How to reform Europe, without asking the French*

25 September 2007
French and EU flags

One of the things I'm keen on looking at over the next few weeks is some of the alternative visions for EU reform - from my favourite "two speed" and "multi-tier" approaches through to some of the more radical ideas for wholesale reform. The other day a reader, Alex Burr, sent through this interesting proposal. (Do you have any more? Email me at james.clivematthews [at] opendemocracy.net)

The public are growing frustrated with the lack of democracy in Europe. The pressure for a referendum is strong evidence of this, but a referendum can't solve the crisis, only bring it to a head.

Europe needs reform, but the path to reform is difficult. Most avenues require the agreement of all the EU countries. But any EU-wide reform may be so diluted by unanimity as to be pointless. Worse, any agreement hammered in Brussels raises hackles at home.

And yet, there is another path, a subtle one. It lies in recognising that the means for better representation already exists, underutilised.

Successive governments have failed to adequately represent us in the EU; or at the very least, they have failed to be seen to do so: Constantly we hear of EU directives only once they have been agreed by the EU; but our government hears of them well before that and is supposed to fight our corner in the Council of Ministers. This is the democratic failure: at a national level.

The obvious answer is to replace the Council of Ministers with an elected Senate. But this would raise the spectre of federalism and the loss of sovereignty. Instead, an answer can be found in the history of the US Senate: Until 1907, Senators we appointed. In that year, the State of Oregon unilaterally elected its Senator, followed shortly by Nebraska.

This, then, is the way forward: Britain should unilaterally elect its Representative to the Council of ministers. The other member states cannot gainsay this, because they cannot interfere with how another member chooses its representative. Unlike creating an elected senate, doing this unilaterally has the advantage that the Representative remains a creature of British law, subject to the will of parliament; which should allay any fears of federalism: If parliament doesn't like his behavior, it can call a new election.

This would immediately have the following positive effects, some more obvious than others:

  • There would finally be a major elected figure in the EU
  • The British public would have someone who is forced to listen to their concerns about Europe; which would start to relieve their massive frustration on this issue.
  • The debate on the EU would become more rational. (Extremists may influence a referendum, but the British public won't elect them).
  • The publics of other nations would soon demand their own elected Councilors, leading to a much more democratic EU.
So, could Gordon Brown have the guts to do this? A major elected figure responsible for Europe would allow Gordon to distance himself from European fiascoes. The experience with the Bank of England has taught Gordon the benefits of giving away a morsel of his power; though doing so after waiting so long for the top job may stick in his craw.

But perhaps the most immediate reason would be national politics. The Tories and the Lib Dems are both pushing for a referendum on the treaty, knowing that the government will look bad if it doesn't have one, and most likely lose if it does. A genuine reform could be the trump card the Gordon needs.

[*] Or Poland, or Italy, or whoever is playing silly buggers this week.
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