Category Archives: EU referendum

What is EU reform?

Early in my career, with a group of other like-minded young officials, I launched a pressure group which we called “EUreforme” because we were frustrated with our staff unions’ obstructive attitude towards perfectly sensible reforms such as meaningful parental leave for fathers. We felt that, if the Commission did not reform itself, the Member States would impose reforms on us, and these were unlikely to be so constructive.

Our group attracted a great deal of hostility. “Reform” is a dirty word for some people. Neil Kinnock, as European Commissioner responsible for administrative issues and human resources during the late 90s/early 00s, did eventually push through a series of reforms which substantially eroded eurocrats’ employment conditions – it is no longer the highly attractive prospect it used to be for a talented graduate (though I’m not complaining). But la réforme Kinnock (a phrase to give a certain kind of fonctionnaire nightmares) did not do much to improve working conditions for staff and promote efficiency, focusing instead on cutting perks and reining in salaries, responding to political pressure from Member States in the EU Council. An opportunity for real reform was lost, caught between obstructive denialists in the staff unions, whose mantra was “ne touche pas à mon statut!“, and populist politicians in Member States, who saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters by going after everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Brussels fat cat.

We are seeing something similar happen today. David Cameron, trapped by his unwillingness to confront the relentless anti-EU narrative of his backbenchers, pushes his agenda of EU “reform” – against him stand other EU leaders who prefer to preserve the status quo, reluctant to reopen the Treaty because of the referendums it would trigger in their own territories. Stuck in the middle are the rational voices saying yes, the EU could do with reform, because there are many things which could be done better than they are at the moment.

Cameron calls his agenda “reform” but this is a euphemism for “retreat”. He wants to repatriate powers, scale back ambition, play to the gallery on migration, and defend narrow national sectoral interests such as the financial sector. He does not offer a vision for how the EU tier of government should operate efficiently in sync with the national and regional tiers of government with a view to delivering good governance. For further background on this, see my post here dissecting the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech of January 2013, and take a look at this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad.

So what should reform look like? Let’s begin by stating some first principles: we take it for granted that we see the need for a European tier of government, and our objective is to achieve clarity on what that European tier should do; and then to make sure that it can do those things efficiently and effectively; and to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances exist in line with the principles of a modern, representative democracy. We need intellectual honesty and clarity here. If you don’t want a European tier of government, then say so and leave, don’t say you want in but then sabotage it from the inside so that it doesn’t work effectively. Intergovernmentalism is not an effective way of governing a complex political entity. If you want effective government, you need strong, functioning institutions. If you want accountability, then you need to achieve it at that level. If you think this sounds like federalism, well that’s because it is. It’s not a dirty word. Intergovernmentalism is a form of denial and a dead end.

So I’m arguing for reform which would make the EU a functioning, effective, federation. That means dismantling the apparatus of intergovernmentalism which has slowly swallowed the EU ever since Maastricht. We do away with vetoes and extend QMV (qualified majority voting) into all areas where the EU is competent; and we extend EU competence into all areas where it makes sense to govern at the EU level, including monetary policy and taxation. There are other areas where it makes little sense for the EU to be involved, and so we need clarity also on where the national or regional tiers of government are competent. We need reinforced subsidiarity. Where the EU is competent, it should have the tools it needs to be effective. This means, for example, pulling foreign policy into the Commission. There should be no exceptions to the communautaire approach for all EU policies; anything else is ineffective and compromised. And for that communautaire approach to be implemented effectively we need institutions which work. This means a best-in-class civil service with strong leadership, where managers manage people not to-do lists. As for accountability, I think the EU already does pretty well on this front. But we do have a problem with public engagement and that needs more work.

So this is my rather non-specific and non-exhaustive list of areas where reform is needed. None of this is on the table right now, and the Cameron-driven “reform” negotiation actually propels us in the other direction. Realistically, I know that true reform is a big ask at the moment, and I am not optimistic that we will achieve it; but I do believe that it is necessary if we are collectively to achieve our full potential in Europe.

Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?


Last week, I collected my medal for twenty years of European public service. I have dedicated my entire professional life to the EU, it is the issue about which I feel the most passionate. As a student I was an activist for the Young European Movement, I joined the EU public service with a strong sense of purpose, and I am a believer in a European tier of government as a necessary evolution of our political system which benefits us all.

So you would have me down as a cast-iron certainty to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming Brexit referendum, wouldn’t you? Right now, I’m not so sure.

Like Anand Menon, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more opinion pieces like this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The deal which David Cameron is trying to negotiate with the European Council will no doubt be presented by him as a good one for the UK, and there will be lots of debate over whether it is or it isn’t. But it will be very hard to argue that any deal he strikes will be good for the EU and its other 27 Member States. How could it be? He will seek to protect UK interests, narrowly defined by the current right-wing and ideologically-driven government, with a view to appeasing his party’s nationalist fringe. There will be a number of superficially insignificant but symbolically meaningful features which further water down the vision of the EU as a post-national political community; and there may well be more ideologically-driven elements which water down the EU as a force for social justice. I do recommend that you read Adriaan Schout’s aforementioned article for a sense of where this is likely to be heading.

You might think that the other 27 Member States are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied into a bad deal. But experience tells us otherwise. In the world of horse-trading and compromise that is the European Council, short-term political considerations tend to count for more than long-term sustainable visions, which is why the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam, and Lisbon left us with such a mess in the eurozone. The EU and its Member States, acting together, can be a formidable force; but when decisions are made in the European Council it’s all about the weakest link in the chain and this results in cautious incrementalism and defensiveness.

If Cameron were negotiating for a deal which introduces meaningful reform to the mechanics of the European Union, making it more effective and efficient, I would enthusiastically back him. He isn’t, though. And his fellow heads of government are likely to bend over backwards to accommodate his political needs in order to avoid a scenario where the UK leaves the EU. So there is a fairly strong possibility that next week’s European Council will sign off on a deal which would be a step backward for the EU in order to keep the British in. But even with such a deal there is still the real possibility that the British could vote to leave in 2017; and even if they vote to stay, the European question will not go away, and the next neverendum becomes only a matter of time. The Council may buy a temporary respite, but at what price?

One way or the other, we will soon find out what the deal is which David Cameron has negotiated. Most of the debate will be about whether it is good enough “for Britain” to justify a vote to remain. I will be looking at it from the other perspective: will the deal he negotiates be good enough “for Europe”?

As a Briton, I see nothing to be gained for my country by its leaving the EU, and much to be lost. As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State. Indeed, we stand to lose a great deal. Unfortunately, although the outcome of the UK referendum will have an impact on all Europeans, only the British will get to vote. That potentially presents pro-European voters with an awful dilemma. If the final choice is between a bad deal for Europe, and a Europe without Britain, I will feel dreadfully torn. While my heart would revolt against a vote for Brexit, I can see a real possibility that the best thing for Europe would be for the UK to leave rather than stay on the basis of a bad deal for the rest of us.

Treat 7 May as EU referendum day

The general election on 7 May 2015 will quite possibly be the most important election during my lifetime (so far – nearly half a century, folks). If you thought 1997 was a biggie (and for my generation it certainly was), this one has even more at stake. For the first time in quite a long time, we have a genuine choice between two diametrically opposed ideological visions: on the one hand, the incumbent Prime Minister offers us an even smaller state with radically reduced public services putting us on a par with Europe’s outliers; on the other hand, a return towards the European mainstream (I’d like to be more emphatic than that but that would be overstating it).

This is already quite enough to make this an election worth fighting for. But there is an even bigger issue at stake, one which would determine the UK’s entire future. And one on which there has been an alarming degree of silence during this election campaign. David Cameron is offering an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The referendum would be held in 2017 after an attempt by the government to persuade the EU to “reform”. If satisfactory reforms are not forthcoming, the implication is that the government would not campaign to stay in. Even if it were to campaign for an in vote, who can say that the public will not treat the referendum as a chance to protest against an austerity government heading for its mid-term trough?

Abandoning its EU membership (‘Brexit’) would be catastrophic for Britain. I hold this to be self-evident, and if you disagree then you might as well stop reading now because anything I say from this point forward is not addressed to you. For a mercantile nation with a history of internationalism and pretensions to global influence, Brexit would be crazy. But it could happen. Cameron will not get the “reforms” he wants. (I use quotation marks because “reform” in this context is a transparent euphemism for the repatriation of powers. God knows the EU could do with genuine reform, but that is not on the agenda, certainly not in the context of a UK-driven treaty renegotiation.) He has painted himself, and the country, into a corner. If he wins, there WILL be a referendum in 2017; and there is every chance that the country will vote to leave an unreformed EU. Decades of toxic disinformation and woeful public education have queered the EU’s pitch, and the organisation has not helped itself.

All this is to say that it is essential for the future of the country that Cameron does not remain Prime Minister after 7 May. The duty of any patriotic voter is to do whatever he or she can to avert that possibility. Treat 7 May as EU referendum day. Cast your vote in whichever way is most likely to oust Cameron from office. Do it for yourselves, for your children, your neighbours, your pet, your Queen and country.