New Statesman & Society leader 3 June 1994
Such is the incompetence of John Major that Tory European election campaign managers must be grateful that the newspapers have decided that the main story this week is whether or not former Tory defence minister Alan Clark displayed his penis to a 13-year-old girl. At least Major comes out of that story with some credit: he was an opponent of the Powellite bigotry championed by James Harkess, the father of the girl in question, when Tory candidate for Brixton in 1970.
But even the lurid tale of Clark’s alleged misdemeanours cannot quite rescue Major from the spotlight after his massive gaffe on beggars and his smaller one on a “two-speed Europe”. The first was quite obviously intended as a routine Tory attempt to heap blame for society’s ills on a defenceless, marginal group: previous targets in the past couple of years have included single mothers, the workshy, “bogus” asylum-seekers, New Age travellers and ravers. Until last week, it seemed that this scapegoating tactic had few deleterious political side-effects. Liberals might howl, but the voters for the most part acquiesced. This time, however, Major appears to have gone too far: his tirade against “offensive” beggars has backfired spectacularly.
That he went on this week to state that he believes in a “two-speed Europe” – giving the unmistakable impression that he thinks that, under his leadership, Britain can’t keep up with the continent – almost defies credibility. Major is now as vulnerable as he was before the untimely death of John Smith. If the Tories get the drubbing that they deserve (and that everyone expects them to get) in next week’s European election, his days could be numbered. As Ian Aitken argues this week (see page 18), this has ramifications for the Labour leadership that the party ignores at its peril.
But the Euro-elections are not simply a referendum on the competence of Major or the performance of his government. For a start, they are happening not just in Britain but throughout the European Union, and, although it is only in Spain that the fate of a prime minister also hangs on the result, they are important in every one of the 12 EU countries. In Germany, with a general election in October, the vote is a crucial test of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s apparent political renaissance; in France, it will show whether the left has recovered from the nadir of its general election defeat last year.
More important, however, is the impact of the elections on the future of the EU itself. As a result of the increased powers for the European Parliament in the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, voters will for the first time be choosing MEPs who can exert real influence over EU legislation.
Of course, the powers of the European Parliament remain far more limited than those of national legislatures (although the powers of national legislatures should not be exaggerated: as study after study has shown, in recent years their role has declined just about everywhere as the powers have shifted to the executive). It is the European Commission, composed of appointees of national governments, that still sets the legislative agenda for the EU; and the European Parliament can still do little to affect the decision-making of the secretive inter-governmental Council of Ministers.
But the idea that the European Parliament is little more than an expensive talking shop – an idea, unfortunately, still all too prevalent on the British left – should have been buried long ago. Although MEPs still cannot initiate legislation, they can ask the Commission to propose it, a right previously reserved for the Council. They can also reject Commission legislation and the EU budget – which gives them serious leverage in securing amendments. And they have the right to be consulted on Commission appointments, as well as the right to sack the Commission en bloc. The MEPs elected on 9 and 12 June will have a big say in economic, social and environmental policies that will affect every EU citizen’s daily life.
What is more, the European Parliament’s powers are set to increase in the next few years. On one hand, this is a matter of MEPs using the legitimacy that comes from being democratically elected to set precedents that will be difficult to reverse once established: for example, by voting on the successor to Jacques Delors as president of the Commission. On the other, the 1996 intergovernmental conference to sort out some of the issues left dangling by Maastricht will almost certainly agree to measures to reduce the universally recognised “democratic deficit”.
The question is: what measures? Here we come back to Major’s “two-speed Europe”. The charitable interpretation of his remarks is that he meant not that Britain can’t keep up, but that Britain shouldn’t sign up for the whole package of single currency and federal polity advanced by continental Christian democrats and social democrats. As far as 1996 is concerned, that means attempting to limit as far as possible the inevitable increase in the European Parliament’s powers while trying to preserve as much as possible of the powers of the Council of Ministers and those of individual national governments within it. If this strategy fails, Major reserves the right to opt out of European democracy.
The alternative is clear: a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament and a reduction of the role of the Council of Ministers and of individual national governments, with no opt-outs from democracy. It is a mark of the debilitating effect of the Tories’ flag-waving on the confidence of their opponents that not one leading opposition politician – not even a Liberal Democrat – has had the courage to come out explicitly for a democratic federal Europe, with the European Parliament playing the leading role, during this European election campaign.