Archive for the ‘EU Politics’ Category

Parliament, European Style

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Let’s start with a question.  Do you know who your MEP is?  Some among you will immediately notice a problem with that question: MEPs are elected using a proportional system (the D’Hondt version of party lists), so you have more than one for your region.

Another question.  Presuming you are a Liberal Democrat and have found an MEP you like in your region’s delegation, what party is they are a member of?  No, not Liberal Democrat.  I mean what European party do they represent?  Like me, did you have to google to discover it is the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and that  they are part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe?

And another.  When you voted, which party was your first choice?  Liberal Democrat, right?  So not the party your first choice will sit with in the European Parliament!

I’m sure some of you reading this knew the answers, but if you’re here, you’re probably an activist.  The average voter almost certainly can’t answer these questions.  Which highlights a very significant problem for the European Parliament.  To be a democracy, you need a demos – a pan-European pool of voters, voting on common issues.  Right now, people vote on national ideology and party, not for pan-European political parties; there is no European demos.

Worse than this, though some are ardently for or against Europe, the vast majority of voters are apathetic.  This is illustrated by turnout at European elections which was an abysmal 34.7% in 2009.  That UKIP have 12 out of 78 MEPs shows that a fair proportion who turned out to vote did so as a protest.

For a party that largely supports Europe (but I must stress wants significant reforms), this can’t be good news. We face a massive challenge between now and the next European elections in 2014.  While it is not realistic to create a true European demos in four years, we must make voters care.

We must make the common sense case for Europe – that there are things done better together than apart – and show the relevance to voters’ everyday lives.  We must also stress our desire for reform.  Critically we must debunk the myths; I addressed the size of the bureaucracy in a previous post but there are others, not least the myth of an all-powerful European super-state.

There are glimmers of hope.  Some European parties are starting to campaign on a Europe-wide platform, with common issues.  That we are in government, though with a largely eurosceptic party, will help.  It gives us a better platform to highlight the achievements and also to demonstrate that our support for Europe is not blind: we want significant reform, including repatriation of some powers (for example the Working Time Directive).

On reform, simple application of political liberalism and economic liberalism throws up some obvious targets: the Common Agricultural Policy is deeply economically illiberal; the Commission, though the engine room of the EU, fails almost every test of democratic accountability; and much of EU social policy is better addressed nationally.

In some ways, Conservative euroscepticism will help us.  EU institutions have undergone what feels like a perpetual revolution; with The Coalition commitment to referendums for any new treaties or for further transfer of power to Europe these institutions have a chance of stability.  With stability, they should (with help from us) become more familiar to voters and help dispel the myth of labyrinthine complexity.

In summary, we must:

  • Make the common sense case for Europe
  • Debunk the myths that surround Europe
  • Ensure the stability and accountability of European institutions
  • Demonstrate our desire for (and ability to) reform by working with the Conservatives; delivering one significant reform must be our minimum target!

Back to some questions.  Who introduces legislation?  Not the parliament; the European Commission has legislative initiative and proposes all legislation.  This and the relation of the Commission to the other bodies later.

The European Council

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The structure of the European Union‘s political institutions is odd.  There are three institutions which hold the executive and legislative power, headed by a fourth, the European Council, which has no formal powers!

The European Council is comprised of the heads of government of each member state and meets at least four times a year.  It also includes the President of the Commission (non voting), and the High Representative often attends the meetings.  The European Council is headed by the President of the European Council who holds the position for two and a half years.  The first President, Herman Van Rompuy, took office on 1 December 2009.  It will be interesting to see how this role evolves; will it become the defacto President of Europe?

Essentially, the European Council defines the EU’s policy agenda.  As it has almost no formal powers it does this only through the influence of its members. That is, the leaders of the member states.

The European Council highlights the tension within the EU between intergovernmental cooperation and supranational power.  At present the European Council exerts power almost totally through intergovernmental cooperation.  Its formal powers are limited to the appointment of its President and resolution of issues referred to it by the Council of the European Union (also known as: the Council of Ministers,  the Consilium).

Oddly, the High Representative (for Common Foreign and Security Policy) has more executive power within the EU than the European Council itself.  The High Representative runs, among other things, the EU’s fledgling diplomatic service, the European External Action Service.

The other three institutions are the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.    The legislative procedure is slightly odd: the Commission presents legislative proposals to both the Parliament and the Council of the European Union which then negotiate a common draft which must be agreed by both the Council and an absolute majority in the Parliament.

A quick aside on terminology.  As there are two Councils: the European Council and the Council of the European Union,  I will abbreviate the Council of the European Union to “the Consilium” but will always use European Council in full.

I will discuss the Consilium, the Commission and the Parliament in future articles, so that’s it for now.  This entry has been rather dry but it has helped me understand the structure.  By way of apology, I’ll try to debunk one myth.

Everyone thinks of the EU as a bureaucratic leviathan, mired in multilingual paperwork.  The reality is rather different, and only around 20,000 eurocrats work directly for the Commission which is approximately half the number as work for Birmingham City Council!

That is slightly misleading.  If you add in all the agencies, expert committees, the Council Secretariat and the people who are employed in the member states by EU institutions, the total number rises to around 170,000.  But that is still small when compared to Her Majesty’s Civil Service which employs over 500,000 people (excluding Northern Ireland and the Diplomatic Service which are counted separately).

In contrast to the myth, the EU is a very lean organisation.

Europe, Community and Common Interest

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Though founded to ensure peace and stability in the aftermath of World War II, the European Union is now much more than that.  At its simplest level, it is founded on the principle that there are things we can achieve better together than separately.

To extend the concept of a hierarchy of communities I’ve used before, we are in some senses members of a european community.  I don’t use this in any formal sense or with reference to the former name of the EU, but only in the sense of a geographic community with common interests.  It should be self-evident that we have common interests, at minimum in preserving the european environment.

However, history plays a role.  A hierarchy of community headed by the nation-state is familiar territory to us all, but extension beyond this gets tied up with issues of nationalism and sovereignty.  It was easy for nations like France and Germany who had just experienced turmoil, invasion and occupation to understand that there should be some form of supranational european community.  But this is much more difficult for other states, particularly the UK and Sweden, which have been largely isolated from invasion and occupation.  This is reflected in the eurosceptic stances of both and it should be noted that neither have joined the Euro.

So presuming there is a pan-european community, what are its common interests and what are the areas where europe as a whole is a better agent than individual nations?

  • Common standards for human rights
  • Free trade and free markets, including freedom of movement of people, services, finance and capital
  • The environment
  • Supra-national infrastructure: roads, rail, air, power, water, etc
  • Common external relations where there are shared foreign interests and concerns
  • Representation at the UN, WTO and other “world” bodies

I could go on but I think this list makes the basic point for european coordination. But should this be intergovernmental cooperation or a supranational organisation with coercive (legal) power over nations?  Human rights, free trade and free markets present the clearest case for a supranational organisation.  Here it is critical that nations must not be allowed to impinge on the rights confered by liberalism (in all its aspects) and that legal power to prevent nations practising, say, torture or unfair trade is required.

I contend that there is a good, common-sense case for a supranational european organisation with legal power over its member states.

The European Union

Friday, May 21st, 2010

This is a topic where Liberal Democrat thinking and policy is widely misunderstood, so over the next few days, I want to write a series of entries covering aspects of this.  If I get the time, I want to cover:

  • How the EU actually works.  The press and politicians have colluded in demonising the EU, so exposing the myths is important to our case for Europe.
  • How liberal principles apply to thinking about the EU.  In particular, the tension between internationalism and political liberalism is important as they tend to push things in opposite directions.  I don’t mean to imply that personal, economic and social liberalism are irrelevant to the EU, but I think their impact on our thinking is more obvious.
  • What our policies towards Europe and its various institutions are.  Again, I think exposing the myth of blind belief in the EU is important.
  • How The Coalition impacts our ability to reform the EU.  In particular, how eurosceptic are the Conservatives and in what areas will this euroscepticism help or hinder reform.

I suspect I might bounce around these topics as I think they are deeply intertwined.  This will also be a bit of a learning exercise for me: though I have fairly strong views on Europe, I have never applied any liberal (or other) political thinking to these views.

Right, I’d better start writing the first one!