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The EU is delaying an inevitable debate: Will it rewrite its biggest rules?

The EU leaders gathered in Brussels this week artfully dodged the question: Can the EU revise how it makes major decisions?

They can’t outrun it forever. 

Momentum has been building for the EU to change the treaties that govern how it finds agreement on everything from finances to foreign policy. And as EU leaders once again vow to end years of stagnation on letting in new members, a simultaneous argument has arisen: The bloc can’t expand without first reforming its own bylaws.

At the crux of the debate is the EU’s unanimity rule, which gives individual members veto power over everything from which countries become EU members to what sanctions are approved. More countries in the EU means more possible vetoes. And since Russia started bombarding Ukraine, the EU has acutely seen how one country — in this case, Hungary — can hold up decisions for weeks after nearly everyone else has gotten on board. 

Some of the EU’s most powerful leaders support treaty change to varying degrees, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. And, technically, the legal path to treaty change started earlier this month, putting it more formally on the table for the first time in more than a decade.

So as several EU candidates slowly march toward membership, the bloc will eventually have to confront its own rules — Scholz has said as much. And after leaders made Ukraine and Moldova EU candidates this week, while also pushing to unblock the Bulgarian veto effectively keeping North Macedonia and other Western Balkan candidates out of the club, that march is only progressing.

“The future memberships oblige us to ask ourselves the question not only about the needs of candidate countries, but the needs of the EU itself, and its capacity to function in the future in an enlarged Europe, which will require a reform of those decision-making processes,” said an official from France’s presidential Elysée Palace.

On Friday, Scholz agreed, speaking to reporters after the leaders’ two-day summit.

“My impression is that there is no one who has any doubt that [expansion] won’t work without institutional reforms,” he said. “And that’s why I think we have a chance that it can be done.”

How the rules evolved

The current and full-fledged iteration of the EU treaties dates back to 2009, several years after a round of aggressive eastward expansion that saw 12 new members join. 

The treaties are essentially the EU’s constitution, sketching out the bloc’s institutions, clarifying the breakdown of powers between the EU and its members, and outlining how decisions are made. Since the EU’s founding in the 1950s, they have been revised several times as the body morphs and grows. 

Renewed discussions on rewriting the EU’s ground rules intensified when the coronavirus pandemic seized the Continent. The EU rescinded strict budget rules to protect a faltering economy and moved to collectively purchase vaccines, highlighting the bloc’s changing powers.  

Russia’s war in Ukraine only gave more fuel to those discussions, as the EU was confronted with its inability to move as swiftly as individual countries to approve economic sanctions aimed at crippling the Kremlin’s war chest. 

In parallel, the EU in 2021 also launched a “Conference on the Future of Europe,” an eight-month-long self-reflection forum that asked citizens to offer thoughts on revising the international institution. 

The initiative resulted in hundreds of ideas that were boiled down into 49 proposals. Some of them — like repealing unanimity requirements or giving the EU a greater role in healthcare policy — would require alterations to the EU’s treaties. 

A discussion on the conference’s outcomes was added to this week’s European Council summit agenda, raising the prospect that leaders may confront the prospect of treaty change while sitting around the table. 

Adding further pressure, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a resolution ahead of the summit, imploring EU leaders to take an important step toward treaty change — convening a European Convention to discuss the matter. The EU’s own executive arm, the European Commission, also encouraged leaders to strip the unanimity requirement for foreign policy decisions. 

Instead, the 27 EU leaders punted. 

In the Council’s conclusions, leaders vaguely called for “effective follow-up” to the conference and simply affirmed that the undertaking had been a fruitful exercise of democratic scrutiny. The words “treaty change” never graced the statement. 

Macron, who initiated the conference, also showed relative restraint on the issue during his press conference following the summit. He encouraged his colleagues to “seize” on the “profound transformations” the conference recommended and pledged that leaders would keep working on the issue.

Diplomats were quick to note that most of the conference’s ideas could be implemented without any significant rule changes. 

“The initial focus of this Council should be on what we can do, make sure we do them and tell citizens we are doing them,” said one EU diplomat. “One of the main takeaways of this conference is that, apparently, we do a terrible job at explaining what the EU does to citizens.”

War changes everything

There are other factors at play, as well. 

With war burning in Ukraine, EU leaders are favoring unity, especially this week while giving Ukraine a morale boost by naming it an EU candidate.

Yet it’s exactly Ukraine’s possible accession that will likely force the EU to address treaty change, as the country’s EU aspirations help revive other countries’ bids.

Leaders like Germany’s Scholz have said the EU must reform before it will be “capable of taking on new members.” Specifically, Scholz and others have pointed to the consensus needed for any foreign policy moves, which has led individual countries to hold up everything from momentous sanctions to basic statements. 

Over in the European Parliament, members are also now crafting a set of proposals to amend the treaties. They will eventually send those to the 27 heads of state or government for approval at the European Council.

“This is a historic moment of opportunity,” said Sven Simon, the German MEP serving as one of the Parliament’s point person on the issue. 

“The treaty is from 2009 and the EU went through many crises” since then, he noted.

For those seeking tweaks, however, there’s a cold reality that awaits: It’s hard, and many countries are skeptical. 

Amending the EU treaties is a long and tedious process. And swaths of the Continent feel there is no need to start it now, while the EU faces multiple crises.

First, there’s the logistical component. 

The initial phase is feasible. EU leaders can convene the European Convention — which would bring together members of national parliaments, as well as heads of state and government, to discuss amendment proposals — with a simple majority vote. 

From there, it gets more complicated. Under the ordinary procedure, any actual revisions would need consensus support from all EU countries. And removing unanimity or any decisions will rattle the EU’s smaller members, which know their veto power gives them much-desired clout in a body often directed by France and Germany. 

Second, there’s the political dimension.

In May, 13 countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Poland, made clear they considered any treaty changes premature, arguing it would only distract the bloc from more pressing issues.

“It is not the moment to discuss treaty change in the middle of the war in Ukraine,” a diplomat from one of those countries said. “A lot of things can be done without treaty change.”

Another EU diplomat remarked: “We all know treaty change is not going to happen very soon, so let’s not rush into those things when everything around us is changing.”

Some have expressed fear that the debate could actually tear apart the union, which has already lost a major member, the United Kingdom, to EU skepticism and can struggle to convince citizens of its benefits.

“Would such a move alienate member states, thereby sowing future dissent that could lead to the EU’s disintegration?” another EU diplomat wondered. “Considering that the EU is not a federal state but a collection of sovereign states, would the EU be moving to a federal model? If yes, how are we to reconcile the divergent interests?”

At some point, however, the conversation will be unavoidable. 

“In my view,” an EU official said, “a change in the EU’s decision-making process will be on the table the day enlargement comes close.”

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