Does the European Union have the resources to match its ambitions?

This article was originally published in French

Calls to reform the institutions to make the EU more efficient, more democratic and better adapted to contemporary challenges are growing.


Fifteen years have passed since the last update of a European Union treaty. 

Signed in 2007 and into force since 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon clarified the division of competences between the EU and its member states, gave the EU its own legal personality and provided for the first time a formal procedure for the withdrawal of a member state from the Union.

Since then, enlargement has been one of the reasons regularly put forward by those in favour of reforming the EU’s institutions, treaties and budget, but it is far from the only one. The war in Ukraine, the digital and energy transition, the fight against climate change and social inequalities – these are all global challenges that require the EU to have a greater capacity for action, according to the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in its report “EU Treaties: Why they need targeted changes”.

Enlargement and internal reform have been regular items on the European institutions’ agenda in recent years. At the end of November, the European Parliament gave the green light to proposals to reform the EU Treaties. At the Granada Summit in early October, the President of the Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, also called for enlargement of the EU not to wait for a change in the Treaties. Citizens also put forward recommendations and proposals on the future of the Union at the Conference on the Future of Europe, a series of debates held between 2021 and 2022.

In concrete terms, what proposals for reform were put forward? How would they be adopted? Here are seven key areas for reform.

1. Decision-making and enlargement

First of all, MEPs are calling for changes to the voting mechanisms within the Council. In order to prevent the institutions from coming to a standstill, they are advocating the generalisation of qualified majority voting in all areas where unanimity is still required.

Currently, a qualified majority is reached when at least 55% of Member States (i.e. 15 out of 27) vote in favour and when these member states represent at least 65% of the EU population.

MEPs are also calling for a more bicameral system that would strengthen the role of the Parliament and for a reversal of the current roles in the election of the President of the Commission: in future, the Parliament would propose the President of the Commission and the Council would approve them.

In order to prepare the EU institutions for enlargement, the “Group of Twelve”, a Franco-German working group on institutional reforms, advocates abolishing the power of veto in the field of foreign affairs, retaining a maximum number of 751 MEPs and extending the format of the trio to five presidencies in the EU Council.

2. Peace and security

The war in Ukraine has also highlighted “the scope and limits of the European Union’s power”, says the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in its report. While member states have deployed a range of sanctions against Russia and provided economic, military and humanitarian support to Ukraine, the war has demonstrated their failure to anticipate this crisis, their dependence on the United States for their own defence and their dependence on Russian gas imports.

The members of the European Parliament therefore propose the creation of a defence union with military capabilities.

3. Consolidating the rule of law

The defence of the rule of law and the democratic legitimacy of the EU could be strengthened through institutional reforms. To this end, the authors of the report “Navigating the High Seas: EU Reform and Enlargement in the 21st Century” recommend increasing budget conditionality and improving Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which allows a member state’s voting rights in the Council to be suspended if it fails to respect fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

The European Commission first triggered Article 7 in 2017 againstPoland, when Warsaw was planning a reform that threatened the independence of the judiciary. In 2018, Hungary was targeted by the same procedure following concerns about the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, corruption and minority rights. Conditional on a unanimous vote minus a single vote in the Council, Article 7 has never come to fruition.

Article 7 has not worked simply because if a country is accused of breaking these rules, all it takes is for another country to block a decision being taken against it. Hungary and Poland have protected each other on a number of occasions in recent years,” explains Daniela Schwarzer, a member of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

4. Climate change

The Treaty on the Functioning of the EU already refers to environmental protection. In addition, MEPs called for the reduction of global warming and the preservation of biodiversity to be added as objectives of the Union. The Foundation for European Progressive Studies also proposes introducing a new exclusive competence for the EU in terms of international policy to combat climate change, which would enable the Union to negotiate environmental rules with a single voice.

5. Energy transition

Soaring energy prices following the war in Ukraine have highlighted the dependence of some European countries on Russian gas.

Members of the European Parliament are proposing the creation of an integrated European Energy Union to guarantee a stable, affordable and sustainable energy supply for Europeans. This strategy is based on five pillars: energy security, an integrated internal energy market, energy efficiency, decarbonisation of the economy, and research and the economy.

6. Digital transition

The Lisbon Treaty makes no mention of the term “digital”. Many experts therefore insist that the text needs to be updated.


The European Union has already adopted important texts on digital issues. The Digital Markets Act (DMA), for example, provides a framework for the economic activity of major digital platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft in the European Union. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protects users’ personal data. According to the authors of the report “The EU Treaties: Why they need targeted changes”, digital issues should be a shared competence between the EU and member states, in order to guarantee access to the Internet, the right to disconnect, digital education, the right to live without the need for digital technologies and the right to a safe environment.

7. Health

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for Europe-wide coordination and cooperation in the field of health.

A European health data area, equitable access to healthcare within the EU, joint purchasing of vaccines and medicines, management of rare diseases, and the development of orphan drugs are just some of the public goods that could be developed. These are all public goods that could be developed on a European scale if the EU’s competences were extended, according to the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

On the other hand, some opponents of such reforms believe that these powers should be devolved to the member states and call for greater national sovereignty. Others sometimes consider that amendments to the Treaties are unnecessary because the texts already allow for some of these measures.

How are the treaties amended?

1. Ordinary revision procedure


The government of a member state, the European Parliament and the European Commission may submit a proposal to amend the Treaties to the Council of the European Union (composed of the ministers of the governments of member states).

The government of a member state, the European Parliament and the European Commission may submit a proposal to amend the Treaties to the Council of the European Union (composed of the ministers of the governments of the member states).

The Council of the European Union in turn submits these proposals to the European Council (composed of the Heads of State or Government of the member states), whose President may choose to convene a Convention.

A Conference of Representatives of the Governments of member states is then convened by the President of the European Council to adopt the proposed amendments to the Treaties by consensus. These amendments must then be ratified by all member states.

2. Simplified revision procedure


The Lisbon Treaty creates a simplified procedure for amending the EU’s internal policies and actions.

This procedure avoids the need to convene the Convention and the Conference of Representatives.

Amendments to the Treaties must be ratified by all member states.

3. Bridging clauses

Passerelle clauses are a second simplified revision procedure used in two scenarios.


For legislative acts adopted by the Council of the EU unanimously, the European Council may authorise the Councils to act by qualified majority.

For legislative acts adopted by the Council of the EU under a special legislative procedure, the European Council may authorise the use of the ordinary legislative procedure.

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