for reform of the European Union. Tomasz P. Woźniakowski, EUI researcher advanced his compelling argument for how lessons from the history of the United States could point the way to how the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone could lead to a federal fiscal union. Woźniakowski argued that in order for the Union to address its democratic deficit, it was necessary to first solve its fiscal deficit, and concluded with the consideration of whether the UK exit from the EU could have the same stimulating effect as its “exit” from the USA upon American independence in the 18th century. Gábor Halmai continued the panel with a sobering analysis of the Commission’s White Paper in his consideration of the pros and cons of constitutional pluralism within the EU. Halmai voiced his opinion that the presentation of the five options was a cynical exercise due to his perception that the Commission’s clear preference is for the third proposal of differentiated integration. He concluded with the stark diagnosis that the White Paper represented an attempt to exclude the new Member States that are not willing and ready to comply with the Union institutions’ vision of future integration. The workshop concluded on a more optimistic note with the rallying call for Europe to recover its lost imagination by Kim Lane Scheppele, Professor at Princeton University. Scheppele’s advocated the creation of a “European Super Union” encompassing the institutions of both the Union and the Council of Europe as a grand reset for the European project. Following a final impassioned debate on the proposals, the event concluded with the book-launch of András Jakab and Dimitry Kochenov’s edited volume “The Enforcement of EU Law and Values”. The themes of the volume provide a compelling and extensive complement to the issues discussed during the course of the day.

The workshop “Reforming the EU – Central European perspectives” provided not only crucial insights into the issues affecting the Eastern and Central European Member States, but also compelling reform proposals to address these issues from some of the most prominent academics in their respective fields. However, in order for such ideas to ever be realised in reality, it is crucial that they are framed in such a way that the citizens of all the Member States of the European Union may understand and relate to them. On this note, it is hoped that Gábor Halmai’s concluding remarks calling for more engagement with civil society in the continuation of the series of workshops will be achieved.