Interesting piece by Charlemagne in The Economist here. It raises a point about the EU, a nagging doubt that has been nibbling away with me since the first Lisbon referendum. I’ve met quite a few people who work or have worked either in or with the EU institutions, and whereas many of them are sound, decent and committed individuals, I’ve been alarmed at the amount of people I met who seem to live in a EU-Brussels bubble that is detached from the ordinary lives of Europeans. The old adage does hold true: If you believe in European Unity, stay the hell away from Brussels.
The problem is that most Europeans are no longer sure what the EU is actually for. They say they are against “Brussels” but try and take away the day to day stuff like free travel and trade and you’d actually have a fight on your hands. Even the euro, which gets demonised by eurosceptics, is nowhere near the object of loathing within the eurozone that it is in Britain. It’s true, of course, that it is flawed by not being supported by a proper fiscal union (something many eurosceptics pointed out at the beginning) but it seems to me that most europeans would be quite happy to retain the multinational currency if it could be made work. Of course, many moderate eurosceptics (and there is such a thing) say that many of those rights could be assured without the EU, but you do need some form of central administration to make this stuff work. They poo-poo this, but it’s a fact, and because we are only asking the EU to do things that we expect national governments to do. Does the EU pass directives and regulations on food packaging? Yes it does. But show me the eurosceptic national minister who will stand up and tell his home audience “Good news! From today, we shall no longer be telling you whether there are peanuts in the food you buy! You are now free! Except for those of you who will be killed by them!”
It isn’t helped by the fact that no one speaks for Europe. I’m old enough to remember Jacques Delors eloquently explaining (and getting coverage doing it) what Europe was actually for. He was so effective that a coalition of nervous Brits and egotistical French leaders have conspired to ensure that never again will Europe have a leader who could match them in stature.
The EU needs a fit-for-purpose litmus test. It needs to approach every initative from the simple proposition “Are we doing something that could be done better by the member states?” The answer has to be, in many instances, yes. Why is poverty, for example, discussed at an EU level? Surely issues of wealth distribution, and what to do, if anything, are an issue of national culture, and something that can be little effected at Brussels level? If the European Court told us that we must raise VAT by 10% to fund housing for the homeless we’d tell them to mind their own business, so let’s call a spade a spade here.
The problem, as pointed out by Charlemagne, is that many of the solutions proposed by the dwellers of the bubble, such as making the European Parliament the centre of the EU, have absolutely no appeal outside of Brussels and Strasbourg, because they do not reflect the reality of life. What is the point voting in elections to an institution which is run by the same three party coalition no matter what the result?
I have, in the past, advocated that the President of the Commission and Council should be combined and directly elected by the people of Europe. Opponents of such a plan have always said that such a plan cannot work without a European “demos”, in that how can a voter in Galway decide between, say, A Greek Socialist, a German Liberal and and Dutch Christian Democrat? I accept, it won’t be easy, but it is not impossible, and the end objective is having a man or woman in Brussels whose first loyalty is to keeping the voter in Galway happy and informed. Would that really be such a bad thing?