Book review: Saving the European Union

Andrew Duff’s book Saving the European Union: The logic of the Lisbon Treaty, written early in 2009, has an endearingly open comment about his own political views compared with those of his colleagues:

My party, the UK Liberal Democrats, and group, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), have been amazingly tolerant of finding a militant federalist in their midst.

Although an enthusiast for a closer European Union, Andrew Duff recognises the need for pro-Europeans to make their case and starts with the roots of the EU in the ruins of post-1945 Europe. He quotes Winston Churchill saying:

I hope to see a Europe where men and women of every country will think of being European as of belonging to their native land, and wherever they go in this wide domain will truly feel ‘Here I am at home’.

Sentiments not shared, I suspect, by many of those who invoke Churchill in their cause in current times. But whilst Andrew Duff recognises the failure to build broad popular support for the pro-European cause, his solutions are not always convincing.

He goes in to some detail as to how Lisbon tidies up previous complicated arrangements, making them simpler, smoother and quicker. However, it is not in the detailed provisions of the Lisbon Treaty that the debate over the future of the European Union really lies. Its details have persuaded very few to change their minds from pro to anti or vice versa; rather the details of Lisbon have been and are used to illustrate arguments for and against positions that are rooted in broader attitudes towards the European Union.

The danger of the narrow technical perspective is shown in the book’s description of the European Parliament as preforming “brilliantly – except at election time”, based on the details of its powers and operations. The widespread damage that the European Parliament does to the pro-European cause with the high profile symbolic issues of MEPs’ expenses and the waste of shuttling Parliament between two locations go unmentioned.

Despite the complexity of parts of the Lisbon Treaty, Andrew Duff manages to steer a mostly plain English course through his explanations, only occasionally drifting in to comments such as, “The promotion of peace appears as the primordial objective of the Union, rather than as a value, which suggests that the EU is not a pacifist organisation”.

It is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of his explanations that people of a range of differing European views will find evidence in the book to suit their own views. For example, greater powers for the European Parliament can either be viewed as a welcoming strengthening of the directly elected part of the EU or as a weakening of national Parliaments, according to taste.

Andrew Duff’s case very much is that Lisbon makes the EU more efficient and that the extra powers involved are justifiable on grounds such as the need to ensure that EU members actually follow the rules they draw up:

Even a casual reading of the treaty will reassure the citizen that the notion of the Union as some vast, undemocratic, over-centralising plot is merely a nationalistic caricature.

Many of the benefits which Andrew Duff lays out are one step back from bring tangible results. The new provisions that EU measures must be proportional to their objectives – which opens up the possibility of using the legal system to reign back over the top regulations and directives – are very welcome, as is the clearer definition of what areas the EU can stray in to, but these are at the moment abstract benefits. Public support will not flow from the theory; it will only flow from their practical application in the years to come.

Likewise, the greater powers for the European Parliament over European finances are welcomed in the book, but the real test will be whether that results in less fraud, less waste and more accounts being signed off as accurate by auditors in the future. It’s a view that Andrew Duff acknowledges, as when he says,

Few EU citizens feel completely at home in the new large economic society that has been opened up to them by the European Union. Size, distance and competition are worrying concepts. In place of a strong affinity between the EU’s many nationalities, there is a sense of us belonging only to a community of fellow-strangers. The gift of new rights and privileges is all very well, but the Union also has to work hard to instill a real sense of solidarity among its citizens.

One democratic change in particular is highlighted:

[Lisbon] grants the right to one million citizens coming from a ‘significant’ number of member states to make an ‘appropriate’ proposal for a new legal act to the Commission. A law is to be promulgated to specify how precisely this citizens’ initiative will work.

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats and their sister parties should use this power to campaign for further efficient reforms which make the EU work better and at lower cost. A pan-European campaign to abolish the cost, waste and inefficiency of moving the Parliament back and forth between two locations perhaps?

Such specific proposals to rebuild public confidence in the EU alas are missing from Andrew Duff’s own concluding twelve point manifesto for “saving the European union”, which can best be summarised as the way to save the EU is for it to do more across a very broad range of areas. There is a huge gamble in that vision – as doing more may well simply further undermine public support for the EU and its institutions, particularly given the relatively paucity of measures to restore public trust in the dozen points.

Debates within the Liberal Democrats over European policy tend to be fairly bland and consensual, except when it comes to referendums. However, as Andrew Duff’s book indicates there is plenty to debate, even amongst committed pro-Europeans, about the best route forward.

You can buy Saving the European Union: The logic of the Lisbon Treaty from Amazon

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This entry was posted in Books and Europe / International.
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2 Comments

  • Therein lies a fundamental problem. The Legal system is not designed to reign in over the top regulation and directives as the ECJ reads them in proportion to “ever closer union”, unlike the US where the Supreme court is a jealous guardian of States rights.

    It is an artifical abstract construct with a Napeoleonic desire to centralise. Utterly illiberal at it’s core.

  • Putting Brown on the cover was probably not the wisest decision.

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