Sulking in the corner of Europe

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 19 October 2006.

The European Union has its faults, but the biggest problem is member state governments, not the Commission or Parliament.

During a speech on Monday of this week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso effectively challenged the two likely contenders for the UK premiership at the next general election to choose whether Britain is to play a leading role in Europe, or continue sulking in the corner.

Just ignore for one moment the pointless regulations, farce over the proposed constitution, and trade battles with the US. The EU has many faults, but José Manuel Barroso made some very good points in his Chatham House address. I would go further and say that the UK’s semi-detached stance vis-à-vis the union of which it has been a member for over 30 years is destructive for both the UK and Europe as a whole.

The sad fact is that in Gordon Brown and David Cameron we have two eurosceptic party leaders, both of whom could become prime minister of the United Kingdom. Even the Liberal Democrats seem to have gone all flabby on the EU, for fear of alienating a supposedly europhobic public.

Strangely enough, opinion surveys that elicit europhobic responses tend to include questions along the lines of “What do you think of Brussels’ forcing of straight bananas on the Great British Public?”. Phrase the questions differently, and – surprise, surprise – opinion on the EU is more favourable.

In his speech (as reported in Monday’s Guardian), José Manuel Barroso said:

“It is not a question any longer of being for or against Europe. It is a question of how to reform Europe. I do not ask you, I do not ask anyone, to love Europe. I ask you to demand more of Europe and to give more in return.”

I couldn’t agree more. Whatever the politicians say, the people of Europe should be demanding a lot more from the EU. As for member states, it really is about time we got our act together here in the UK.

Britain should, as José Manuel Barroso says, be contributing more politically to the European Union, and the intervention of the Commission President is both timely and justified. At the same time, however, there is a serious democratic deficit at the heart of the European project, and the citizens of Europe can see this all too clearly. The politicians, on the other hand, appear to be behaving like the three proverbial monkeys, with most unwilling to publicly address the issues that have contributed among other things to the rejection of the constitutional treaty by the voters of France and the Netherlands.

There is little point in reeling off here a litany of complaints about the EU, but I will briefly discuss a few topical issues.

Firstly, with the expansion of the union to 25 member states, and soon to be more, the linguistic status quo has become not only untenable but completely ludicrous, with translation permutations requiring in many cases intermediate steps, creating more possibilities for error and confusion. Maybe the French and the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs will object, but English is the lingua franca of Europe, and it’s about time that this was formalised. One can argue that within the European Parliament, at least, deputies should speak in any one of the major European languages, but all official documentation should be primarily in English.

Second, the decision to renew trade tariffs on shoe imports from China and Vietnam is an indictment on the Commission that recommended the move. When the UK is among those calling for more trade liberalisation, isn’t it hypocritical for the (British) trade commissioner to be seen enthusiastically defending such a crude and unwarranted protectionist measure?

To be fair on the Council of Ministers, the vote went 9 to 12 in favour of the tariffs, with 4 abstentions counted as votes in favour. But whatever the vagaries of EU standing orders, it’s a bit much for the EU but be renewing trade tariffs at the same time as seeking a series of free trade agreements with Asian countries, in an effort to tap into new and fast-growing markets in the east. Surely there are other ways of leaning on the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to withdraw state aid without penalising all shoemakers in those countries. Trade tariffs do nothing to support European industry as the factories are simply relocating to other Asian states.

Finally – and this is referred to by José Manuel Barroso in his speech – with a further expanding European Union, we will need to address the makeup of the Commission, but there is as yet little public debate about the possibilities. Personally, I am happy with the idea of a Council with one representative per member state, but such a large body cannot function as an executive committee, as does the existing Commission.

Transferring more power to the European Parliament may or may not be a good idea, and I have no firm view on this either way, but there needs to be a much closer cooperation between Commission and Parliament, and the Council of Ministers and Commission should operate in a more open and transparent manner. As it is, all major EU bodies tend to work behind closed doors, and public focus is largely on the Commission.

While we can blame the Commission for many things, they are not the biggest problem. Power remains in the hands of member states that appoint commissioners and continue to make most of the big decisions. The buck stops with national governments, and in our case it is to Westminster that we should turn our attention when demanding reform of the European Union.