background image
The EU: Not fit for purpose

Political systems are sometimes described as being either efficient or democratic. The idea is that democracy, with its many compromises and enless debates, gets in the way of firm and decisive action. The founders of the EU believed this: they wanted to rise above petty nationalism and create an executive for Europe.

The result, fifty years later, is an organisation which is neither democratic nor efficient. The European Commission is not just undemocratic but antidemocratic, its members frequently having been rejected by domestic electorates or, in the case of Peter Mandelson, twice fired from the cabinet.

The European Parliament has such a low recognition factor that few people can name a single member of it. Average turnout in EP elections has fallen in each election since the first in 1979.

The Council of Ministers regularly colludes to overturn or ignore referendum results, whether it is France or Holland rejecting the European Constitution or Ireland rejecting its twin.

This antidemocratic behaviour at EU level has a corrosive effect on national democracy. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have broken an election promise to hold a referendum on the Treaty. Meanwhile the steady and cumulative transfer of powers from national parliaments to the EU undermines respect for the political system. If Parliament is losing the power to make laws, why vote for it?

The efficiency claim is equally hollow. Like most international bureaucracies, the EU is wasteful and badly managed. The budget accounts have been rejected by the auditors for the past 13 years. No other organisation, puplic or private, would have survived such a chain of scandals.

These failings where not even tackled in the Constitutional Treaty (aka the Lisdon Treaty). Indeed they will get worse since the Treaty would give more powers and money to the very institutions which created the problem in the first place.

Enthusiasts fall back on the claim that only a strengthened EU will be able to tackle common challenges such as climate change, terrorism or trade reform. In reality, Britain has always been internationalist and is a member of scores of organisations dealing with every aspect of security, commerce and development. The idea that these must be transferred to the EU in pursuit of efficiency is ludicrous.

On trade, no distintive British voice could be heard during the Doha round negotiations because the EU has ‘exclusive competence’ to represent all member states. Doha has failed but the same rule prevents us from helping poorer countries by dealing directly with them. All those interested in helping the developing world should question this strange monopoly, unique to the EU, which bans its members having their own trade policy.

Dealings with Rusia are now advanced as a justification for new treaty powers and a single EU foreign policy. But the response to Russian intervention in Georgia was divided. Britain and the East Europeans were tough; Germany and France were cautious. The Lisbon Treaty would have made no difference. The EU lacks a united foreign policy not because of institutional failings but because Europe is an old and diverse continent where countries respond differently accoring to their historical experience and interests. In so far as a united military front is possible, this is achieved through membership of NATO. Giving the EU further security and foreign policy powers simply dupicates this, or gives small EU countries the illusion of power without the burden of making any realistic contribution.

Globalisation has thrown up new challenges but the EU is the wrong organisation to deal with them. Globalisation means that distance and geography have been conquered. It means capital mobility, open markets, the English language, and rewards for flexibility and innovation. The EU stands for remote and centralised decision making, and a high degree of regulation and protection. It is an old fashioned organisation, suitable for reconciliation after a world war but increasingly ill adapted for life in the 21st Century.

Globilisation can also be frighening and impersonal. People need a sense of time and space; of identity and belonging. That is provided by the nation state. That is where people’s loyalty and allegiance naturally lie; that is where human scale democracy resides. It is the model we are trying to export to Iraq and Afganistan where the best hope is for them to become self governing nation states. By contrast, the EU is an attempt to transcend the nation state and create supranational agencies with their own democratic legitimacy. That project has failed.

In 2001, Heads of Government meeting in Laeken issued a Declaration which recognised the failings of the EU and called for fundamental reform. That reform was never seriously attempted and led instead to the failed Europen Constitution. The task of recasting Europe on a new base with fall to the next generation of leaders, which will undoudtedly include David Cameron.

David Heathcoat-Amory MP, The European Journal, October 2008.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.


Bill Cash has been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stone since 1997 and an MP since 1984.

He is currently the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and the founder member of the European Foundation...

Click to read more