There are beliefs that come from the gut. Religion is the most obvious one, but even that can be grounded in the reasoning that organised religion, and a set of organised religious values, can provide social stability. The same can be said for supporting the concept of monarchy. For me, it’s always been the concept of a united Europe. I didn’t always feel this way. When I was in my teens I was a precocious Thatcherite eurosceptic (oh, was I ever that young?), and gradually had to accept that I was wrong. The more I visited the continent of Europe, and especially my visit to the former Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, the closer I came to the position that for both historical reasons and for the pragmatic needs of the future, it made sense for Europe to integrate.
Nationalism is not, in itself, evil. But fidelity to it alone is an obstacle to progress, because we live in a world where borders are, at best, nominal. What convinced me of the need to support European integration was the fact that it recognised that the problems faced by one people are often either caused or resolved by the actions of another people. That is the fact of life on Earth in the 21st century, and European integration recognises that reality.
However, that does not mean that European unity can be an ideology set in stone. There comes a time when we have to accept that if we are to have an integrated Europe, it must be on the basis of the consent of the majority of Europeans. It is, especially in recent times, where taxpayers in some parts of Europe are being asked to transfer billions to other parts, becoming at least arguable that such consent is not available. I say arguable: I don’t accept the argument put forward by some eurosceptics that most Europeans are against the EU. I don’t think most Europeans give the EU much thought at all. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the EU in its current form does not have wide and enthusiastic consent. Nor is the EU delivering on many of its more ambitious objectives. In this context, I believe that it is time to imagine a new built-for-purpose structure to deliver the differing objectives of the peoples of Europe.
First, we must accept that euroscepticism, in its various forms, exists and needs to be accommodated. Within this, we should recognise that there are some countries that possibly wish to withdraw to a less integrated common market, or, failing to achieve that, may withdraw altogether. Whereas I once believed that a referendum on British membership of the EU would be a close affair, having witnessed the AV referendum, I have no doubt now that the British voters would vote to leave. The British are no more intelligent nor stupid than any other race, but the AV vote has demonstrated that the British populace are just not willing to engage in the in-depth analysis of a subject before making their decision. A vote on the EU will be reduced to a cartoon debate on Winston Churchill Vs Bloody Foreigners, and whose side are you on anyway? It’s time that both the EU and the British people stop irritating each other, and instead build a new amicable post-divorce relationship. Other member states, such as Finland, Sweden, Austria and others (Greece, out of spite?) may feel the same way. Even Ireland may wish to examine its options. They must be given that opportunity. So, how do we proceed?
We should begin with a new Intergovernmental Conference. Now, before people start getting nosebleeds at the thought, and officials in foreign ministries across the union start rocking themselves, knees tucked into chest, under their desks, bear in mind that this will be an IGC with a difference. For a start, neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament should participate. The commission should be a servant of the governments, not an equal participant. The parliament has failed, by any honest assessment, to reach its goal of being a genuine voice of the people. Instead, both institutions are essentially independent forces in the union who constantly advocate the acquisition of more powers to themselves as the solution to every problem, and that is not what this IGC will be about, so they are not needed. Put it another way: If we announce the exclusion of the commission and parliament from the IGC, how many policemen will be needed to police the demonstrations by ordinary Europeans demanding their inclusion?
Secondly, everything must be on the table, including the devolution of powers away from Brussels and back towards the member states. Eurosceptics must be permitted to put their dream manifestos on the table. It’s the only way of making the process legitimate.
The purpose of the IGC will be, hopefully, to agree a number of mutually compatible forms of EU membership. Primarily, a Core membership, including Euro membership, and a German-backed eurobond raised and dispersed at EU level, and with each net contributor nation, in recognition of the extra burden they are being expected to carry, having the power of veto over the raising of additional bonds. The bonds themselves, although backed by the fiscal might of Germany, could also be backed by pieces of revenue generating national infrastructure such as airports, toll roads or rail systems, or national art treasures from the borrowing nations, as a means of spreading the burden from German, Finnish and Dutch taxpayers, for example, to the countries actually requesting the borrowing. Will the Irish march against say, the Book of Kells or the Ardagh chalice being put up as collateral? Possibly. But more importantly, it will make us focus on the real cost of borrowing, and bear in mind that the central authority would have authority only in terms of permitting borrowing. Member states could still spend or raise their existing revenues as they wished.
The second form of membership would effectively be a more formalised version of the current European Economic Area arrangement, with former EU member states making a fiscal contribution towards the maintaining of the single market as at present.
The purpose would be to allow each member state to sign up to the form of membership suitable to their current needs today, whilst preserving the single market. Cooperation on defence and Schengen issues, for example, would have to be crafted to become optional add-ons.
This is not without enormous challenges. For example, EEA members will presumably desire to be exempt from the rulings of the European Court of Justice, one of the key bugbears of British eurosceptics. Indeed, they will desire to be exempt from every EU law save those absolutely necessary to the functioning of a common market. This, however, creates a problem for remaining EU members, who will be loath to give EEA members access to a single market with higher (and more expensive) EU imposed employment rights whilst the EEA members have the lower costs of less rights.
Therefore, as part of the new understanding, it is not impossible to imagine the remaining core EU states wanting a possible right to impose a compensatory tariff on EEA goods and services. Yes, this will be a key reversal of the European single market we have aspired to, but eurosceptics on the right have to recognise that eurosceptics on the left within the remaining EU states must be accommodated too, and they may well be looking for action like this to protect social rights. Don’t forget, the alternative to today’s EU is not necessarily one of more free market solutions. It could actually be the reverse. British eurosceptics, in their splendid isolation, could suddenly, to their horror, realise that their fellow eurosceptics in other countries are eurosceptics for the exact opposite reasons they are. Neither Sinn Fein in Ireland nor the National Front in France are eurosceptics because the EU imposes too much employment legislation, but because it imposes too little.
It is also time that we recognise that if we are to have supranational institutions, we must finally address the democratic disconnect that exists alongside those institutions. Those countries that choose to remain within the core EU must give their citizens the right to exercise the ultimate control over the supranational institutions, and that is through the direct election of the combined presidency of both the commission and the council. There are plenty of arguments to be had as to why this should not happen, and the problems of creating and electing such a position, but the reality is that those problems pale in comparison with the democratic credibility of the EU. It is perpetually in question and will remain as long as the basic simple tenet of a democratic society is not observed: The man or woman at the top is put in, and removed, by us, the people. As long as that is not answered, every other argument is a mere detail.
As part of that argument, the abolition of the European Parliament must also be considered. There is a need for the oversight of an elected president and the commission, and perhaps the election or appointment of a European Senate, of maybe a single senator from each member state whose job shall be not to legislate (that is the job of the national governments, through the council of ministers) but to hold the commission to account, including having the power to approve and remove commissioners. The parliament has failed, and it is hard to argue that the people of Europe would take to the streets to retain it, something which is a sad indictment of the supposed house of the people. 27 or 54 senators are also much cheaper to maintain than 750 MEPs. I also suspect that Germany’s two EU Senators would be far better known to the people of Germany than her 99 MEPs.
Finally, how such an IGC would conclude its business is as important as its conclusions. It would be important that every member state be able to hold, on the same day across the union, a referendum to permit its citizens to vote on a number of options. One would be membership of the new core EU, as outlined above. The second would be enhanced EEA membership, as above, and the third would be for total disengagement from the EU/EEA.
In short, no more Irish/Danish second votes, but a clear decision with clear agreed consequences and outcomes for each state, endorsed by a clear democratic mandate. At the end of E-Day, all across Europe, Europeans will settle their nation’s relationship with the rest of Europe in one clear, democratic and decisive action. It’s time.