Category Archives: Europe

Institutional imbalance

A very good article written by Isabelle Durant MEP in the context of this week’s Budget Summit (“Van Rompuy’s Silent Coup d’Etat“) touches on a theme which is close to the hearts of those of us who feel that the institutional balance in the European Union is off kilter; namely, the overweening power of the Council. As @eurocrat astutely observes, perhaps this is an area where there is some common ground between EU federalists and eurosceptics? (Perhaps, though our common distaste for what we see as a democratic deficit leads us in very different directions.)

In 2004, I was asked to give a talk to students at Concordia University in Montreal on the topic of EU enlargement (the ‘big bang’ having only just occurred). This gave me an opportunity to explore some of the big questions: widening versus deepening; the community approach as opposed to supranationalism; and what the EU is actually for.

I’m posting the text of the talk I gave below. To summarise, my conclusion was that things had gone to the dogs since Maastricht, but perhaps that didn’t matter as the EU had already done what it was created to do: make Europe a secure and peaceful continent.

Also on the panel with me was the Dutch Ambassador, who was not happy with the talk I gave. He tore up his own prepared text and used his slot to tear into mine; but I think he kind of made my point for me.

Anyway, here it is.

It can be difficult for non-Europeans to appreciate quite what a new thing the European Union is on the international stage. When people think of the European Union, sometimes they see it as a kind of souped-up NAFTA, a free trade area on steroids. Or, they see it as a mini-United Nations, a force for international law and stability in the region. The truth is that the EU is both these things, but it’s also much more than that.

To understand today’s European Union, we really need to go back and appreciate the motivation of its founding fathers. They had grown up in a Europe almost constantly at war with itself. Millions had died, economies had been shattered, Europe’s leadership in world affairs had been given away to the United States and the Soviet Union. Europe had to find a new way of living with itself. The European Economic Community was not just about rebuilding economies – it was about surviving in a new world.

I make that rather dramatic observation because I think it’s fundamental to the understanding of the way the EU has evolved, and continues to evolve. The members of the EU have all been prepared to sacrifice part of what it is to be an independent country in order to safeguard the security and prosperity of their citizens. The EU plays a direct role in the everyday lives of nearly half a billion people. In an increasing number of areas, policy is made at the European level, not in national capitals. European governments have voluntarily given away their powers, pooling sovereignty in exchange for peace, prosperity and global influence. It’s multilateralism taken to its logical conclusion.

The history of the EU’s evolution also needs to be seen against this backdrop. If World War II was the shock that Europe needed to embark on the road of political union, then the Cold War was the constant threat that kept the European project on the rails. I think that this is something that we’ve only really been able to appreciate in hindsight. With the end of the Cold War, we saw two developments in Europe which have arguably changed the path of European integration:

The first development was the disappearance of the obvious external threat on our doorstep, and the demilitarisation of the continent. The second development was the realisation, if you like, of the European dream: war between the nations of Europe was no longer imaginable. It is simply impossible for a European of my generation to imagine one Member State of the EU going to war against another. As a result, European security was no longer the driving force behind European integration. A new generation of Europeans was no longer bound by the post-war taboo against nationalism. With the success of the EU, so resentment against the encroachment of the Brussels machine in daily life has grown, not only in traditionally “eurosceptic” countries but right across the EU.

My own view is that future generations may see the late 80s and early 90s as the high tide mark of European integration. With the Single European Act of 1985 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, we finally saw a comprehensive economic union, going even beyond the level of economic integration seen in many sovereign countries – Canada being one example. We also saw a significant step towards political union, with EU Member States deciding to work together also in the fields of foreign policy, security policy, justice issues and home affairs (what we call the second and third pillars of the EU – with the original European Community remaining as the first pillar).

But the Maastricht Treaty also saw the first major watering down of the ‘Community’ approach. Traditionally, the European Commission had always played a central role in European policy making. As the executive, the European Commission was the originator of policy proposals, which then went to the Member States (acting as the European Council) and to the European Parliament for amendment and approval – often by a majority vote. This is known as the ‘Community’, or ‘communautaire’, approach. Now, with the Maastricht Treaty, the European Council itself is the executive branch of government – at least, for foreign policy and security policy issues, and most justice and home affairs issues: that is to say, second and third pillar issues. The role of the other institutions, the European Commission and the European Parliament, is sharply reduced. In addition, the EU can only take decisions in the field of foreign and security policy by unanimity. This ‘supranational’ approach is an entirely different kettle of fish to the really unprecedented level of integration which exists in the First Pillar.

Hang on, you say. Didn’t the EU launch its own single currency a couple of years ago? Aren’t you debating a new Constitution that would create an EU Foreign Minister? Hasn’t the EU undertaken its own military operations for the first time in its history? Haven’t you just admitted ten new members? Yes, those things have happened, or are happening. They are momentous developments. But while we’re widening the EU, both geographically and politically, talk of deepening the EU has dropped right down the agenda.

The terms “widening” and “deepening” are commonly used in EU circles to represent two different, and often opposing, visions of Europe’s future. The wideners advocate a looser association of sovereign Member States, with membership extended across Europe and even beyond, to reap maximum economic benefit from a huge Single Market while safeguarding the independence of its constituent countries. The deepeners want to see further political integration, more pooled decision making, leading to a federalised form of government for the EU.

Over recent years, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, after Maastricht, the debate in Europe has between those who advocated rapid enlargement of the EU to bring in former Warsaw Pact countries, and others who argued that any enlargement – any widening of the EU – without first reforming our structures – without first deepening our integration – would damage the special character of the European Union. This debate was effectively resolved during the last two Treaty revisions, in Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003), where European Heads of Government failed to agree on any significant reform to the way the European Union functions, but where they nevertheless agreed to proceed to admit ten new Members. As you will know, those ten new Member States joined the EU on 1 May of this year.

This brings me then, finally, to an analysis of the factors behind this most recent enlargement. Why did the existing fifteen countries agree to admit the ten new members? Why did those ten new members want to join? I can only give my own personal reflections on these questions. Certainly, there are economic motives on both sides. All EU members will greatly benefit from a vastly bigger internal market of half a billion consumers. The experience of newly joined Member States in the past has been very positive – countries like Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece have benefitted enormously from EU membership, and the ten new members can expect to benefit to a similar degree. Then there are other, political factors. Both for the fifteen and for the ten, there is the security question. Better to tie these new democracies into the EU family than to let them find their own way outside. Again, the experience of former admissions, notably those of Spain, Portugal and Greece, has shown us the way. Then of course there was almost a moral imperative to bring our European siblings into the family. Just as German reunification was arguably driven more by a sense of moral inevitability than any other single factor, so European reunification has had a moral dimension that few would deny.

But, underlying these factors, I think that this most significant enlargement of the EU in its nearly fifty year history is also an expression of the kind of Europe that most Europeans want in the 21st century. It may not be the “United States of Europe” that Churchill foresaw; it may not always speak with one voice; but it is a diverse Europe, a rich Europe, and an inclusive Europe.

Nine years and one Treaty change later, I think this holds up pretty well. Indeed, I think the euro crisis has shown that I was right to point to Amsterdam and Nice as lost opportunities, for which we’ve since had to pay dearly.

Some thoughts on Cameron’s Bloomberg speech

Some thoughts on ‘that speech’, for which I’ve given up my lunch hour:

Cameron set the scene by acknowledging the EU’s greatest achievement: peace in Europe.  OK, he slightly undercuts the message by giving NATO a name-check in equal terms, but I suspect that was shoe-horned in there to keep the Liam Foxes happy.

This is actually a good start.  What a pity then that he goes on to argue that, its objective achieved, the purpose of the EU now needs to change.  Now, Cameron argues, “the main, over-riding purpose of the European Union is different: not to win peace, but to secure prosperity.”

No.  No, Mr Cameron, no.  No no no.  What a thing to say on the day after Germany and France celebrated 50 years of the Elysée Treaty!  We have an EU because we know what happens when the countries of Europe do not cooperate.  We have an EU because it gives us peace.  This cannot be taken for granted.  Peace leads to prosperity, but this is emphatically not its over-riding purpose.  There is no zero-sum game here; it’s not either peace or prosperity.  See this text which I ghost-wrote for Jose Manuel Barroso a few years ago.

So when Cameron says that the EU is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, he fundamentally misunderstands – or perhaps deliberately misrepresents – the philosophy behind the Treaty and the true meaning of the EU to its citizens: the EU is, by its very essence, the negation of war.  It represents peace.  Its complex, opaque machinery delivers peace each and every day, by bringing together the people who run our society, at all levels, and giving them the habit and the expectation of working together in the common good.

Cameron claims to speaks for his entire country when he says: “we come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional.”  He doesn’t speak for me.  I don’t see it as a badge of pride that emotions are left at the door.  I do get emotional about government, about politics, about the way in which my society, my civilisation, is run.  If think you should get emotional about such things.  Be practical too.  Again: no need to choose one or the other.  You can be both.

So.  The Prime Minister sets out his store as a practical man with advice on how to make Europe better.  He is not, he insists, driven in any way by emotion (having spent the first few minutes of his speech making emotive points about the British national character, British sovereignty, and the British role in World War II).  Defensively, Cameron hedges his advice with a number of strawman arguments:

There are always voices saying “don’t ask the difficult questions.”

Whose are these voices, Dave?

The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy.

Who are these small ‘c’ conservatives who denounce new thinking as heresy, Dave?

(An aside: bookmark this quote, substituting “Britain” for “the European Union” if you like – it’s as useful an argument against Conservative philosophy as you’re likely to find…)

Let’s welcome that diversity, instead of trying to snuff it out.

Who is trying to snuff out diversity in the EU, Dave?  Unless you mean governments which clamp down on minorities, restrict migration, and seek to impose restrictive, traditionalist syllabuses on schools…


The European Treaty commits the Member States to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

This has been consistently interpreted as applying not to the peoples but rather to the states and institutions compounded by a European Court of Justice that has consistently supported greater centralisation.

We understand and respect the right of others to maintain their commitment to this goal. But for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective.

Is he reneging on the Treaty objective of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe?  Or suggesting that this can be achieved by his recipe of dismantling the institutions of the EU?  Either way: I object.


Dave’s big fix for the EU comes in five parts: competitiveness; flexibility; repatriation of powers; democratic accountability; and fairness.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy, point-by-point, take-down of Cameron’s arguments, but do let me point out a few fallacies:

Competitiveness means a level playing field; so does fairness.  You do not create, or maintain, a competitive, fair Single Market by repatriating powers on a ‘flexible’ basis.  Cherry-picking which rules to follow may be attractive to free riders but it is not the way to make the European economy more competitive.

Democratic accountability?  Yes please.  The quickest, surest, easiest way of achieving this tomorrow would be to loosen the Council’s stranglehold on EU affairs, reversing the path to intergovernmentalism which we have been assiduously hoeing since Maastricht.  You want a democratic EU?  Then the last thing you do is adopt the Cameron version of “flexibility” by repatriating powers.  On the contrary: we need a return to a communautaire European Union.  This has the added advantage of being good for competitiveness, and being fairer.

It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart.

No it won’t, Dave, not if you’ve opted out of social, environmental, employment, consumer safety legislation.  They are as much a part of the Single Market as whole vehicle type approval regulations.


To end with, channelling Herman van Rompuy for a moment, a haiku:

Cameron’s Europe:

“For us, a means to an end”

Now the end is near.

The EU: peace, or prosperity?

In 2009, I ghost-wrote an article for Commission President Barroso on “security, freedom and wealth”, his contribution to a collection of essays edited by Karl von Wogau.  It predates the Euro crisis, but I think its arguments still stand, and will stand.  This is an extract from an early draft, which I reproduce here without permission (but hey, I wrote it):

If one were to identify a single theme to define global preoccupations over the last decade, that theme might be ‘security’.  To some, the quest for greater security has come at the expense of certain freedoms.  If wealth has a role in this trade-off, it is as a divisive force, providing the means to bolster the security of a few, while its absence is seen as a root cause of insecurity for the many.

I believe that this perceived trade-off is fallacious, and that security, freedom and wealth mutually reinforce each other in a virtuous circle which can raise the quality of life for whole populations.  There can be no greater demonstration of this than the European Union.  The driving force behind European integration has always, first and foremost, been security.  The present EU was born out of the destruction of two catastrophic wars in order to ensure that Europe never again fell prey to such devastation.  We have sought to assure the future security of our continent by bringing our people together in a community which guarantees their fundamental freedoms and generates wealth.  We have extended membership to our neighbours emerging from the shadow of totalitarianism, binding them into our union for the sake of our mutual security, and doing so by sharing with them our wealth while safeguarding their freedoms.

The result is a community of healthy democracies, membership of which has brought both stability and prosperity to us all.  The European experience is a model for other regions around the world.  Security does not have to be bought by sacrificing freedom; on the contrary, security guarantees freedom, which in turn generates wealth.

The EU’s founding fathers were committed to making it impossible that the countries of Europe should ever go to war against each other again.  They saw that to do this they had to bind the economies of Europe’s core countries together in such a way that it would be impossible to mobilise them for war against each other.  They also saw the importance of binding the shattered populations emerging from the nightmare of national socialism into a wider community of democracies.  That this experiment was a success is self-evident: we have enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in Europe over the last half century, and the original community of six has grown over successive enlargements to include twenty-seven countries.  Many of these countries, including my own, emerged from dark periods in our history where fundamental freedoms could not be taken for granted.  By joining the European Union, we sought to cement this hard-won freedom in an irreversible manner: we sought security.  Our partner Member States in turn saw their own security interests served by bringing these new democracies into the union.

A crucial tool in this extension of security and freedom was the integration of Europe’s economies.  The new democracies of southern and eastern Europe often lagged behind economically.  Their partners had the vision to agree to huge transfers of wealth from the richest to the poorest regions in a spirit of solidarity.  The resulting investments have transformed some of the poorest regions of Europe into some of the wealthiest.  The knock-on effect has been to raise prosperity levels right across Europe.  New wealth and new markets create jobs and opportunities for all.

Unsurprisingly, other regions have witnessed our success and sought to emulate us.  However it must be emphasised that Europe’s economic success is not and has never been purely about wealth creation.  While economic success is an end in itself it is also the means by which we achieve our twin goals of freedom and security; two sides of the same coin.  This is the model which we offer the world.

An open letter to Ed Miliband

Dear Ed,

I listened to your interview on this morning’s Today programme with a sinking sense of déjà-vu.  With the Tories digging themselves ever further into a Eurosceptic hole, and the Lib Dems shackled to them, Labour has a golden opportunity to differentiate itself, detoxify the UK debate, and show some leadership on the issue of our role in Europe.  This morning, not for the first time, I think you missed that opportunity.

Ed, you fell into the trap of most UK politicians and commentators by placing your approach to EU policy in a negative context.  It’s a mistake to start from the premise that the EU is broken.  You won’t beat the Tories and UKIP at their own, eurosceptic game.  You sounded defensive; you sounded reactive; you sounded scared of public opinion; you sounded, frankly, unleaderly.  The UK debate is and has for years been framed on a very negative projection of the EU by almost our entire political establishment and this has helped to toxify the debate.  You have an opportunity to change that.

There is a clear opportunity for Labour here to occupy new terrain in the centre of UK politics.  You should start from the premise that the EU has done a great deal for the UK, and that the UK has contributed a great deal to the EU.  This has the benefit of being (a) a positive narrative, (b) a DIFFERENT narrative, (c) true, (d) easily backed up with lots of great hard stats.  Additionally, it plays to Labour’s strengths: the many, great things which the EU has done for British people include many things close to Labour voters’ hearts: protection for employees, consumer safety, environmental standards, and much more.  These are achievements to celebrate, not denigrate!  A pro-membership, pro-engagement stance would also allow Labour to occupy the pro-business mainstream, encroaching on core Tory territory: the EU has allowed UK business to flourish, an achievement which disengagement gravely threatens.  The Single Market is not undermined by rules which protect workers, living standards, etc; these rules are themselves key parts of the Single Market and guarantee fair competition!  UK business has nothing to fear from the EU – look at how well Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium do as fully engaged EU members with high levels of employee protection and social standards.  Their economies flourish BECAUSE of the EU, not despite it.  Why would British businesses and employees want to join China and India in a race to the bottom when we have these great role models right next door to us?

Starting from a positive, pro-membership premise would have strong strategic advantages for a party with the courage to launch itself down that path.  A party which is openly committed to constructive engagement inside the EU is in a far stronger position to tackle the negatives.  Pro-Europeans cannot and should not run away from the problems which the EU faces.  But by starting from a position which says “we believe in the institution, and its power to improve British lives,” a real leader can recast the debate, directing it away from the solipsistic, defeatist discussion over which powers should be repatriated and talking instead about his ideas for mending what’s broken.  You should begin with tactical arguments: the UK can’t fix things if we have destroyed our own credibility by adopting isolationist, secessionist language.  We need to be in at the heart, wielding our influence and injecting our ideas.  This is what our allies are crying for us to do; this talks up UK influence, and – handled correctly – could have enormous popular appeal.  British voters don’t realise how influential we can be in Brussels, how influential we already are, and how well we are liked when we engage.

Ed, there is a big gap in British politics waiting to be filled by a leader who is prepared to take on the defeatist, negative arguments of what has become the mainstream voice on Europe.  Don’t start by denigration, start with celebration of how much better off British people are inside the EU, which we have helped shape; and then move on to what Britain can and should do as a leading European country to mend and improve this amazing achievement.  Then – only then – contrast this vision with the Tory/UKIP vision of a UK outside but subject to the same rules, which we can no longer shape, with the Single Market in tatters, with our key relationships destroyed.  A wise person does not sit in a house with a leaky roof, moaning about the damp and threatening to go and sit outside by himself in the rain.  He takes a lead, organises people, and fixes the roof!

Ed, you have an amazing opportunity here – you can be the leader to step up and defend the national interest at a moment when it is under real threat.  We look to you to rise to the challenge.