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Speech to the Conservative Group for Europe
First of all, thank you all for your kind invitation to speak tonight. As I speak to you, we find ourselves at a crossroads for Britain, Europe, and the question of Britain in Europe. The form which Europe has taken has evolved, slowly but steadily, over the last few decades and I know there are many who have asked themselves what our role should be. There are even those who question whether the UK should be in Europe.
While I believe firmly in the principles of British law, of the supremacy of Parliament, and of the need to preserve our culture and our institutions I also cannot ignore the clear fact that financially we are better off as a part of Europe. Neither can I ignore the fact that, in the context of broader goals such as confronting climate change, Europe working together has the power to effect great change on the global stage: Taken as a whole, working together we have the leverage to drive global energy policy both through the directions we can pursue together and through the ability to enforce trade regulations that actually make countries such as China take notice.
So if we were to take the sole measures of success for the European project as that of material prosperity and the avoidance of conflict, if that is all that we seek to achieve? Well, we've succeeded on that front in ways that could hardly have been dreamt of at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in 1957.
And yet I can also say with some certainty that our work is not done yet. There are painful, valid criticisms of the structure of the European Union, criticisms which we must address: At the highest level, the only directly-elected body does not even have the power to initiate legislation, only to revise that which is presented from bodies that the voters have, at best, indirect leverage. That body also has the regrettable quality that the vast majority of its membership are elected on a closed-list system, meaning that in many areas of the Union a major national party can load a deeply unpopular individual into a high space on their list and reasonably expect their election. In others, parties can load utter non-entities onto the ballot who will coast into office despite no profile.
The Parliament is, in turn, dominated by a persistent, reasonably stable "grand coalition" that has endured since 1979. In no small part as a result of these factors, millions of voters find themselves lacking a voice or a way to effectively vote for change in Europe. The approach to the failure of the Constitution, and later the handling of Ireland's initial rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, also speak to a chronic problem of the oft-called 'democratic deficit'.
Aside from those questions of structure, some states, and I will single out Greece as a particularly bad actor, have been brought deep into the financial structure of the Union without having been ready for it. The Euro, in particular, is a tricky problem in these cases since the classic way to manage a national bankruptcy...through a devaluation of the currency...is thereby withdrawn. While this is definitely good for businesses which can count on a relatively stable environment, it is also particularly bad for the country involved because once they get into that sort of a hole there is no real way out. It can also be deeply problematic if external factors, such as a banking crisis, bury a country's finances. So I do not think it is unfair to say that a rush to integrate has laid landmines and some of them have, regrettably, gone off in the last few years.
And of course, there is the question of immigration and migration: Different countries have different rules and interpretations of those rules. When combined with problems with the Dublin Regulation, which was designed without foreseeing how to handle a massive surge of migrants, particularly in Greece where control over the border is dubious and where you can get in from Turkey on a raft most days, we have found ourselves facing some very real problems and not finding good solutions. This is, in turn, feeding the rise of forces which I think we would all rather not see in play on the Continent...but they are likely to arise regardless.
However, unlike those who would use these concerns as reasons to dismiss Europe I firmly believe that we must instead make an effort to reform the Union and make it more durable. There are far too many who would seek departure not as a last resort but as a first choice...but at the same time, the last elections made it clear that doubt and concern are rising in various quarters and those valid concerns do need to be addressed lest they trigger an infection of the electorate that turns them against what we have built.
And finally this, in turn, brings us back to why, yes, I support a referendum: We must follow through on the promise of a referendum because one has been called for repeatedly, because one was promised for the European Constitution, and just because you change the name of something and alter the details the associated commitments do not change. The continual failure of officials to follow through with promises such as these has undermined public confidence.
Going by turn, let us start with the Parliament, the great weakness of the European Union. The Parliament does not have the power to initiate legislation...it must rely on the Commission for that. In theory, the Commission consults with the Parliament to figure out what legislation to propose, if only to avoid wasting their time...but this means that even if the Parliament wants a piece of legislation and could generate the necessary votes, if the Commission refuses to propose the legislation then in practical terms it does not exist. I would contend that if no other change is made to the European Union to address the democratic deficit, the most fundamental one would be to seriously relax or remove this restriction. The justification given is that the vast majority of legislation introduced without executive support in parliaments fails, but this ignores three key counters:
First, a not-insignificant minority of those proposals do become law. Good ideas can come from all corners of the political spectrum at times. Moreover, in the context of Europe it is key to remember that though there are political groupings in the Parliament, many of these groupings in turn consist of a dozen or more parties with agendas which are not always in alignment. The nature of European political parties is much closer to the loose groupings in the British parliament in the 19th century than what we are used to today.
Whatever consultations are taking place, the simple fact remains that there are numerous groups in the Parliament whose mandate is arguably stronger than the Commission in terms of being a font of legislation, and as things stand the Commission has the power to ignore proposals from those groups that it does not like. Where this becomes particularly insidious is if the Parliament wants to adjust or rescind an existing Directive: If the Commission does not like the proposed changes, it can ignore them and keep doing what it has been doing. Allowing the executive a functional blank check to ignore the will of the only elected legislative body is perverse in terms of democratic practice. It can not be continued if the European Union wants to keep a serious claim to being democratically responsible to the voters.
Additionally, the “special legislative procedures” which render the Parliament’s views merely advisory need to be abolished and replaced with processes which give the Parliament an actual say in those matters rather than only having the ability to express disapproval. In many respects, this is the equivalent to having the House of Lords able to pass a bill without the consent of the Commons.
Second, it should be considered that even if proposals which are presented without the support of the executive do not become law, they do permit the framing of debate by various parties. This is a key part of any democratic process: That even if some time is ‘wasted’, deliberation does happen and some serious consideration must be given to those proposals. If one was inclined to be hyperbolic, I am sure they could come up with plenty of systems of government which have favored efficiency over deliberation throughout history. We do not have opposition days in Parliament because they are an exercise in efficiency, we have them because they are an important part of a working democracy. If the price of this is an extra week or two per year in Brussels for MEPs, this is not an unreasonable sacrifice for them to make.
Third, that this ability permits both opposition parties and groups within governing parties to act as a check against an intransigent government. As things stand right now, if the three hundred and seventy six votes needed to pass a bill were present, the appointed Commission can nix a proposal by simply refusing to bring it up. For example, if there were a consensus to repeal one of the existing railway directives, to amend a financial services directive, or to withdraw a delegated form of authority, the Parliament can not move until the Commission, in essence, gives them permission.
In a specific, recent context, we would not have the recent Scotland Act passed if our own Parliament did not have the right to initiate legislation: Our government did not particularly seem interested in pursuing that, so the Opposition moved the bill, and it was passed without opposition in the Commons and sent onwards. The idea that such legislation should not have gotten a hearing because the Government wasn’t interested is patently absurd.
The formal removal of these barriers and restrictions could be accomplished by way of an amendment, and I think that is necessary, but it could be seriously relaxed if the Commission were to commit, formally and explicitly, publicly rather than in an informal manner, to taking up proposals from the Parliament that receive a certain amount of support and then sending them back in for debate rather than just ‘generally’ doing so. For the avoidance of doubt, an amendment is needed but I offer this legal fiction as a way to work around the blocks built into the system in the interim.
The closed-list election format is another aspect of the system which might be claimed as a feature but which is actually a bug. In a given campaign, I would wonder if more than one voter in ten could tell you the name of any candidate in their region who was not topping their party list. Far too many of our MEPs, regardless of party, are failed candidates for other offices, and I strongly suspect that this is the case in other countries as well. There is also no way for the voters to decide not to elect a given candidate...in most regions, whomever tops the list for Labour and the Tories will be elected by default. In a good number, there is probably a Liberal Democrat who will fall into office even if the LibDems are having a bad night, and a member of UKIP as well. One can hope that the various parties will be responsible with their choices of candidates but...well, I think the last few decades have shown that this is not always the case. I would also note that we, in the UK, have it easy in this respect: I can only imagine how much thought goes into figuring out who gets the thirtieth seat on the CDU list in Germany or the twentieth on the PSOE’s list in Spain. In sum, closed list proportional representation is probably the system of democratic elections that does the most to disempower the voters and devalue their opinions. It should be replaced, at the very least, with an open-list system that lets the voters choose from individuals instead of just vague ideologies.
We then move to the third aspect of the democratic deficit, and one which is both less fundamental and yet quite troubling: Europe does not like to take no for an answer. In 2004, the European Constitution was presented to the voters in several countries. That document came to several hundred pages of relatively technical material, something which one can hardly fault voters for being skeptical of. In the space of a weekend in 2005, two countries’ voters voted the document down. The solution of the European leadership was not to engage in deep self-reflection, considering that perhaps they pushed something too complex too hard all at one time. It was, instead, to patch together a replacement treaty and avoid the necessity for having those pesky referendums since the voters might not know what was best.
Of course, as we all know, Ireland still had to hold a referendum due to their national constitution...and wouldn’t you know it, the Irish voters said no. It should be noted that the polls showed a similar result was likely in 2005, had the Constitution gone to a vote, so this was hardly a one-day aberration. Europe’s reaction was to have the Irish tune in to the same bat-time on the same bat-channel and try again about a year later...when, in the context of a catastrophic economic crisis, Ireland duly voted as expected.
This “vote until you get it right” attitude in the face of incredibly complex and potentially sweeping documents is painfully high-handed. It is not to say that those contents, opaque and complicated though they may be, are not to the voters’ advantage. It is, however, to say that whether they are to folks advantage or disadvantage, they are thick enough to require a complex degree to truly understand, and in being so complicated and complex it is both easy for voters to find reason to be dubious with their contents, easy for them to be misled, and hardly surprising that in such a context many could find something that they are not comfortable with. I have raised similar issues with the Reform Bill in the House of Commons: That it bundles numerous changes to the electoral system together into a single package. Now imagine a document which is tens of times longer and more complicated and throw that all together and you have a recipe for voter confusion and frustration. Europe should work on handling changes in small portions that voters can understand rather than relying on "big bang" treaties that try to change a hundred things at once.
The solution to this problem is, sadly, not going to be found in a treaty or in a directive. The solution to this problem is arguably a problem, absurd though the phrasing may sound, of hearts and minds in Brussels. It is arguably the gravest challenge to the future of Europe, because if the people out there do not feel that they have a say in the system, that their objections will be ignored regardless of their validity and that the system will “keep on trucking” regardless, they will become jaded and angry...and that never ends well for anybody.
One aspect which must be considered, in the long run, is to look at ways that the voters in Brussels can elect meaningfully different governing coalitions at elections. As I have noted, there is essentially a permanent coalition which has governed the European Union since 1979. This has, in turn, helped to impose a generally stable view of how Europe should develop onto its member states: Again I return to my example of the railways and point out that, for example, no country can impose a nationalized rail system in the long term while the state ownership of many enterprises is restricted.
While in terms of policy this is a positive development, resulting in both stable and desirable policy outcomes, it also runs a fundamental risk that dissatisfied voters will seek out alternatives beyond what is generally deemed the “acceptable” political mainstream either as an exercise in protest and frustration, because of dissatisfaction with the actions of the governing parties, or in a bona fide search of change.
Perhaps most relevant to this is the example of Austria: For the last few election cycles, the OVP and SPO have been in a persistent coalition, partly as a result of...well, the way election results have shaken out. However, at least partially as a result of this, with the same governing parties holding power for over a decade and through the financial crisis, the vote for the two parties has fallen from almost 79% in 2002 to barely 50% in 2013 as a host of new parties have arisen and gained representation. I can rattle off similar phenomena in other countries, such as in Germany where the 2005 Grand Coalition saw a massive surge of votes for the various opposition parties.
At the European level, fundamentally the same grand coalition of the centre has continued in power for thirty-five years, with no real mechanism for alternation in government instead of a quinquennial game of musical chairs. Can we be surprised that dissatisfaction has grown or that voters turn to other parties? After all, we are not in the environment of a postwar consensus anymore, and it is no longer the easy glory days of the 1990s, either. So if the European Union is to have a broader role in the world, though by its nature it should and must turn slowly, the voters must have a way to initiate a change of course. At present such mechanisms are lacking.
I assure you this is not simply a bit of idle theorizing. It has practical importance. The recent refugee crisis, which I mentioned earlier, has exposed a tangle of problems which nobody seems to be inclined to solve in a way that is acceptable to the voters in various countries. At the European level, there is little incentive: 75-80% of MEPs will presumably wander back into office if their parties will have them, with list-toppers and, in larger regions, dozens below them all but guaranteed to hold their positions. In the meanwhile, those 'on the bubble' seem more likely to improve their chances of re-election, should they desire it, through moving up the list than by improving their party's performance. Seeing off the opposition in general doesn't offer the same motive as we are used to, either, since that coalition has held office for decades and seems inclined to do so until the stars grow cold. So the usual electoral incentives are touchy at best.
And of course, the Parliament cannot turn to the Commission if they want to and say “We are facing a problem, we need to revise the rules and this is what we want.” The Commission has to turn to the Parliament and offer a proposal, which means that if the Commission is not motivated to fix something, then that something will simply not get fixed. Given precedent, it will take more than mere inattention or mild ineptitude to bring down a Commission while there is no mechanism for early elections, so we come back yet again to the issue of unresponsive government. I will return to this in a specific case in a moment.
I move on to the question of the Euro. If admission to the Euro had been handled as it was supposed to have been, it would be a great source for Continental stability and prosperity by reducing and removing a great deal of the risk of currency fluctuations from businesses. This, in turn, reduces operating costs. I know that I am preaching to the choir on this, so I'll move on to the problem we face.
Greece is emblematic of the problem of the Euro: Greece, in particular, should never have been admitted to the Euro. The Greek government never particularly adhered to the European Union's deficit rules and it ran up an unbelievable bill. Since the 2008 crash, Greece has been buried under a debt that is equivalent to about 170-180% of GDP as the economy has contracted dramatically. Shorn of the historical tool of troubled governments to deal with such a situation, that of a currency devaluation, Greece has managed to place Europe in a very unenviable position: Either the European Union must force lenders to take repeated 'haircuts' and largely let Greece not pay its bills or it must leave Greece drowning in a debt that will eventually be borne by millions who did not incur it and are not responsible for voting in those who did incur it. One of these options arguably punishes those who behaved responsibly and believed in what the Union promised them, the other sets up a ready formula for long-term discontent and the election of bad people to power. These are, sadly, very much the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons.
Greece is not the only country beset by Euro-induced difficulties, but it is definitely the most emblematic case. There is a good argument to be made that at least some of the troubles faced in Italy, Spain, and others as well, are down to the inability of their economies to readjust after the crash because they are bound over by Teutonic fiscal discipline in a way that their voters never bought into. Again, we come to the problem of complex packages and the fact that voters might buy into the free movement of people, capital, and goods...but not into some of the poorly-conveyed strings that came in the deal. Moreover, in many cases the responsibility for this can be laid at political parties across the spectrum...in Greece, both major parties have held power in the last decade so while one got caught holding the bag in 2008 both have this situation on their hands. It is not like the voters could have chosen a party inclined to comply with those rules even if they had wanted to: The choice was not there to be had.
This brings us back around to the ongoing refugee crisis and the Dublin Regulation. I would like to be clear that I find that the Dublin Regulation is necessary to avoid refugees from simply picking the most prosperous place to settle: Without it, one could easily see Germany, Sweden, and other countries swamped outright. However, it also exposes all sorts of problems with the European system since interpretations of refugee rules are going to vary from country to country. Front-line countries, such as Greece and Hungary, will get a disproportionate number of applications. More to the point and more troubling, if one country takes a permissive view of refugee rules then the other countries in the Schengen Area are functionally stuck with that country's chosen admission criteria. And make no mistake about it, at this moment the refugee situation, whatever our PM may be attempting to do to resolve it, is the largest source of discontent at the moment in Europe for precisely these reasons.
In this particular case, I would contend that the European Union should pay to process the refugees “in place” in the countries that they arrive in, with a clear, standard set of rules and procedures to ensure that economic migrants are not admitted in the mix and that the wave of refugees does not overwhelm either the social or political capacity of the EU to handle them. At the same time, the EU should not have the ability to force countries to take refugees without picking up the bill for their resettlement, and we must have rules which permit the deportation of those who are admitted and who thereafter commit serious crimes. While resources must be made available for those who admit...language classes come foremost to my mind, as do resources for cultural adaptation...I cannot help but express concern that there are those who come in seeking refuge and then show little interest in adapting to their newfound homes.
Do I take a strong line on this front? I do. Do I think that the concerns I have addressed will affect the the majority of refugees? I do not. But I also realize that there will be causes célèbres which tarnish the overall situation, give ammunition to other bad actors on the spectrum, and in some regrettable cases in the eyes of the public put them on the side of right.
That last line is, fundamentally, what I speak to today: If the European project is to succeed, we must accept and address valid criticisms from all sides. If anything, we must work to preempt them lest they gain traction and we find ourselves in the position of being seen to simply react to external forces. Doing nothing is the worst answer, but simple reaction is only marginally better.
Now, I have one final point to address, and I suspect that it has been the elephant in the room for some time: Yes, I support a referendum on the European Union. That is Conservative Party policy. The British people were promised a referendum on the European Constitution, and just because that got re-labeled as the Lisbon Treaty that does not mean that the obligation ever went away. What was voted on in 1975 is not what we have now and sooner or later our role in Europe needs a new mandate. And in that discussion there needs to also be a discussion as to what role or form the EU will take going forward.
Whatever aspirations may exist of an ever closer union, a notion that I do not subscribe to, we need to get the Union that we have now right and straightened out before we even consider going deeper and further. Given the difficulties surrounding the Euro, given the problems that our refugee policy is facing, and given the general dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of the electorate it is time for Europe to take the time it needs to sort out its institutions, connect with voters, and sort out a mandate for itself going forward.
I know that what I have said here is quite a bit of tough love, but I am firmly convinced that if the European Union does not address very important questions that are before us, questions such as those I have discussed here, it will not thrive. There are painful rifts in it: North and south, east and west. These issues can, conceivably, be worked through but it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of compromise, and some of that is going to have to come from people who for many years have comfortably been able to have their way. It won't be easy. But if they are committed to making Europe actually work, and work for the great mass of people out there who aren't in the “Brussels bubble”, it can work. Thank you.
Steven Andrews, MP for Croydon South
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