Thursday, 19 June 2008

EU must respect its own rules to retain any credibility

You know that the EU is heading into questionable territory when Tim Garton Ash, a committed Europhile, questions its conduct in threatening to push the Lisbon Treaty forward despite rejection by referendum in the Republic of Ireland; a threat which implies a readiness to sideline the Union's own constitutional requirements. Instinctively I am sympathetic to the European project. I believe that greater cooperation and even integration within the Union is positive and desirable. I can see that in order to work effectively the European Union needs to reform and empower its institutions. However if those institutions are to assume greater powers, if the EU wishes to extend its remit, then there should be a corresponding increase in democratic accountability.

There are two significant problems of perception for the European project to tackle which bear direct relevance to the Lisbon Treaty. Firstly the Union is perceived to be a colourless bureaucracy that has little connection to people’s lives, or to important issues of policy, but is nevertheless intent on meddling and imposing senseless restrictions on citizens who fall within its remit. To change this perception the EU needs to make its institutions more effective. To change this perception the EU needs the Lisbon Treaty. Secondly, it is perceived (with justification) that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit and that the organs which wield power in Brussels are precisely those that are not directly electable. This perception of unaccountability will merely be exacerbated should the Republic of Ireland vote be ignored.

The first perception can only be tackled by the Lisbon Treaty, or a reworked constitutional arrangement. The second perception is a major obstacle in persuading the people of Europe that the EU should acquire a more important role in the first place. The second perception contributed to the Republic’s electorate rejecting the Treaty last week. Another Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, devoted yesterday’s column to decrying politicians’ contempt for elections and direct democracy. In Europe this tendency is particularly marked, because the EU derives its power, not directly from the people, but rather from a pooling of sovereignty by the states which constitute it, administered by their current governments. As such there was little prima facie reason that the EU needed to seek popular sanction for changes at all, which makes the Republic’s constitutional requirement for a referendum all the more frustrating for Eurocrats.

That said, the fact that the Republic of Ireland referendum is the closest Europe’s citizens get to expressing a view on the Lisbon Treaty, means that the result cannot be swept under the carpet and that the EU’s own requirements that each country should separately mandate a new treaty in order that it is accepted must be adhered to. Otherwise the sense that the Union’s power is too remote from its people will be exacerbated and the sense of disenfranchisement many people feel from the project will increase.

I am not necessarily opposed to an increase in sovereignty for the EU, nor do I discount the crafting of a common foreign policy for the Union. However, if these additional powers are to be acquired, I believe that it is necessary that Europe’s institutions are more directly accountable to its people. A good start would be to respects its own constitutional rules on unanimity.

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