A practical suggestion to improve the UK’s influence within the EU

As a Brit, living in Brussels and working in the European Parliament, I’ve had a lot to reflect on over the past months and weeks.

When asked by friends and colleagues, “well what do you think about ‘Cameron’s renegotiation'”, I reply “embarrassed”.

It’s a very English sense of embarrassment, arising from the social awkwardness of being associated with someone who has done something fairly stupid and feeling guilty by proxy. Like being the nephew of the drunk uncle who ruins the children’s birthday party, it is difficult to have any response other than a weary “yes, I’m sorry he’s at it again”.

This is in many ways the scenario we find ourselves in today.

Most of my colleagues in Brussels are painfully aware that this process is borne not out of a widespread British dissatisfaction with the European project, but as the result of Cameron’s political weakness and lack of leadership which has forced him to give ground and ammunition to those with whom he does not agree, but of whom he is very afraid.

I won’t further analyse Cameron, or the substance of “the deal”, as others have done this in detail and readers here have their own well developed views on the subject.

The frustration for me personally is this:

The exercise which Cameron has embarked on over recent months is one that most European leaders do as part of their normal routine.

Most European leaders understand that the EU and its legislative process function by consensus and compromise; leading where you have a vision and proposing reasonable alternatives when the majority view is moving away from your national objectives.

Cameron has for the first time exhibited the sort of statesmanship, touring EU capitals, speaking one to one with his colleagues, that if applied to any single proposal from the European Commission, going through tough negotiations in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers, would result in a positive and acceptable outcome for Britain.

But this also demonstrates the fundamental problem with the UK, with its political process, and its failure to grasp the workings of the EU.

The EU is not a winner takes all, tyranny of the majority where a single political tribe dominates and imposes its will on all the rest, as in our Westminster “democracy”.

The European Union, like most other modern democracies, functions on the basis of coalitions and consensus building, of debate and persuasion leading to pragmatic compromise which takes on the views of a broader majority in order to achieve real legitimacy.

This is the reason why many Westminster politicians are so enraged by Europe. They feel emasculated and disempowered by the process which despite the Conservatives having won a majority of Westminster seats does not allow them to dictate on the European level.

This ‘Eurosceptic small-man syndrome’ results in unwillingness and inability to engage with what is to them an alien political culture.

In this context it is no surprise that Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly pro-European, because the politics of dialogue and compromise are at our core. We have distaste for the concept of majority diktat, favoured by the conservatives, and instead prefer governance by consensus, what I would argue is true representative democracy.

This is so on the European stage.

I have anecdotal evidence from the Whitehall civil servants in Brussels, who’ve told me of their relief when Liberal Democrats (in the coalition days) came to Brussels as the relevant UK minister to Council meetings, assured that this was someone who knows how to behave, how to talk, how to listen, and how to make a deal.

They also tell me of the frustration that many Tory ministers, when in Brussels, show not only a lack of understanding, but also utter contempt for the EU institutions and processes which not only embarrasses us but also significantly undermines our influence.

The solution to this may lie in another “foreign” approach: genuine European scrutiny.

In Denmark, ministers must come before the European affairs committee and the relevant sectoral committees in the Danish parliament, explain the issues to be negotiated at the next EU meetings, and put forward their ideas for a negotiating position. They then have to obtain a mandate from parliament for this position and stick to that mandate when in Brussels.

The result is a far better informed debate in parliament, and ministers better equipped and with more authority to represent their countries’ interests.

Perhaps Westminster politicians could adopt this novel concept of speaking and acting only after they understand an issue and maybe our relationship with Europe would be enhanced.

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28 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Feb '16 - 1:14pm

    I can’t see how setting up another committee is going to improve the UK’s relationship with the EU by any significant amount.

    The article shows too much respect to the EU. It doesn’t have a divine right to exist or for our membership. I show respect to individuals and I won’t always compromise just for the sake of it.

    One way to improve the UK’s relationship with Europe could be to improve language education. Perhaps one foreign language should be mandatory for GCSEs. Then we’ll feel more European (if people choose a European one) and it might boost our economy too.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Feb '16 - 1:14pm

    Yes.

  • This sounds preferable to the ineffective Parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation that takes place at present, whereby Ministers come back and tell our MPs which latest bit of our birthright they sold so as not be ’embarassing’ or not to be lambasted by some jumped up NGO (hurrah, by the way, for the ban on charities using Government funds to lobby Government).

  • Very good , Robert, yes, but I do not share your embarrassment , and , with such a reflective and sensible approach , nor should you feel it .If as a state , we are to continue in the EU we had better support Cameron on this , or this country is heading out , you make it very clear that s the direction of travel . The tabloid press have moved the mood there , particularly in the months since the refugee situation has grown ever more difficult , we need more consensus .

    The position of our party on this would have greater impact ,if ,over the years , we had been more vociferous in our desire for reform. It s true on public sector in general , a Liberal policy should be about responsiveness by government , to people , and with greater democratisation , at the heart of that . The penny dropped in recent years , in our party and beyond , but the public at large have not heard us .What they hear is “we are the party of in !”

  • Lorenzo
    Not quite sure what you read of Robert’s article, but I think he is saying that the approach of British Government is what needs reform / change, not particularly of the EU. It is, largely, of course, the British media, overwhelmongly sceptical that others have heard, not “the public at large”, whose general view when asked in polling, say they “need to know more”.

  • Robert Boyle 8th Feb '16 - 2:19pm

    Thanks all for the responses!

    The embarrassment aspect is really that the sense out here in Brussels is one that is all too familiar with the media bile and political rhetoric in the UK which is more or less constant, and usually ill informed rather than incisive and looking to genuinely fight for tangible reform.

    I don’t think there’s a single person working in the EU institutions that thinks everything is perfect (at least I haven’t found one yet), but the attitude in many countries at least is a desire to see things work better, rather than have a debate about false choices and getting upset about the wrong issues.

    The main improvement at least from my perspective, wouldn’t be to create additional Westminster committees (and that’s not what I advocate here) but to significantly improve the work and quality of information going on in the existing EU affairs committee (chaired by Bill Cash), and maybe have the other select committees which deal with issues affected by EU legislation to be properly involved in the scrutiny process both before and after ministers come to the various meetings they have with their counterparts.

    Without this I don’t see how we can equip our representatives to fight properly for the reforms that that the EU needs, and that the UK could and should take the lead on.

    I also think that part of “reform” is about getting legislation right the first time around. I feel a genuine sense of frustration that in recent years there seems to have been less constructive engagement form the UK through the legislative process so the end result is often further away from what would have been beneficial to the UK, had we simply engaged properly and used the significant influence that we have here (when we try) to maximum effect.

    Fingers crossed that after the referendum, assuming we stay in, that things will improve on this front.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Feb '16 - 2:31pm

    The idea of a more consensual based politics is good, perhaps involving some more committees or more powerful ones, but it’s not going to stop things like UKIP winning the European elections and Lib Dems only returning 1 MEP. British Euroscepticism is deeper than Cameron’s appeasing of his backbenchers.

    The committees can’t just be stuffed with leftists either. One thing is also for sure that there are not many votes in saying the problem with Europe is the UK’s lack of deference.

  • Robert Boyle 8th Feb '16 - 2:50pm

    Eddie, I agree Euroscepticism goes a lot further in the UK than just the Tory party, and indeed the 2014 euro-elections were a disaster though I would argue that they like the 2015 general election they were as much fought on the public mood towards the coalition government at the time and the disappointing alternative offered by Labour as they were about real European issues.

    The main point I want to get across though is that one of the many things needing reform, and which is largely overlooked, is the way our ministers engage with EU issues and this needs drastic improvement.

    I’m arguing here that the existing structures in Westminster could easily be reformed in order to do that… that is not by changing the compositions of the relevant committees with more of one political tendency or another (like it or not we have to accept the outcome of the elections and the make-up of the committees that results), but getting them included in a more systematic and horizontal form of scrutiny than is currently the case.

    I also am certainly not advocating that EU affairs should be given greater deference, but I think the critique levelled should be an informed one. At the moment many from the UK appear simply to be ranting for the sake of it without any real comprehension of the issues, and so can easily be ignored or cast aside on the wider European scene, but equipped with nuanced arguments and sensible suggestions, genuine changes and improvements can be achieved.

    The big caveat, and I think you allude to it in your analysis of this piece, is that this is not a formula to win votes or persuade the mass public (if I had that kind of foresight I’d be in a different position!) but it is about making sure our engagement is one that is more likely to result in outcomes that are more along the UKs interests. We have doen this in the past, the single market is itself a British project, and a hugely successful one, but we have lost that prominent position, and I suggest part of the reason is a shamefully poor understanding of the workings of Europe in Westminster.

    Thanks so much for the input, this is giving me many ideas for other issues to discuss in future!

  • I’ve just been reading Dave’s latest attempt at ‘scaremongering’ over our EU membership….
    It appears that the Calais “Jungle” will come to the UK if Britain votes to leave the EU. The prime minister did not quite say that the whole of the Kent countryside will be plastered with tents if Britain votes for Brexit but came very close….

    According to Mr Cameron
    1) The refugees are camped in Calais because they want to get into England for work/benefits…
    2) If the UK leaves the EU these refugees will get to Kent (by teleportation presumably) where, instead of disappearing into the towns and cities, they will set up a camp similar to Calais….
    That makes absolutely no sense.

    In fact one of Dave’s ‘forgotten’ promises was to negotiate to give Westminster more control over our borders. It weakens the ‘In’ case when he tries to turn his original argument on it’s head and uses ‘facts’ that can be easily disproven ( Calais deal is a bilateral, not EU, treaty) as has already been done by prominent ‘outers’ … Cameron is fast becoming a liability…

  • Peter Bancroft 8th Feb '16 - 3:28pm

    As someone previously very active in European Union civil society and on the edges of European politics, this article really resonated with me. I would occasionally love anti-Europeans to be a fly on the wall on the European Parliament (and occasionally not).

    Where they might expect anti British sentiment, it’s more usually confusion from people trying to be perfectly reasonable and then being swatted over the head by a metaphorical handbag and then publically being denounced as the enemy. Cameron’s bizarre negotiations are just the most recent example – the behaviour of the “UK delegation to the Convention” (there was no UK delegation) as reported in the newspapers was a previous one.

  • Robert Boyle 8th Feb '16 - 3:43pm

    Peter, glad to hear it! It’s really interesting to see the contrast between the perception in the UK of what “Europe” thinks about us, and the reality of how we are actually seen by our colleagues on the EU stage.

    The funny thing is, on many issues, there are other countries, particularly Germany crying out for the UK to lead on key issues particularly on free trade and liberal economics because we can be a very effective counterbalance to some very hard line socialist tendencies in other parts of Europe. There as real willingness to engage with us out there if we play the game better, which I’m sure you’ve experienced.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  • Julian Tisi 8th Feb '16 - 3:50pm

    A very good article. The sad reality is that there is so much misunderstanding about the EU that practical suggestions like this, along with cold hard facts, tend to fall on deaf ears.

  • Barry Snelson 8th Feb '16 - 4:10pm

    Robert,
    I think the emotion within in the UK is much more fundamental than compromise deal making and what the Americans would call ‘pork barrel politics’ but rather the meaning and consequence of ‘ever closer union’.
    I have been a devout European all my life but even I waver at the sight of major flaws and concerns being shrugged off and its people being told to just ‘get with the programme’.
    It seems to have unlimited territorial ambitions and its attempts to conclude a trade deal with western Ukraine was handled with clumsiness and insensitivity to the feelings of east Ukraine who were not so certain that their future lay in the EU.
    The Greeks were punished severely and told they should never have joined the Euro. Actually it was Germany that shouldn’t have joined the Euro and left stuck with the expensive Deutsch Mark. Many sections of the Greek population, especially pensioners, have suffered real poverty despite being devoted Europeans.
    My vote might still be to remain but the European leadership seems hard and uncaring and blindly set on a United States of Europe without asking its citizens for such a mandate.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Feb '16 - 6:07pm

    Hi Robert, I agree that if our politicians are more informed then we will have greater influence at the negotiating table, so this is a good point.

    Thanks for getting back to us, I appreciate that. 🙂

    Best of luck

  • Robert Boyle 8th Feb '16 - 7:10pm

    Thanks everyone once again for the comments!

    Barry, I think you raise a series of very strong examples of situations that could have been handled better or differently at EU level.

    I’m not attempting with this piece to defend or justify the political direction of Europe or the decisions taken collectively (in fact that is a classic trap that the pro-EU camp often falls into, arguing uncritically in favour of all things EU) but that the UK has missed in recent years its many opportunities to steer things in a better direction.

    When you refer to the European leadership, in all of the examples you raise, the main decision makers are the European Council – the heads of government of all 28 EU member states. It is those elected leaders (Cameron included) who have taken those key decisions, and this underlines my point that had Cameron and UK ministers shown better understanding of and engagement with the process perhaps those outcomes could have been better as well.

    Many thanks once again for the very constructive commentary!

  • David Evershed 8th Feb '16 - 7:37pm

    Sometimes the consensus solution is not the right one eg the Eurozone arrangements.

    To get any substantive reform at the EU (eg to stop spending nearly half the budget on the CAP subsidies) I suggest the EU gets shaken up.

    So far in the negotiations other countries have assumed the UK is not going to leave anyway so few changes are necessary.

    My suggestion is to vote LEAVE and then enter reform negotiations with other EU members with them knowing we realy mean to go without substantive reforms.

  • Barry Snelson 8th Feb '16 - 7:54pm

    Robert,
    Many thanks for your courteous response and I admire your loyalty to the cause.I know the EU is ‘house’ policy but some things gnaw at my liberal conscience. One very serious topic (but not the only one) is TTIP.
    The wall of secrecy surrounding it is the ultimate in suspicious behaviour and the power of the huge tax dodging US corporations is all over it. I have not heard any defence of it that doesn’t smell like a barefaced pack of lies and the contempt of those who have to answer to nobody, especially nobodies like us.
    Utterly illiberable in every word and syllable. At least I suppose so as I am not allowed to read a single word.
    As to your point on the Council of Ministers – correct, but that’s the deal.

  • Will not deny that David Cameron is a rather poor statesman (although he’s a “nice chap”).

    However, the real culprit of the mass anti-EU feeling in England (and it is largely confined to England) was the New Labour, who decided back in 2004 not to use the temporary restrictions on the workers from the “new EU”. Since the UK was one of only 3 countries not to impose those, it bore the brunt of mass immigration.

    And this is what really fires up the bulk of the Get-Out rank-and-file. Whether we like it or not.

  • Richard Sangster 9th Feb '16 - 8:01am

    If we don’t try to explain how the EU works, people will inevitably remain ignorant.
    Admittedly it can’t all be done in one go, but I have put one or two snippets in the Constituency Newsletter ad it isn’t that difficult.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Feb '16 - 1:54pm

    UKIP do well in Euro-elections because UK voters have been conditioned to think that MEPs don’t matter, so it’s safe to vote for fruitcakes and for people who don’t actually bother to turn up. Our Euro election campaign did nothing to disabuse people of this idea; indeed we encouraged it by not saying anything at all about our MEPs and how they would work towards our specifically liberal vision of the EU. It should be remembered that whether you are pro or anti EU is not a “European” issue, it’s a domestic issue; European issues are things like trade, civil liberties, the CAP, consumer rights, IP law: those things that are decided at EU level and which MEPs thus shape. So the Clegg/Farage debates, which focused entirely on the UK’s relationship with the EU, were a mistake in principle: the wrong debate for the wrong time.

  • Alex Macfie
    UKIP don’t only get votes in the euro elections. Twice as many people earning less than £40K per year voted for them rather than support the LibDems at the last GE. In Wales they are currently polling around 15% where the LibDems are facing a wipe out on 5%. I’m no UKIP fan, but they are gaining support in all sections of society and the LibDems continue to under rate them.

  • malc
    If you look at current local government byelections (not the be all and end all, I know), UKIP councillors resign considerably more often – often as a result of falling out with supposed colleagues. When the byelection comes, they are generally being beaten (no, sorry, hammered) by their Lib Dem opponents. Now I am not saying that we have made anything like a full recovery, and the polls are somewhat ambivalent, but there is no doubt we are on the way back to being the “third party”.

  • Denis Loretto 9th Feb '16 - 4:08pm

    It is not difficult for those (like me) enthusiastically supporting the UK’s membership of the EU to agree with Robert Boyle’s analysis as to what we need to do to become constructive partners in EU progress and indeed reform but none of this will be relevant unless we win the referendum to remain in. Whatever we think of Cameron’s behaviour in getting us into this risky situation in the first place the fact is we very much need him now to throw his full weight and prestige as Prime Minister into the campaign. There will be only two options on that ballot paper and therefore only two sides to the campaign. The concessions upon which he is still completing negotiations do contain important changes – particularly the assurances on treatment of countries who stay outside the eurozone and eschew further integration of their national economies. That alone can save the dominant position of the City of London in financial services – otherwise very much under threat.

    So let’s concentrate on winning over the many who are not natural EU enthusiasts but are concerned at the risks of exit. In this context Charles Powell may very well be right in suggesting that Margaret Thatcher would have backed EU membership on the terms secured by Cameron. After all she did push through the Single European Act and in her famous “no,no,no” speech in 1990 it was further integration she attacked. She said –

    “The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.

    Perhaps the Labour party would give all those things up easily. Perhaps it would agree to a single currency, to total abolition of the pound sterling. Perhaps, being totally incompetent with monetary matters, they’d be only too delighted to hand over full responsibility as they did to the IMF, to a central bank. The fact is they have no competence on money and no competence on the economy—so, yes, the right hon. Gentleman would be glad to hand it all over. What is the point in trying to get elected to Parliament only to hand over your sterling and the powers of this House to Europe?”

    Nothing there about leaving the EU altogether.

  • he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate

    Isn’t that what Lib Dems want?

  • I would say, some of us, Dav.

  • Denis Loretto 9th Feb '16 - 5:32pm

    @Dav

    That’s my point – there are people both within the Lib Dems and outside who are enthusiastic for much greater European integration than we have today. However they are clearly not in the majority in this democracy of ours. What Cameron is doing is making it clear that only if the people of this country demand it will we be involved in such greater integration, whether or not others (i.e. those in the eurozone) do go down that road. That means we not only remain full members of the single market but can play a leading role in tackling the major problems that cannot be solved at national level, such as climate change, fleeing criminals, and indeed immigration. That’s good enough for me and hopefully good enough for most sensible people facing this referendum.

  • Neil Sandison 14th Feb '16 - 12:09pm

    A refreshed agenda on Europe as part of a reform package is not a bad idea .Ministers having a mandate from parliament strengthens their negotiating position .MEPS able to have greater influence particularly in regional affairs would help to cement the relationship to their constituency .Devolving powers from the council of ministers or ensuring there was better oversight and scrutiny of decision making role would open up the process away from the behind closed doors summits where ministers emerge triumphant or dejected from negotiations and the public have had no say or ability to influence through their MEP those decisions Liberal Democrats should always fight for open democratic and accountable Europe.

  • Simon Banks 24th Feb '16 - 5:31pm

    I mostly agree, but some decisive political moves cannot be done by consensus. I don’t think anywhere that slavery was a major aspect of the economy, that its abolition was done by consensus. The first Reform Bill was only a matter of consensus in that it involved compromises between those favouring reform: then they had to do battle with those opposed to any reform. The setting up of the NHS involved a good deal of compromise, but ultimately the willingness to press ahead against entrenched opposition.

    Oh, and there’s something about that picture, with Cameron so stiff and upper-class-British, that cries out for dialogue added:

    Cameron: I regret that my person is caught in my zip.
    Response 1: Keep calm.
    Response 2: What are you talking about?
    Response 3: May I assist you?

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