The 1995 EU Reflection Group – A Lesson for Today?

IIEA31st August 20167min
The former European Commissioner, Michel Barnier, was appointed in July as the European Commission’s chief negotiator with the UK regarding its departure from the EU - an appointment that garnered much media coverage.

The former European Commissioner, Michel Barnier, was appointed in July as the European Commission’s chief negotiator with the UK regarding its departure from the EU – an appointment that garnered much media coverage. Some of this attention has been devoted to the fact that Mr. Barnier shared membership of an EU reflection group in the 1990s with the UK’s Minister of State for Brexit, David Davis.

The question obviously arises of the nature – and achievements or failings – of this largely forgotten ‘Reflection’ body. Interest is increased as the debate over the future of the EU after the UK referendum points to a wide ranging and challenging agenda for the European Union as a whole which must be addressed in a serious and systematic manner.

The IIEA provides a remarkable insight into the 1995 Reflection Group in Bobby McDonagh’s unique book, Original Sin in a Brave New World, a personal account of the Treaty of Amsterdam negotiations, a process in which he was closely involved and which he described as ‘the survival of the fittest ideas’.

Establishment of the 1995 Reflection Group

The European Council, meeting at Corfu in June 1994, confronted the issues arising from the imminent enlargement of the EU with the arrival of Austria, Sweden and Finland. It concluded that preparations were needed for a new treaty to better equip the EU for the challenges of the 21st century.

The Council decided to commence the process by establishing a Reflection Group, consisting of representatives attending on behalf of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from each Member State and the President of the Commission. The Reflection Group consisted of seven Ministers of State, eight individuals nominated by their governments, two MEPs and a member of the Commission. The Ministers included Michel Barnier for France, David Davis for the UK and Gay Mitchell for Ireland. The Spanish representative, Carlos Westendorp, was appointed Chairman.

The Reflection Group was asked to examine and elaborate ideas relating to the provisions of the Treaty on European Union, and possible improvements of its functioning. In light of the then imminent prospect of the Union’s enlargement, the Group was asked to envision possible measures deemed necessary to facilitate the work of the Union’s Institutions and guarantee their effective operation during a time of flux and expansion.

In his account of the proceedings, Bobby McDonagh commented in particular on the role of the UK representative, David Davis, who, ‘in a constructive spirit’, offered the UK’s ‘distinctive’ position on most issues which could be summed up as “continuing its efforts to lead Europe from the side lines.”

The Reflection Group worked between June and December 1995 and presented its report to the European Council on 5 December. It had identified a number of broad topics – Challenges and Objectives; the Union Institutions; European Citizenship; An Area of Freedom and Security; External and Security Policy; the Instruments at the Union’s Disposal.

Progress Report – Key Challenges Facing the EU

On 1 September 1995 the Chairman of the Reflection Group submitted a Progress Report which made reference – in terms which have clear resonance twenty years later – to the key challenges facing the Union:

·      The need to ensure that European construction becomes a venture to which its citizens can relate, recognising a growing popular dissatisfaction with public matters in general;

·      Economic, political and institutional issues, notably a high level of unemployment among young people and the long-term unemployed, social rejection and exclusion;

·      A crisis in relations between representatives and those represented, the European Union’s growing complexity and the lack of information on, and understanding of, its raison d’etre; and

·      Worrying developments in areas such as organised crime and terrorism, which was prompting a growing call for public security that could not be satisfied by states acting alone.

Final Report

The final report of the Reflection Group was delivered in December 1995. It highlighted the need to make institutional reforms a central issue to improve the efficiency, democracy and transparency of the Union.

The final report stated:

We have tried to identify the improvements needed to bring the Union up to date and to prepare it for the next enlargement. We consider that the Conference should focus on necessary changes, without embarking on a complete revision of the Treaty. Against this background, results should be achieved in three main areas:

·      Making Europe more relevant to its citizens;

·      Enabling the Union to work better and preparing it for enlargement;

·      Giving the Union greater capacity for external action.

[…] the Union is not and does not want to be a super-state. Yet it is far more than a market. It is a unique design based on common values.”

It argued that a revised treaty “must make the Union more relevant to its citizens”. One such mechanism to regain the commitment of its citizens, suggested by the Group’s report, included focusing on “what needs to be done at European level to address the issues that matter to most [EU citizens] such as greater security, solidarity, employment and the environment.”

An Assessment

Bobby McDonagh’s personal assessment of the Reflection Group’s work and output was that “it could be said to have carried out efficiently the difficult mandate set for it.”

He argued that the Group had clarified pressing issues facing the European project and brought them together sufficiently to facilitate the opening of the formal processes for treaty negotiation:

The work of the Reflection Group had forced the national administrations and the European institutions to start the lengthy process of coming to grips with the complex issues involved and enabling all parties to develop positions on them. In summary, it represented the first phase in the slow evolutionary process…in which only the fittest ideas would survive.

Conclusions

The extraordinary meeting of the Heads of State or Government of the 27 on 29 June 2016, following the result of the UK referendum, culminated in a statement, which concluded:

The European Union is a historic achievement of peace, prosperity and security on the European continent and remains our common framework. At the same time many people express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, be it at the European or national level. Europeans expect us to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth, as well as hope for a better future. We need to deliver on this, in a way that unites us, not least in the interest of the young. This is why we are starting today a political reflection to give an impulse to further reforms, in line with our Strategic Agenda, and to the development of the European Union with 27 Member States.

The summit meeting of 27 Member States, scheduled to take place at Bratislava on 16 September 2016, is intended to give momentum to those important insights. The Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico told the European Parliament on 6 July 2015 that “the European Union needs a new vision…based on the strengths of the Union and on the elimination of its weaknesses…a vision the citizens of the European Union can identify with. The summit will provide an excellent opportunity to discuss this vision.”

Looking back twenty years to the 1995 Reflection Group and the negotiation of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the similarity of the issues raised and the solutions advocated is both obvious and troubling. Making Europe more relevant to its citizens, enabling the Union to work better and giving the Union greater capacity for external action – the conclusions of the Reflection Group can be simply transposed to become today’s agenda.

It is urgently necessary to find more effective mechanisms or fora to meaningful reflect upon and find, in Robert Fico’s words, “tangible results with actual effects on people’s daily lives. Only then can we regain the trust of citizens and fight against growing populism, separatism and nationalism.”