Committing to real reform in Europe

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This year has been another with the European Union often in the news – unfortunately, dominated by negativity and Tory splits. Last month the House of Commons finally passed a bill to legislate for a referendum by 2017 if Cameron wins a majority in 2015. Other EU members have always looked at our intermittent debates on membership with bemusement and annoyance. Not so now. The social upheavals have driven anti-EU parties into the mainstream everywhere. The EU political project is in crisis and needs saving; few would disagree with this. There is no need to panic, but salvation will come in two guises. The EU needs to pursue policies that improve life for the majority of Europeans, and it needs institutional reform to deal with legitimate democratic concerns. These are symbiotic to the extent that better policies will result from better institutions and that better outcomes enable a level of trust to be built to then reform the institutions for long-term sustainability.

Listening to the Tories talk about the EU, it is clear that their agenda is negative and reactive: ‘bringing back’ powers, and, this week, ‘capping’ EU migration. It was good to see Douglas Alexander in Tuesday’s LabourList interview reminding us that ‘reform’ for the right means taking back workers’ rights. The reality for Labour is stark in that it does not have the political capital to risk on a fully-Europhile commitment, given the tightness of the polls. We have not endorsed the Party of European Socialists’ candidate for commission president Martin Schulz. But this shouldn’t mean that we take on the Tory reform agenda. Ed’s decision to commit to genuine openness of recruitment and apprenticeships aims to address perceptions of our past. But we should not feel tempted to follow the right down the migration-as-a-priority route. Insularity doesn’t wash with everyone. An encouraging ICM poll this week found that younger people have positive attitudes toward the EU. In particular, they like freedom of movement. This bodes well for the future, when, statistically, they will start voting; but what about now?

In the first half of 2014, Labour should begin to stake out a well-defined territory in the reform debate. We need to be very clever about this. Priority should be reforms that do not require a treaty change (we are now bound to hold a referendum if they do), that makes sense to people, and that already have some support in Europe. Our priorities should not be too numerous either. Labour should commit to a few specific ideas, not to be inflexible (negotiation will always be possible), but as ideas, to show at least that the party has policy and a vision on Europe beyond the usual vague ‘in it but reformed’. We should also look upon non-treaty changes as foundations that can be built on in future treaty changes.

There is significant support in Europe now for more involvement of national parliaments in the EU, and its time has come. It would not require a treaty change to have a forum of delegates from national parliaments meet and produce opinions on EU legislation. Locating it in Strasbourg could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations to bring to an end the charade of the monthly Strasbourg relocation (which itself is a reform imperative). Parliamentarians travelling to the forum could be paired so as not to miss Commons votes. By bringing national parliaments together semi-formally, the process of sending a ‘yellow card’ (where two-thirds of national parliaments think a policy contradicts subsidiarity) becomes easier. We would then be able to make the argument that the powers exist to properly scrutinise EU policy. Over time we should commit to aiming for national parliament-based body that is to the council and commission as national parliaments are to their own governments. This should be sold as bringing to fruition the principles of the Treaty of Lisbon: very democratic, very pluralistic.

Everybody agrees, or alludes to agreeing, that the commission should be reduced in size. Instead of merely saying that, we need to flesh our ideas out, otherwise we sound more hopeful than confident (and that is one major criticism of the withdrawal crowd). Personally I am rather interested in the option explored in a recent CER paper for the 28 directorates to be collapsed into seven senior ones with lesser responsibilities handled by junior commissioners working under the senior member, like the secretary of state-minister of state relationship. Alternatively I think it could be cut in half with a commissioner and deputy on five-year terms with a 10-year term limit, ascending only, and rotating so member-states retain opportunities for positions. The cost implications are marginal, but it would show to people that the EU is serious about reform. Labour should discuss seriously with partners a vision for how to make the commission less wieldy, and argue for one publicly.

Reform is one thing, strategy is another. In his LabourList interview, Douglas was confronted with the usual dual-purpose interview of foreign affairs and European affairs. Over time Labour should seek to change this stress. European matters should cease to be seen as merely an adjunct to the high diplomacy of foreign affairs, but be put centre-stage in the economic life. No more single lonely lines on commitment to Europe: speeches on Syria should be speeches on Syria. Speeches on Europe should be just that. And speeches on the economy should include the importance of the EU. Similarly the referendum question has been going on long enough: it’s about time to respond by saying that the EU has more important business to deal with right now, and so should Europe ministers.

All reforms at EU level need agreement. And this is where Ed should make Cameron’s past catch up with him. The German grand coalition and the Tories’ position with the marginalised ‘nutters, antisemites and homophobes’ (Nick Clegg) offers Labour a great opportunity to build cross-party support. And domestically we must hammer home the point that Cameron’s brinkmanship from the start has damaged his ability to negotiate on an even level in Europe. Ed, then, is the natural choice for reform.

Strasbourg, national parliaments, commission size, observer status in the eurogroup: these are the beginnings of a positive agenda, which I would like to see us commit to in principle. The Tories don’t even bother talking about these things in any detail. We will win a few more seats this time because they are being held midterm, we are coming from a low base and doing well in the polls. There isn’t that much to lose from having a positive agenda. One thing to remember: do not expect increasing ‘democratic legitimacy’ to placate the antis overnight. Their objection is not from high notion or policy, but from the gutter. If the commission was streamlined and national parliaments had co-decision rights, they would find another issue to coalesce around. Crafting positive visions is risky. It’s what Ed has done domestically several times since becoming leader. And it is the only way on Europe, because we will never outgun the Tories on negativity, retrenchment, and scepticism. And nor should we.


Alan Donnelly is a former leader of Labour in Europe and a political consultant. He tweets @alandonnelly57


Photo: European Parliament

Photo: wooleywonderworks

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Comments: 2...

  1. On December 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm Richard Corbett responded with... #

    Good to see a constructive article and focussing on real issues, not the EuroscepticTory inventions. But some would be difficult: changing the size of Commission needs unanimity, while internal re-organisation could be done more easily. A new institution of national parliamentarians has been tried and has serious limitations, but improving national parliamentary scrutiny over their own minister before he/she sets off to Brussels is a must.

    For more Labour ideas on EU reform (some procedural safeguards, but especially policy reform) see:

  2. On December 21, 2013 at 9:26 am wj responded with... #

    Ah, Richard Corbett, our democratic knight in shining armour.

    The individual who put forward an amendment, in the EU parliament, proposing that the EU parliament recognise the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – AND THEN VOTING AGAINST HIS OWN AMENDMENT!

    The Lisbon Treaty was the beginning of the end for the EU – no amount of sophistry will convince the people of the EU that the Lisbon Treaty was a tool of democracy; the arrogant and greedy elites overstepped the mark.

    And, by portraying the Lisbon Treaty as having some sort of democratic legitimacy, the author of the piece above has shown, either his ignorance, or a complete contempt for the peoples of the EU nation states.

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