Can Europe reform itself?

A ghost discussion, such as 'in favour or against Europe', turns immediately into a symbolic debate ignoring reality. The question is 'what Europe' works well and what momentum is there to achieve it. The French MP Henri Guaino, a former advisor to President Sarkozy, recently summarized in Le Figaro the essence of Europe. "Europe is France , Italy , Germany , Spain , Belgium etc. The European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice are institutions at the service of Member States and the peoples of Europe. The EU has buried historical, geographical, cultural and demographic realities under regulations, bureaucracies and procedures. But reality always takes revenge if it is denied". In short, reform of the EU-Member States relationship and adaptation to realities.

The front line of that battle lies in the United Kingdom. Ten years ago, in the European Commission, I was ordered to keep an eye on a 'funny man'. He sat in the back of the plenary in the European Parliament and made a lot of noise. He also sent in difficult written questions. The name of that 'funny man' was Nigel Farage. He is still a noisy parrot. In the Commission they now know who he is, but they no longer think he's funny. Farage is campaigning in the heartland of the British Conservatives. He wants to lead Britain out of the EU as a modern Moses, but making use of the Eurostar. Farage gets a platform in the media and is an authority in television debates. He seeks the debate - he does not avoid it. His target is Prime Minister David Cameron, whose only salvation, according to the scornful comments in the British media, would be the reintroduction of fox hunting.

Cameron's policies are working. Upon taking office in 2010, he inherited a budget deficit of 10% which has now almost halved. The Labour opposition gathered around the slogan "cut to pieces", but in the meantime the British economy is growing at 2.7%, faster than in the Eurozone. If the European Central Bank (ECB) lowers the value of the euro, the British economy will be bigger than the French by the end of this year in dollar terms. In the old days that required a battle at sea. Britain is home to four out of the ten best universities in the world and the employment rate is even higher than in the USA.

Nevertheless the Conservatives risk a hefty beating and the cause is British popular dissatisfaction with the European Union. Therefore, Cameron is aiming for reform of the EU after which, if he takes office again next year as prime minister, he will hold a referendum in 2017 asking the question "in or out of the EU." According to Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, the British exception cannot become the rule for everyone.

But the British drive for reform is no exception. The Dutch government presented a survey last year with 54 points that should be handled at the national level rather than at the European level, ranging from forest management to maternity leave. In France there still exists the idea that the EU overshadows the Member States, as voiced by Henri Guaino. A similar feeling is present in the Nordic countries and, ironically, even in Germany. Last Sunday, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, said in Buitenhof that in Brussels nothing is decided without the Member States. He forgets to add that both the Commission and Parliament often mandate themselves to push plenty of "well-intentioned" legislation down the throats of the Council. That is, propped up by bureaucracies, an institutional self- coronation. The Council seeks to reduce the (financial) loss of these wish lists.

Do reforms require treaty change? Most Member States are hesitant out of fear of possible referenda. Cameron, who promised a referendum, thinks so. Treaty rules on the monetary union, such as the no bail-out clause, have been interpreted so plastically and elastically that the framework is about to burst. Also, certain institutional reforms would require treaty change. Most Dutch parties find that the number of European Commissioners, now 28, should be halved. For a Commission of 14 members, treaty change is required. Due to the smaller Commission, reform will naturally turn to the question: which key tasks should the EU do (and do better), on behalf of the Member States, and what are the tasks the Member States should continue to do themselves?

That issue is the essence of the power game after the European elections; not the imaginary side-games.