Sovereignty is a notoriously slippery concept. In feudal times, the position was clear enough. Sovereignty rested with God. For Aquinas, in the 13th century, human law was derived – by reason or revelation – from divine law. Valid law could not be created by an act of will.
Later, God was good enough to delegate. Sovereignty resided with the King. James I, in a speech to Parliament in 1610, said that : “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants… but even by God himself they are called gods.”
The theory of absolute monarchy never recovered from the blow that struck off Charles I’s head. Parliamentary sovereignty was on the rise. The Bill of Rights in 1689 asserted that it was illegal for the king to pretend the “power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws… without consent of Parliament.” Parliament alone, then, was sovereign. And that sovereignty was no longer an expression of the will of God, but the will of the people.
But what does it mean to say that “Parliament” (or any other group or individual) “is sovereign”? The concept of sovereignty is a difficult one because there is often confusion between sovereignty de jure – the supreme legal authority; and sovereignty de facto - the ability to induce men to take a desired course of action.
The distinction between the two is well illustrated by the members of the French Convention who on 2 June 1793, in the exercise of their sovereign legislative authority, ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Girondin party – but only after their President had led them to one exit after another to escape the armed mob.
Another good example occurs in Henry IV Part One: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep” says Glendower. “Aye” replies Hotspur “And so can I. Or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?”
I do not want to turn this into an undergraduate essay on political philosophy – especially in such company. But these reflections are relevant to the current debate about the future of Europe because there has been a tendency in this country to treat sovereignty as some mystical absolute. A birthright of every Briton – handed down through the generations like a sacred flame, indivisible and unalterable. Every question about how best to represent the national interest in the European context can be resolved by applying one simple test: does the proposal require Britain to surrender any more of her birthright? In this conception, the country is giving itself away, piece by piece: “drifting ever closer to its own destruction” (to quote from the Conservative Party’s recent production “Believing in Britain”).
Yet ‘sovereignty’ in the sense of unfettered freedom of action, is a nonsense. A man, naked, hungry and alone in the middle of the Sahara desert is free in the sense that no-one can tell him what to do. He is sovereign, then. But he is also doomed. It is often preferable to accept constraints on freedom of action in order to achieve some other benefit. Britain is severely constrained by her membership of NATO. She is committed to intervene in the common defence if another member is attacked, and accepts a foreign (US) commander for such an operation. As Mrs.Thatcher so rightly said at the time of the 1975 Referendum on Europe: “Almost every major nation has been obliged by the pressures of the post-war world to pool significant areas of sovereignty so as to create more effective political units.”
My own conviction, as I shall argue, is that in our national debate we have focussed too much on sovereignty. The more important concept is that of democracy. Constitutional authority, or de jure sovereignty, may very well be divided between several institutions both within the country and outside it, if the authority thus divided can maximise the common good.
So the proper question is not whether participation in the EU is a treasonable abdication of sovereignty, as some opponents have sought to prove in the courts. It is how the emerging polity can best represent, and be felt to represent, the will of the people. Only if people accept the legitimacy of the changing political order will they willingly accept the obligations imposed by it. If they do not feel adequately involved and consulted, they will eventually question their political obligation.
That raises the whole question of democratic support and accountability, which is my principal theme today. But before I come to that, let me enlarge a little further on why I feel that the obsession with sovereignty misses the point.
Britain’s sovereignty in the European Union
In the 1950s Britain stood aside as the European Community began to take shape. The reasons for that are legion. I have no doubt, however, that one important strand in British reluctance was the wish to preserve national sovereignty. It was all very well for the rest of Europe to combine forces and to develop supranational institutions – indeed it was a good thing. But Britain should remain captain of her soul. Licentious foreigners could engage in increasingly federastic practices. But we should preserve our virginity.
Yet by standing back at that time; by seeking to preserve our de jure sovereignty, did we maximise our de facto sovereignty – our influence over our own destiny? It is now generally accepted that we did not. By staying out, we allowed the Community to take shape without us, and according to principles that were alien to us. Once it became clear that we had no future as a serious European player outside the political and economic construction that was to dominate the second half of the 20th century, it was too late. We knocked at the door. We were rebuffed by de Gaulle. We had to sue for entry. And we got in on terms that were very much less favourable than what had been on offer more than fifteen years before.
The same could be said of the French debate at the time of Maastricht. Opponents demanded “l’indépendence de la politique monétaire” – or de jure sovereignty. But the franc fort already belonged to the DM zone. So de facto French sovereignty could be maximised by accepting the single currency. The Bundesbank, quite rightly, takes account only of German interests. But the French have a seat on the European Central Bank, which has to look to their interests too. This, indeed, is the logic of the whole European project. The nations, by sharing de jure sovereignty, gain de facto sovereignty, or influence over their destiny.
Opponents of the EU often point to Switzerland or Norway to demonstrate that Britain could be perfectly successful, economically, outside the Union. They are not wholly wrong. Those who argue that we would lose more than 50% of our market, that we risk allowing jingoistic chants to lead us to the romance of the workhouse, exaggerate their case. We would suffer a bit, depending upon the terms we could negotiate for our trade outside the Union. Inward investment would fall.
Unemployment might tick up. I have no doubt we would be less well off outside than in. But there would be no catastrophe; no Biblical plagues. The more important point is that far from gaining sovereignty, in the de facto sense, Britain would actually lose it. In international trade we would have to follow WTO rules with little opportunity of shaping them. That would be left to the heavy hitters: the EU and the US.
Most of our trade, of course, would still be with countries of the European Union. We would still have to meet Single Market rules (as Switzerland and Norway must). But we would have no say in the shaping of those rules. And when we ran into barriers, for example when we were told that if we wanted to market our milk chocolate within the EU in future we would have to label it ‘vegelate’ rather than ‘chocolate’ – we would just have to lump it. We would lose our ability to reduce the absurdities of the Common Agricultural Policy (as we have done with remarkable if unrecognised success over the years, gradually eliminating the principle of unlimited support for unwanted production). Above all, in my view, we would betray our heritage by abandoning the leadership of Europe to a continental combine.
And much the same, I suspect, applies to the Euro. For years the British debate has been about the pros and cons of a single currency. That was, and is, an interesting question. But the debate should always have been about whether Britain was better off inside or outside a project which was going ahead anyway. In little more than a year’s time Euro notes and coins will replace national currencies in most Member States of the EU. And already the advent of the Euro is having a profound influence on decision-making. Britain is no longer part of the inner circle of economic policy-making in the EU – the so-called Eurogroup. Gordon Brown does not always bother to attend the traditional meetings of the 15 Finance Ministers (the ECOFIN Council). That is perhaps understandable insofar as the most enticing smells are starting to emerge from the Eurogroup kitchen - with some of the ECOFIN menu pre-cooked there. British diplomats hover about outside the Eurogroup and pick up what scraps they can about plans for economic and monetary policy – but they have no say.
There is growing pressure, of course, for closer economic co-ordination in the EU. Britain can resist indefinitely the extension of majority voting to new areas, and thereby maintain her veto on sensitive issues like tax. But as greater consensus begins to develop in the Eurogroup on economic, monetary and even fiscal issues, I suspect that the economic and competitive pressures upon Britain to come into line, in her own interest, could become very great.
Britain is a member of the Group of 7, G7, in which the Americans, the major European countries and the Japanese consult at the highest level, not least on monetary issues. It is, if you like, the ‘top table’. But what if G7 were to begin to give way to G3, bringing together those with responsibility for management of the dollar, the Euro and the yen? Would we still be invited to dine at high table if we were outside the Euro zone?
Britain sort of knows all this. Leader after leader – including Mrs.Thatcher – set out with the best of intentions to engage positively in the European enterprise because they knew that it was in Britain’s long-term interest. But each has quickly run into heavy political seas. They have wanted to keep their options open, and they have resented the feeling that they were being pushed faster and farther than they wanted, or than public opinion would readily accept.
Churchill expressed the dilemma perfectly in an essay he wrote as long ago as 1930 : “The conception of a United States of Europe” he wrote, “is right. Every step taken to that end which appeases the obsolete hatreds and vanished oppressions … which encourages nations to lay aside their precautionary panoply, is good in itself”. But he was not, of course, thinking of Britain, at that time. For “We have our dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised.”
Yet there is no linkage without compromise. That is Britain’s dilemma. And we are stuck on the horns of it as firmly as ever. Nor will we feel comfortable again until there is more affection for the European enterprise, and more sense of engagement in it. Which brings me to my principal theme – the need for greater democratic underpinning.
The ‘democratic deficit’
At present people feel sullen and alienated from the EU – not just in Britain, but more widely. The recent Danish referendum vote was further evidence of that alienation. And it is dangerous, because it could eventually lead people to question their political obligation. If people feel that they have no say; that policy is being made over their heads; that the law is a scourge rather than a protection – they will eventually revolt. As Edmund Burke said : “People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws.”
If a cricketer asks why he should obey the umpire – by what right he is given out – you can answer by explaining the rules, and even the position of the MCC. Beyond that there is nothing to be done but to say : “You must return to the pavilion because this is a game of cricket.” That is the knock-down argument. You must obey because we are operating within an accepted set of procedures.
The growing problem regarding perceptions of Europe in Britain (and the metaphor could be applied elsewhere if it was understood!) is that too many people are coming to think it is not cricket (in the sense that there is something unfair about it). Cricket, they discover, has sprouted all sorts of new rules while they were not looking. They pine for the game they used to play, and love, in which Westminster stood proud and unchallenged at the centre. But that is like a conservative cosmologist during the Renaissance pining for the Mediaeval model of the universe which was comfortably geocentric; where the planets moved in perfect circles; and where there were no loose ends. The game has moved on. We are still building the new model. But there is no going back to the old one.
Why do people feel alienated ? I would suggest five reasons in particular:
What was Britain getting into?
First, as far as Britain is concerned, people feel they were tricked from the outset. Those who negotiated our entry understood perfectly well that the Community was much more than a trade association. That was what Britain had wanted in the 50s, but it was not on offer from our largest neighbours. And it gradually became clear that the European Free Trade Area, EFTA, was no substitute. The Community had an explicit political agenda from the outset, even if the destination was unknown.
Britain knew the score. The 1967 White Paper explained that “The constitutional innovation would lie in the acceptance in advance, as part of the law of the UK, of provisions to be made in the future by instruments issued by the Community institutions – a situation for which there is no precedent in this country.” Edward Heath referred several times to the ‘pooling of sovereignty’. As I observed just now, so did Mrs.Thatcher. But that was the small print. It was not the popular perception, nor even the perception in Westminster. The 1975 referendum was about resolving an internal problem within the Labour Party. Beyond that, it was mainly about money, and the commercial benefits expected to flow from Britain’s membership. It is no coincidence that the enterprise was known in those days as the Common Market.
In terms of material benefits, disillusionment soon set in. Britain’s entry coincided with the oil crisis and the recession of the 1970s. Post hoc propter hoc: Europe took the rap. But the rot really took hold once it became clear to people that the EU was about more than a Single Market - because no-one could agree what it was about: where the process of integration would stop. No-one could tell them, because no-one knew, and no-one knows. I am clear that we are not talking about a superstate that will eclipse the separate nations. But I cannot define the exact vocation of the EU. It is a work in progress. We are working towards a unique construct in which the nations can preserve their separate traditions, languages, culture and identity – but in which they can also maximise their combined influence, help to secure democracy and prosperity over the whole European continent, and overcome what has been most destructive about nationalism: the propensity of countries to put up barriers against one another, to engage in mutually destructive trade policies, in competitive devaluation of their currencies, and, ultimately, to go to war against one another.
It is all very well for me to say that. But how can people be sure that that is indeed the destiny of the enterprise? The Treaty evolves continually, and people feel threatened because they can see no obvious end-point. Their fears are inexcusably magnified by a rabble-rousing media, and by politicians who play up the spectre of a superstate which was never real, and which has become even more improbable with the imminent prospect of enlargement.
But people are right to feel uncertain about the destiny of the EU, because it is genuinely unclear. Above all – and this is the central point – people do not feel they have any control over it through the democratic process. The European Parliament plays its part. It is engaged in highly technical legislative work, and it does that work with increasing professionalism. But it is not the whole answer, because the nation states are – and I hope they will remain – the basic source of democratic legitimacy within the Union.
The decline of Parliamentary sovereignty
Yet – and this brings me to my second suggested source of public alienation - the advent of the EU has accelerated the decline of national Parliamentary sovereignty and prestige.
In Britain, at least, this process was evident long before the European experiment. Parliament can and does matter – most obviously when Governments have small majorities. But Lord Hailsham was right to warn in his 1976 Dimbleby Lecture of the danger of ‘elective dictatorship’.
In Britain, sovereignty of Parliament has come to mean sovereignty of Government. A President of the United States has nothing like the power of a modern British Prime Minister to dictate national policy. The Select Committee system was developed to put some muscle behind Parliament’s efforts to hold the executive to account. But a comparison with Congressional Committees in the US is instructive. Westminster is no match at all.
The consequence is that people are losing confidence in the ability of their elected representatives to look after their interests. And that leads them to more direct methods. We used to sneer at French Governments, regularly held to ransom by lorry drivers or farmers : “L’état c’est les camionneurs”. Dominique Moisi wrote the other day that “France never tires of re-enacting its revolutionary past in the unconscious quest for a social solidarity that is missing in the cold and urban anonymity of modern times”. In Britain, we may not be doing it for the same reason, but the demonstration of people-power during the recent fuel show-down was instructive. People are looking less and less to Parliament to redress their grievances.
So it has been happening anyway. But the development of the European Union has accelerated this erosion of Parliamentary authority.
In part, this has been the responsibility of Parliament itself. For many years after Britain joined the EU most MPs simply refused to acknowledge the fundamental nature of the change. Ministers shuttled to and from Brussels, but only a few eccentrics took much interest in what they were up to. Most of the MPs that did get stuck in did so not because they wanted to help shape Britain’s policy in Europe, but in a destructive spirit of fear and loathing for the whole enterprise. MEPs were for many years denied access at Westminster. The European Parliament was held in contempt. And this, of course, was self-fulfilling. The most able and ambitious usually gravitated to national politics. MPs almost prided themselves on their ignorance of the European law-making process. People were right to sense that Westminster was playing itself out of the game.
But even if Parliament had chosen to engage more fully in the process; even if MPs had done more to control the positions taken by Government Ministers in Brussels; there had been an undeniable shift of focus away from Westminster. From the moment Britain joined the EEC it had accepted the primacy of Community law over national law. The full implications were not immediately evident. It came as a rude shock when, in 1990, the European Court of Justice overturned a clumsy Act of Parliament designed to expel quota-hopping Spanish fishermen from our shores. Such an event might have occurred at any time over the twenty years before. But the judgement was seen by many in Britain as a calculated affront: fresh evidence of the limitless hubris of an EU determined to transform itself into a superstate.
Yet the biggest assault of all on the British Parliament has come from Government. For Ministers, Brussels has been a welcome haven from effective Parliamentary scrutiny. Decisions are taken in the Council of Ministers, and then – if they are unpopular at home – explained away as regrettable compromises imposed by flint-hearted partners, or ‘so-called’ partners, as they are called in parts of the British press.
‘Brussels’ as an alien administration
And this brings me to my third explanation for public alienation.
Success has a thousand fathers. When things go right, politicians are happy to claim the successes as national ones. But when things go wrong, or when unpopular decisions have to be taken, Ministers of all Governments treat something called ‘Brussels’ as an alien process quite beyond their control. Brussels is not ‘us’. It is ‘them’: a continental conspiracy forcing us to adopt absurd regulations despite the best efforts of Ministers battling for Britain. As a result, ‘Brussels’ has become a dirty word.
A classic example of this process occurred a few years ago over motorbikes. The European industry was on its knees, at the mercy of mainly Japanese competitors. Ministers, at the behest of industry, called for European-level regulation, to achieve economies of scale, and a single type-approval which would enable the same model to be sold throughout the EU. This happened in the early 90s, when the worm had begun to turn against the European Commission, and ‘subsidiarity’ was all the rage: the principle that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they will affect: that decisions should be taken at the European level only if they have to be. Delors could see what was coming, and went back to the Council to check that national Ministers really wanted what they were asking for. The Germans in particular, had telephone directories full of DIN standards, and no intention of diluting them to admit tinny scooters from other Member States. So the Commission found it was going to have to produce no fewer than 27 draft proposals covering everything from the size and positioning of number-plates to anti-theft devices. Did Ministers really want that, asked Delors?
National Ministers gave him a flea in his ear. Industry desperately needed economies of scale. The Commission should know its place and get on with the job. The Commission duly went about its dread work. But it had to make some difficult choices where national standards differed. Most Member States, for example, had a limit on the maximum power of motorbikes. In the UK there was no such limit. The Commission was bound to side with the majority if it was to get the legislation through. At once there were Hell’s Angels besieging the Houses of Parliament in protest. How dare the EU threaten such limits? Ministers were quick to assure the protesters that they shared their indignation. This was the work of ‘Brussels’. It was ‘them’: Eurocrats run mad. Ministers would do their best to protect Britain’s ancient right to rocket-driven superbikes. But they warned that they might be outvoted.
Is it any wonder in such circumstances that people feel alienated from Europe?
Shortcomings of European administration
The fourth reason I would advance for public alienation is a question-mark that hangs over the competence and professionalism of European administration.
The EU has much to be proud of. It was the economic and political focus of Europe’s revival in the second half of the C20th. It played an essential part in the restoration of democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece – and has been the emblem on the banner of modernisation of the European economy. It is now ready to play a similar role for many countries which had to live for decades in the shadow of the former Soviet Union.
But the European decision-making process is complex and opaque. Because the separate nations retain so much power – as they must and should – it is often difficult to take decisions. Those that are reached are bound to represent only the highest common factor between competing national interests. European administration is very far from exemplary. There is mercifully little corruption, despite the lurid accusations of the Europhobes. But it is notoriously difficult to manage multinational bureaucracies in which different cultures must be accommodated.
The consequence is that we do not always manage well. The European aid programme, for which I now have a personal responsibility, has often been badly conceived and slow to deliver. I am determined to put that right, and I flatter myself that we are making real progress.
We should not be too self-critical. The EU can take credit for remarkable accomplishments across a very wide field. With its Member States, the EU accounts for more than half of all official international development assistance, and some 66% of all grant aid. We are making real difference in many parts of the world. Take Kosovo, for example, where by the end of this year we will have rebuilt or repaired 12,000 homes. Or take the contribution we made earlier this year to election observation in Zimbabwe. That operation, put together at very short notice, played a significant part in helping to promote multiparty democracy.
But policymaking and project-management at the European level can be frustrating work. And people who are prepared to forgive national Governments at least some of their inevitable shortcomings are much less tolerant of the inadequacies of an institution based in another country.
Another more subtle reason for unhappiness is that there is an inevitable tension in the whole Single Market process. We seek a ‘level playing field’. But to overcome the highly inventive national barriers which exist in every area, European legislators have to go into excruciating detail. Witness my motorbike example. European lawmakers are dragged into what Douglas Hurd called the ‘nooks and crannies’ of national life. Some, it must be admitted, go about the work with an enthusiasm that I do not myself share. But where to draw the line? Interest groups urge us to iron out every last barrier. Sullen populations and media demagogues urge us to stop interfering. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is meant to provide guidance. But the choice is inevitably a subjective, political one. There is no right answer.
The problem of building democratic support for international institutions
The fifth and final reason I would advance for public alienation is perhaps the most serious and the most interesting. It is the lack of emotional commitment to the EU.
The concept of an international society is not one towards which people are attracted by sentiment or tradition. If you climb a mountain, it is the national flag you plonk on top of it, not that of the UN or of Europe. Passionate emotional attachments to smaller groupings - to town or region for example - form naturally and inevitably. But it is hard to develop attachments to large ones. This is not to say that it is impossible to build loyalties extending beyond national or ethnic boundaries. The United Kingdom is an example of such a loyalty. This was borne out earlier this month during that absurd debate about ‘Britishness’. The vast majority of Britons of all creeds and colours poured scorn on the notion that this was somehow a racist concept.
The Allied cause during the Second World War was one for which people were willing to lay down their lives. In its day, too, the British Empire created an emotional bond encompassing peoples of many races in many countries. But it is hard to create such loyalties. And the European Union is miles from achieving it.
How to build affection for international institutions is not just a European conundrum. It is a problem for the United Nations, for the IMF, for the World Bank, for the World Trade Organisation. People accept intellectually the need to pool sovereignty in Europe, as they accept the need for a World Trade Organisation. But they feel little affection or loyalty towards the institutional structure created for the purpose. Critics preach endlessly about the need to create democratic legitimacy, as if leaders and elites were obstinately refusing to face the problem. There was lots of ‘told you so’ pontification after the recent Danish referendum, Martin Taylor’s piece in last week’s FT saying that the EU had adopted the forms and habits of the late mediaeval papacy was typical of the genre. It is clean enough fun. But it dodges the issue. Because European leaders share the analysis. They have agonised about the so-called democratic deficit for decades. The problem is how to build legitimacy. Saying, as Martin Taylor does, that the answer is to ‘give the people more say, and soon’ – merely ducks the issue. This is one of the great puzzles of modern times. It is a puzzle that desperately needs a solution. The depth of feeling evident in the muddled movement against globalisation shows the fragility of institutions that do not have democratic underpinning.
There is nothing intrinsically virtuous about internationalism over nationalism. As Michael Lind pointed out in a recent article in Prospect, “It is really not fair to hold up Hitler as a typical nationalist and Albert Schweitzer as a typical internationalist. It would be just as absurd to treat Gandhi as a typical nationalist and Stalin as a typical internationalist.” As I have said, I do not believe that nation states are in terminal decline. Quite the reverse. But nationalism and internationalism do not stand in opposition to one another, as many seem to think – as if the development of the EU could only be achieved at the expense of the nations. No. The two must work in harness. In the modern world, national sovereignty will be exercised at different levels, with delegation sometimes downwards to regional and local authorities, and sometimes upwards to groupings of nations such as the EU; and even to the global level, for example by recognising the authority of an International Criminal Court. At every level, people must have a say, and must feel that they have a say.
How to secure greater democratic legitimacy for the EU?
How? Any attempt to set out prescriptively exactly what we should be doing to address this problem is bound to fetch up somewhere between a big bang and a collection of whimpers. Inconveniently, there is no simple answer. But I can at least survey some of the ideas that need to be considered if there is to be a serious effort to reconnect the European debate with national political structures.
Paradoxically, the most obvious remedy for lack of democratic underpinning is also the least likely to appeal to critics of the EU. Norman Tebbit used to sneer at the pretensions of the ‘unelected Commission’ – but he would not at all want to see it directly elected. Then we really would have the makings of a European superstate, with a Government and a President of Europe.
He would have a similar objection, I imagine, to the other obvious remedy – to give greater authority, including revenue-raising powers, to the directly-elected European Parliament.
The problem with both these approaches is that they would further develop the authority of European institutions at the expense of national Parliaments. The European Union, as a hybrid between an international institution and a supranational one, is unique. It has made tremendous strides in binding the continent together. But it has to accept that there is no European ‘demos’ – in the sense of a population which feels itself to be one. The problem of legitimacy and democracy is therefore especially difficult. And it is especially acute, because the European Union is so powerful.
The legitimacy of the European Commission is achieved in a number of ways. Members are nominated by elected Governments, and then approved by the directly-elected Parliament, with confirmation hearings. Our programmes and decisions are subject to regular scrutiny by the Parliament and bodies such as the Court of Auditors and the newly-created post of Ombudsman. We have recently introduced far-reaching transparency rules, which open us to direct public scrutiny.
These are important mechanisms – but they have not yet brought real public acceptance. My own conviction is that we can begin to win that acceptance by explaining more clearly what we are (and what we are not); by focussing more single-mindedly on efficiency and results; by becoming more responsive to outside opinion; and above all by exercising greater self-discipline. Montesquieu wisely remarked that unnecessary laws merely enfeeble necessary ones. The Commission has wide competences, but should exercise them with extreme discretion. People need to be confident that we are not seeking to extend our powers, or to interfere unnecessarily.
Increasing the involvement of national Parliaments
But I want to focus my final remarks on the role of national Parliaments - representing, as they do, Europe’s democratic bedrock. At present, the EU fails to draw on this source of legitimacy because its initiatives are too often seen as an assault on national prerogatives rather than a common endeavour. If national Parliaments assumed a more prominent role in the European process they would impart greater legitimacy to the supranational effort.
The advent of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1976 severely reduced the role of national Parliaments. It is too late now simply to turn back the clock. As I have said, the European Parliament fulfils an important role, and a very demanding one. It is not a job which could be done by national part-timers. Some might suggest having a proportion of delegates from national Parliaments, but this would only be a partial solution.
There are other possible ways to tie in the national Parliaments. The need has long been recognised. When the Treaty was last amended at Amsterdam, for example, a Protocol was introduced to encourage greater involvement of national Parliaments by giving them more opportunity to comment on draft legislation. There is a Conference of European Affairs Committees of national Parliaments, known as COSAC, which meets regularly.
Some proposals for change
But there is still a gulf to be bridged. What other things might be considered?
One possibility under discussion would be to create a second chamber of the European Parliament which could help to apply the principle of subsidiarity: determining which decisions really need to be taken at the European level, and which should be left to the nations. It would be important to keep the process as light as possible. Members could be drawn from national Parliaments – perhaps also with some regional and other representatives replacing the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. They would not be paid for this additional work, which could be seen an extension of their national duties. They would not scrutinise all legislation, but look only at proposals that were opposed on subsidiarity grounds by a given number of Member States. Was the legislation needed at all? Might the same purpose be achieved in a less intrusive way?
The idea of a second chamber was advocated by the Prime Minister in his recent speech in Warsaw. Vaclav Havel, too, has championed it. Such a chamber could help to overcome the sense that the EU is a challenge to national Parliaments, rather than an extension of national sovereignty.
Another idea is that elections to the European Parliament should take place on the same day as national general elections. Members would then change on a rolling basis as national elections occurred, rather than all in one fell swoop every five years. In this respect, the system would be rather closer to the US one. There would be a double advantage to this. First, the turn-out could be expected to be higher. Second, political majorities would tend to mirror the national pattern. At present, with European Parliamentary elections taking place in the mid-term of national Parliaments, people often choose to register protest votes against unpopular Governments. The consequence is that the overall majority in the European Parliament can be idiosyncratic. Is it not more likely that links with national Parliaments would develop naturally if political majorities within the European Parliament more closely matched the national ones? The EP would have to adapt its procedures to take account of any such change. The composition of committees could not be altered every time there was a change in the political balance, for example – or they would never get their work done. But those should not be insuperable problems.
Third, national Parliaments could engage more wholeheartedly in the European enterprise. Westminster, in particular, could do much more. Why not make MEPs ex officio members of the national upper House so that they can help to bind together the national and European policy debates? National select committees should engage in a more systematic way in the European legislative process – taking evidence from Eurocrats and MEPs; and meeting sister committees in other Member States. The political parties should engage more fully with their European counterparts, as I tried hard to do, especially with the CDU, both when I was Director of my party’s Research Department and later party Chairman. Parliament should work harder to hold the Government to account for positions that Ministers take in Europe. In general, there has to be a greater sense that Europe is us, not some foreign conspiracy. Westminster, in short, should begin to take responsibility for European outcomes.
Fourth, if the EU as a whole is suffering from a lack of connection between its institutions and its electorates, this problem is especially acute in the field of external relations. For the foreseeable future there will be as many Foreign Ministers and foreign policies as there are Member States – for foreign and security policy goes to the heart of what it means to be a nation. The EU has made important strides in the creation of a common policy. But at present the tender plant of the so-called CFSP is a rootless one. The former EU and UN Ambassador Sir David Hannay suggested recently the constitution of a Foreign Relations Committee of the Union drawing its members both from the EP and from national parliaments.
Fifth, I like the idea that we should try to define more clearly, in a political document, where the boundaries lie between national and Community prerogatives. I will not call it a Constitution, for fear of exciting the wrath of those who would see that as proof positive of the emergence of a superstate. In Germany, federalism is a reassuring concept because it is felt to guarantee the rights of the Laender. In the UK it has always carried the opposite connotation of a vainglorious central authority assuming powers to which it has no right, and then deigning to delegate some of them back to those it has robbed. So perhaps it is better to refer to a statement of principles or charter of competences, as Tony Blair has. But the idea is clear enough. The Treaty defines the limits of European power. But it does not do so in terms which could provide popular reassurance that the Member States have entrenched rights. That is the sort of document which I think we may need.
If we had such a document, it has been argued that we might accompany it by a change in the Treaty itself confirming that the EU is now a mature institution which has achieved the broad balance it seeks between national and European powers. As I have sought to show, the process by which the EU has developed has been perceived in some Member States as a relentless assault on national and regional prerogatives. The founding Treaty calls for an ‘ever closer union between the peoples of Europe’. The suggestion is that we should balance that ambition with wording to make clear that this does not imply a one-way ratchet: that ‘ever closer union’ does not mean ‘ever dwindling nations’. This might for example take the form of an explicit assurance in the Treaty that the destiny of the European Union is to work in harmony with its Member States, not to subsume them. If the language was sufficiently precise, such an assurance might encourage the European Court further along the path it has taken in a number of recent cases in reining back the Community institutions where they have overstepped the mark.
The concept of the nation state is alive and well. Indeed there are more nations in Europe than ever before. Yet it is widely accepted that in the modern world those nations need to pool their sovereignty – if only in response to the process of globalisation. That is why most of these states are already members of the European Union or hoping to join it. The problem is how to control and legitimise the structures created for this purpose. There is no European ‘demos’ – nor, for reasons of language and culture, is there likely to be one. So if we want to increase democratic control we have to find better ways of connecting the national political institutions with the supranational ones.
G.K.Chesterton once remarked that unity may be as simple as changing ten shillings into a ten-bob note, or as absurd as trying to change ten terriers into a bulldog. The challenge I have been talking about is critical for Europe’s future – but it is perhaps as difficult as they get without becoming absurd.