Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 October 2002

The Convention on the Future of Europe is not, I have to admit, the sexiest of topics. Set up after last year’s Laeken European summit and chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, it has been deliberating in Brussels for nearly eight months now on the institutional arrangements for the soon-to-be-enlarged European Union — and it’s fair to say that it has yet to set the world alight. The British media have for the most part given it the wide berth they usually give to serious EU politics. But even on the Continent it has been a front-page story only when a senior government politician from one of the EU’s big member states has outlined his “vision” in a set-piece speech.

In a way, this isn’t too surprising. The Convention is a talking shop charged with an almost impossible task: reconciling the views of those who want a federal Europe with those for whom federalism is anathema — and then coming up with a coherent programme for reform. Everyone knows that, so far at least, there has been no sign that the Convention will thrash out a formula acceptable to all — and everyone knows that, in the end, any recommendations it makes can be blocked by any government that dislikes them.

Nevertheless, the issues the Convention is discussing are rather important. The institutional inadequacies of the EU have been clear for years — since long before it became the EU, in fact. But enlargement, now almost certain to happen in 2004, makes it a matter of urgency to deal with them.

The big problem, to put it simply, is that Europe has operated up to now largely by way of intergovernmental horse-trading behind closed doors in the string of meetings known as the Council of Ministers, augmented by initiatives from the European Commission (which is supranational but appointed by member states’ governments).

Although this set-up was never particularly democratic, it worked reasonably well while there were few governments doing the wheeler-dealering and appointing the commissioners. But as the number of member states and the responsibilities of the EU have increased, it has become not only more and more time-consuming and inefficient (despite various piecemeal reforms) but also less and less democratically accountable. With enlargement, there is a real danger that the EU’s decision-making processes will grind to a halt — and that they will do so amid a collapse of popular belief in their legitimacy in every member state.

In these circumstances, there is a prima facie case for a radical recasting of the way the EU operates, with a drastic reduction of the role of the Council of Ministers, a dramatic increase in the democratic accountability of the Commission, and a concomitant massive increase in the role and powers of the only key EU institution that is both supranational and directly answerable to the citizens of Europe, the European Parliament — including, most importantly, the right to initiate legislation. The argument here has been forcibly put by Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister.

Yet what is the British Government, in the person of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, proposing? Well, according to his piece in the Economist last week, just the opposite: maintaining and strengthening the role of the Council of Ministers, with perhaps a nugatory increase in the powers of the Parliament to oversee the Commission. It’s difficult to imagine anything more timid, anything less likely to work in purely instrumental terms or anything more likely to exacerbate the EU’s democratic deficit.


On A different matter entirely, like many other readers of Eric Hobsbawm’s new autobiography I was intrigued by the veteran Marxist historian’s statement that he had been “unable to rediscover” a copy of a 1940 pamphlet on the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish war that he co-wrote with the late Raymond Williams when both were undergraduate communists in Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to track it down: my old pal Kevin Davey had a copy, which he kindly lent me. Nor did it take long to realise that Hobsbawm might not have gone out of his way to dig it up. War on the USSR?, as it is called, is a shabby specimen of communist defeatism during the Hitler-Stalin pact (“With no chance of starving Germany of food or war materials and no front on which to achieve military victory, Britain and France cannot win this war . . .”) that shamelessly defends Stalin’s invasion of Finland.

OK, I know I’d squirm if anyone dug up stuff I wrote in my early twenties. But it’s not so easy to shrug off Hobsbawm’s diatribe as a youthful indiscretion. For all the sophistication and erudition of his later work, he remained a member of the party that commissioned this mendacious piece of propaganda to the bitter end.

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