Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 October 2000
Tony Blair’s speech in Warsaw last Friday on the future of the European Union was supposed to provide him with a golden opportunity to display his statesmanship after a week of Tory amateurism in Bournemouth.
As it happened, however, events intervened to blow him off the front pages – and what events! First, Slobodan Milosevic met his well deserved end in Belgrade. And then the Tories imploded after several Opposition frontbenchers admitted past membership of the Camberwell Carrot Tendency.
Of the latter, more anon. But the failure of Blair’s Warsaw speech to make a splash was a pity, not because it was brilliant – it was not – but because the issues he raised deserve discussion.
As regular readers of this column will know, I have been underwhelmed by this Government’s performance on European policy. Everything started well enough in 1997, when Blair and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, made it clear that Labour in office would end the Tory policy of obstructionism on Europe. But from there it was downhill all the way. The Government failed to seize the opportunity in late 1997 of holding a referendum on British participation in the single European currency, and ever since has appeared increasingly uncertain on the issue, despite the best efforts of Cook, Stephen Byers and – ahem, but praise where praise is due – Peter Mandelson.
Just as important, even though the EU’s institutions were going through an ever more apparent crisis of democratic legitimacy, and even though imminent expansion of the union made radical reform of its structures imperative, the Government failed to make any coherent statement of its vision of the future of Europe.
Warsaw was Blair’s chance belatedly to put that right – and he fluffed it. He showed that he recognised the EU’s biggest problems, which are the lack of transparency and democratic accountability in its decision-making procedures and the concomitant absence of a strong sense among the EU’s citizens that Europe is theirs. But his proposed solutions were – are – way off the mark.
At their core is a retreat from supranational institutions into intergovernmentalism as a way of coping with enlargement. Essentially, he wants a bigger role for the Council of Ministers, a reduction in the responsibilities of the European Commission and a new second chamber for the European Parliament, drawn from the membership of national parliaments, to keep the existing directly elected chamber of the European Parliament in check.
The problem with this is simple: the root of the EU’s crisis of democratic legitimacy is precisely the intergovernmentalism that Blair wants to enhance. The least democratically accountable institution in the triumvirate of Council, Commission and Parliament is on the face of it the Commission, which is wholly appointed and supposedly supranational. But the crucial thing about it is that it is composed of the placemen and placewomen appointed by national governments, which have deliberately refused to enhance its democratic credentials lest it prevent them from carving up all the business of the EU in the closed sessions of the Council – where the real power lies.
The only EU institution directly answerable to the citizens of Europe is the Parliament. And although it has asserted its authority against the Commission and the Council it has been consistently held back by national governments fearful of a democratic challenge to their right to rule the roost with their secret deals.
Far from requiring a check in the form of a second chamber along the lines suggested by Blair, the Parliament needs to be set free to become the tribune of the European citizenry, with powers to elect the Commission as a Cabinet and to legislate in those areas assigned to it by a future federalist democratic European constitution.
To give it such powers would be to create a truly European democratic polity – and people would soon recognise that it mattered rather a lot. As with local government, the way to respond to popular disenchantment with supposedly democratic institutions that in fact have very few powers is not to decrease those powers but to increase them and the democracy. Blair’s scheme gets it completely arse about face.
Back, though, to our dopey Tories. Who would have believed it? David Willetts as a one-time Furry Freak Brother. Lord Strathclyde as Cheech – or was it Chong? – coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys . . . Is that how you spell it? Sorry, my mind was wandering . . . Well, I’ve shared a fair few spliffs with sitting Labour MPs and have friends who have done the same with another couple of dozen, including Cabinet ministers. I have no intention of joining the Mirror’s shameful campaign to out senior Labour tokers – but unless they cough up some bread for Tribune’s new appeal for funds, and do it soon, it might be time for a few signed affidavits. We know who you are. A mere £100 guarantees anonymity. You think I’m joking?