An answer to the democratic deficit as Ireland votes

Labour Party

With Ireland  going to the polls today in a referendum on the European fiscal pact, the debate on the future of the Euro continues to rage.

On the one side is a considerable body of opinion that believes there will have to be some form of political integration between those countries who have signed up to the fiscal pact in order to make the Euro zone work. On the other side we have assorted, mainly right-wing, doom-sayers predominantly from the UK.

It is only a short step from finance to politics, and once the governance of the European Union is put in the frame, the dreaded democratic deficit raises its ugly head. This week’s Economist makes its view that the EU has such a deficit abundantly clear. That magazine and those many other voices sceptical about the EU’s democratic credentials, do, indeed, have a point. If you were to ask the simple question “who elects those who lead the EU?” you would get a less than straightforward answer.

In point of fact, the European Union law-making bodies do have clearly defined boundaries. The European Commission comprising one Commissioner appointed by the governments of each member state for a five-year period proposes legislation. The increasingly important Commission President emerges at the beginning of each Commission term from among the Commissioners by some impenetrable form of osmosis. The second institution, the Council of Ministers, is made up of member state governments, who are at least elected. The Council is joint legislator with the European Parliament, directly elected by the people of the EU every five years.

The system was, of course, designed to prevent any one group getting too powerful. This may have been a laudable aim and a necessary condition when the EU was first founded. Now, however, when Europe should be providing financial leadership with the consent of the people, the largest and most prosperous member state is taking power unto itself in what appears to be a profoundly undemocratic way.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has never in its history been given anything that may be described as a democratic mandate. True, member states go to the polls at the same time in June every five years to elect me and my fellow MEPs. Yet there has not been a European Parliament election in the UK fought on a meaningful manifesto for the European Parliament which gave those elected genuine legitimacy.

The current demands for a referendum on EU membership have, I believe, come directly out of the woeful failure to have proper elections to the European Parliament.  European Parliament elections should be fought on strong manifestos put forward by the political groups in the European Parliament and adapted for use in individual member states. The hard issues should be there as the European Parliament now has legislative power on environmental matters, transport, employment and social issues and the EU single market, amongst other things. Voters should have a proper chance to evaluate what the political parties intend to do on issues where the EU has competence.

This has certainly never happened in the UK. I have now fought three European elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009. On each occasion the election was fought almost exclusively on domestic issues and appeared to be more a test of opinion on the Westminster government than an election to the European Parliament. I have, of course, been provided with a mandate as a Labour Party representative. I have, however, never felt I have been elected on any kind of platform for the European Parliament.

This has to change if the EU is to be democratic rather than be the tragic bearer of a “democratic deficit”. While talk of directly electing the Commission President is useful, the first and easiest change would be to allow the European Parliament to act like a real parliament. This would be a relatively easy reform to put into place but one which would also be very effective.


Britian would be a political pygmy without the EU

Labour Party

Britain is at present sleep walking into political pygmy land without even realising where the country is heading. The euro crisis has provoked the ultimate challenge not only to the future of the European Union but also to that of the United Kingdom. As the EU possibly gears itself up to take hard decisions about further fiscal integration, with the inevitable consequence of further political co-operation, the UK would do well to consider its long-term future.

Britain’s decision not to join the euro in the late 1990s was undoubtedly based on sound economic criteria. Unfortunately most UK commentators on both economics and politics remain smugly sure that the current sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone vindicates the decision not to join the single currency. Few, including David Cameron’s coalition government, are, however, giving any thought to the future political realities of Britain’s current position.

The euro zone’s only realistic response to the Greek crisis and the looming chasm in Spain is to think beyond monetary union. In an incredible leader on 20 May, the Sunday Timescame out in favour of a united states of Europe, referring to Robert Mundell, a Nobel prize-winning economist, who set out the conditions under which a single European currency could function – fiscal union, wage flexibility and the ability of people to move between states to find work.

While the Mundell scenario is, I am sure, too much for Europe’s present leaders, the Economist this week came up with a far more acceptable proposal for greater financial and fiscal control at EU level. Although the end result of such moves would not be political integration as it is generally understood, it would inevitably give the EU more power and more political clout.  

It is my firm belief that moves towards further political integration, at least for the 17 EU member states in the euro will be the long-term outcome of the euro zone crisis. The 17 may increase to 22, 23 or even 24 since joining the euro was a condition of EU accession in 2004. Were this to happen, the two-speed EU model, often touted as the answer to Britain’s semi-detached position towards the European Union, simply will not work.

The British people, our government and our media need to be made aware of the consequences of Britain being outside a further integrated European Union.

The world is currently, and always has been, divided into power blocks, generally based on some recognised common interest. Once the euro zone crisis metamorphoses into a stronger European Union there will be four such blocks – the United States of America, China, India and, of course, the European Union. (I have excluded Russia as its future remains unpredictable).

Britain needs to take on board what it will mean for us if we were to position ourselves outside a European Union which is politically stronger with more integrated fiscal and financial arrangements. The only possible conclusion is that further European integration without the UK will isolate us in the wider world. If Britain wants to get anywhere near the position we held in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Britannia really did rule the waves, we have to be a real leader in the European Union. There is quite simply no other way.

Therefore, in order to remain at the global top table, Britain needs to take some very tough decisions. If we remain detached from the EU and let the European political project develop without us, we will no longer be one of the world’s leading political powers. We will not have that crucial “x” factor, the sense of being a world leader with the pride that goes with it. Our only hope of achieving something resembling our old imperial confidence is to be at the heart of Europe both politically as well as economically.

The European Union, the bold phoenix to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War, is one of the most visionary political projects in modern times. The EU’s success has been to unite a continent fractured and constantly at war since the fall of the Roman Empire. Remarkably, this twentieth century coming together was voluntary rather than enforced by brutal power. It is now time to move the EU forward with Britain playing a vital role at the heart of Europe.