Opinion: Britain and the EU-Liberal Democrats need to help reduce the democratic deficit

Following the launch of the Balance of Competences review of EU powers last week, the next major debate within the coalition looks set to be over Britain’s relationship with Europe. Nick Clegg has emphasised that the review should not be used as a way to exploit the eurozone crisis and carve out a special EU deal forBritain. However, many Tory eurosceptics will no doubt view it as a platform to push for a significant repatriation of powers, in the run-up to an eventual referendum on EU membership.

Membership of the EU has clearly become a major issue for the public, especially the perception that British business is being held back by burdensome EU red-tape. Many people wish to maintain free-trade with the EU but to opt out from many of its regulations. Tellingly, in a recent YouGov poll 48% of respondents said they would vote to leave the EU in a referendum, but this dropped to 34% if theUK’s relationship with the EU was renegotiated to ‘protect British interests.’

In truth, this position is simply untenable in today’s world. Free trade is no longer just about lowering tariffs; it is about achieving common product standards, upholding environmental and consumer protection, and ensuring that government interventions do not distort competition, all of which require an independent regulatory body. The idea that theUK could somehow maintain its free-trading relationship with the EU while opting out of many of its rules is a convenient myth, other members would simply ask why we should be entitled to so many unfair exemptions.

Meanwhile, if we chose to leave the EU the best we could hope for is a situation like Norway’s, accepting European regulations whilst having no say in how they are formed – or else we would just have to forego the massive economic benefits of European free trade. Our voice on the world stage would also be significantly diminished, making it harder to negotiate favourable trade deals with the world’s major emerging economies such as the upcoming EU-India free-trade agreement.

Of course, there are some areas where the EU has overstepped its mark and where the principle of subsidiarity must be reasserted. The Liberal Democrats have already helped to negotiate significant EU-wide reforms to devolve powers in fisheries policy, and to cut unnecessary red-tape on small businesses. Significantly though, such successes are best achieved by working together with our European partners, not by constantly trying to push for preferential treatment, which just leads to resentment and our being excluded from negotiations.

Ed Davey recently suggested that the Liberal Democrats should press for greater cooperation with the EU on tackling climate change and trans-national organised crime. However, there is another issue we can make progress on – the EU’s democratic deficit. A lot of the vitriol aimed at EU leaders stems from the fact that they are unelected and therefore seen as unaccountable to the public.

One improvement would be for each European political party to propose a candidate for Commission President in the run up to the European Parliamentary elections, as the Socialists and Democrats have already stated they will do in 2014. Each candidate would outline a manifesto and state clearly what they stand for, creating political debate and competition, and giving voters a real electoral choice over the direction of European policy. Furthermore, if the proposed idea of merging the Council and Commission Presidents into one ‘double-hatted’ role goes ahead, one single elected figure could help give the EU a more coherent leadership, as well as a more unified presence on the world stage.

The Liberal Democrats should therefore work with ALDE to nominate a candidate for Commission President in 2014, and campaign more on an EU-wide manifesto. While it is not inBritain’s interest to push for a fully renegotiated relationship with the EU, we can at least try to make its institutions more democratic, and hence more legitimate in the eyes of the electorate.

* Paul Haydon has recently completed an MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.

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  • Mike Hanlon 17th Jul '12 - 4:51pm

    Paul, interesting piece. However, many countries have a free trade deal with the EU. Even Mexico. See http://ec.europa.eu/trade/creating-opportunities/bilateral-relations/countries/mexico/. Why is it a “convenient myth” that this is beyond our capability, should Britain wish to go down that route?

    As you say, exports would have to meet the EU’s product rules and we would no longer have a say over those, just as we don’t over the USA’s, with whom we manage to trade just as successfully. But there are of course upsides, not least redirecting billions in annual EU contributions to public services (£5.8bn this year alone) and EU rules not burdoning the vast majority of the economy that is not involved in exports. We can also continue to co-operate with the EU where it is in our interests to do so. My view is that this would be a better arrangement.

    You mention Norway, but have you looked at the Swiss option? Also I think our historical links might be rather more favourable to negotiating trade deals with India than having to go via the EU. With our being a relatively small island, it’s easy to forget that Britain is something like the 6th largest economy in the world. That speaks for itself when it comes to trade.

    On the democratic question, I would suggest that the existence of a European demos needs to come before positions, titles and institutions, if we are ever to have truly democratic decision-making at European level. Or the legitimacy will only be a veneer. At the moment, the EU’s development has been pushed way ahead of this by the political elite and that is not an acceptable balance.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 5:13pm

    It seems to me unlikely that Britain will remain the 6th largest economy for long. In 50 years I see global living standards converging so that wealth and trade rankings will come to look more like population rankings. This in itself will push the UK down the size rankings, making us more dependent on others’ decisions.

    I also see world trade primarily between several free-trade areas with large populations, and a few smaller “independent” but relatively powerless nations whose economices will either be isolated or else in effect controlled by the decisions on standards and finance made in the larger areas.

  • Alex Macfie 17th Jul '12 - 5:52pm

    I absolutely agree that the Lib Dems/ALDE should run on an EU-wide manifesto, with an ALDE candidate for Commission President, in 2014; MEPs tend to vote along party and ideological lines, so it makes sense for each party group to fight European Parliamentary elections on its own common legislative agenda. It would help break the tendency for European Parliamentary elections to be used as a mid-term assessment of the national government’s performance, and focus them on those issues that are actually discussed in the European Parliament. I think the lack of a European demos is partly due to the lack of coordinated campaigning by EU party groups. It is also due to the UK media conspiracy of silence over EU affairs, but this could also be broken down by the sight of parties campaigning on
    *European* manifestos.

    One thing that tends to be forgotten is how much power the European Parliament actually has (due to the Lisbon treaty). It can tell the “political elite” to s*d off, and did so earlier this month on ACTA, which had been negotiated in secret by the European Commission and waved through by EU national governments.

    Any renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership is of course a separate issue officially from European election campaigning. Unfortunately there is every chance that the 2014 EP election will focus on this, even though MEPs have little if any power over it. If our European Parliamentary candidates are asked questions about UK membership, referendums and the like, they should always preface any answer with a statement that it is not part of the competency of the legislature for whcih they are seeking election.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 6:29pm

    Nice to hear that British planners still read runes, tea leaves, stars, tarot cards, consult mystics, crystal balls, …. a great way forward!

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 6:50pm

    Would that be

    1. the HSBC that is being investigated for money laundering?
    2. The Carenegie Institute whose mission is to promote the US of A?
    3. The Citigroup that is next in line after HSBC and Bob Diamond?
    4. The Arbuthnot group that is so important that it doesn’t have a website?

  • @Richard Dean
    “4. The Arbuthnot group that is so important that it doesn’t have a website?”

    3 seconds on google:

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 7:13pm

    Thank you Chris_sh. Google beats Bing. So that would actually be

    4. The Arbuthnot BANKING Group, the “inclusive private bank that offers a carefully crafted expert private banking and … wealth planning and discretionary investment management service. Clients receive a bespoke service … by your Private Banker”

    Bob Diamond’s next employer, perhaps?

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 8:29pm

    We should perhaps be aware that bankers have agendas that are not necesarily everyone else’s, and that their agendas can cause them to distort their findings and recommendations in ways that others might characterize as “lies”.

    As indeed is being revealed through the Treasury Select Committee. Today Paul Tucker did not challenge the idea that “deliberate misrepresentation” by a bank may sometimes be code for “dishonesty” by bank staff.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 9:07pm

    The idea that “redirecting billions in annual EU contributions …. (£5.8bn this year alone)” is an upside is not unchallengeable, and the idea that “EU rules … burden … the vast majority of the economy that is not involved in exports” is also open to question.

    What are those billions actually doing? One of the things they may be doing is helping our export markets to grow. If so, re-directing them may actually cause us long-term damage.

    What do those EU rules really do? One of things they may do is make industry safer for workers and more reliable for customers. If so, dropping them may decrease our quality of life by injuring more workers and making us tolerate bad products and services, which also further damages our export prospects.

    A lot of the vitriol aimed at EU leaders does seem to stem from the democratic deficit, and it also seem to be fanned by politicians and businesspeople misdirecting blame away from themselves. Banks, of course, will just go with the flow.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 10:23pm

    The British electorate is being misinformed, misused, and misrepresented by the British politicians, media, and commentators. We should all campaign to correct this, and to free the people to see their best way forward.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jul '12 - 11:08pm

    People who have been fooled completely often cannot see that, yes. They “don’t have much truck”. That is why we need to campaign hard to free people’s minds so that they can understand.

    One of the interesting symptoms is that almost everyone who objects to Europe does so on the grounds that someone else objects to Europe! Hardly ever do they say why they themselves object. Usually it is the British people who are said to object. Or else some supposed “authority” that is cited, such as a bank whose agenda is not mentioned or even visible. Very rarely does anyone put forward anything like their own argument, rational or otherwise.

    We are presently contracted to join the Euro when our economy has satisfied some convergence criteria. I suggest we bring this forward, and announce now that we will alter things fast and join within a year. This will save the Euro, since it will mean that if the London financial markets cause the Euro to crash, we will crash too, which means they will. As long as we keep our nerve and call any bluff, everything will be fine.

    As well as safeguarding our economic futures for decades to come, we will reap the rewards of respect and gratitude that will lead to increased acceptability of our export products, as well as central particpation in democratic European decision making. And we will have taught the banks a useful lesson.

  • Richard Dean 18th Jul '12 - 11:32am

    @JediBeeftrix. You have constructed a peculiar illogic which starts with the idea that you want to end with, that Euopean peoples are naturally diverse and antagonistic. In fact, British and European history of the last thousand years demonstrates your error.

    In that history, some form of unification has been a core aim of almost every European country. William the Conqueror saw that unifying Britain with Normandy would be beneficial to both, and it was. What was the Hundred Years War about, if not unification? Why does the English langiage contain so many “foeign” words? For a thousand years we have wars to unify, essentially until the Second World War that led to the recognition that doing it by conquest was the wrong way. It is telling that very very soon after that, the UK and all of the victors promoted the idea of peaceful unificatiion, excemplified in the Europen Charter of Human Rights which the UK pushed for and signed as soon as it could.

    So our shared European culture has always been about unification, and about developing the trust that is needed to work as one. It is only the intellectual failings of historians that have led to people being indoctrinated with the recent idea of irreconcilable difference. Perhaps this came about as the other, faulty conclusion of what the Second World War had meant. As a party our duty is to fight against this ignorance, and fight to achieve what our ancestors and parents have strived for for so long.

  • Leekliberal 18th Jul '12 - 6:29pm

    Another sort of ‘Democratic Deficit’ is the failure of the EU to have it’s accounts accounts passed by it’s auditors for many years. I am strongly pro -EU but I find the relaxed attitude of EU towards this situation impossible to defend.

  • Richard Dean 18th Jul '12 - 7:13pm

    I’m told that some UK government departments have similar problems with accounts! But that it doesn’t necessarily indicate fraud. The perceprion of a democratic deficit seems enhanced by so few UK MEPs telling the British public what is happening, why it matters, and how it is decided. The one that does appear on our TV screens often seems to be presenting something of a distorted picture!

  • Alex Macfie 18th Jul '12 - 8:17pm

    @Leekliberal: What on earth makes you think you should have to defend EU accounting practice just because you are pro-EU?!!? I woul d hope that we would condemn ANY bad accounting practice, wherever it arose. You seem to have bought into the Eurosceptic propaganda that one has to either uncritically support everything the EU does, or oppose the whole concept of the EU. Just s/EU/UK/ in your sentence, and see if you think it would make sense.

  • Richard Dean 19th Jul '12 - 11:27am

    Once upon a time, while on a sailing holiday in the Mediterranean, a beautiful young German princess fell in love with a handsome young Greek boat captain, and they decided to settle down and have a family. They chose a really cosmpolitan place where there were lots of houses that had been built a long time ago by French and Italian aristocrats. The local postmistress hailed from the Bavarian Alps, Lower Saxony to be precise, and the place seemed filled with angels, at least according to Wkipedia. The Russian mayor was actually a Swedish refugee whose Irish mother had married a Kenyan tribal chief and fathered a second son who has gone to America. All the cooks were Spanish. Everyone thought that only a palace would be suitable for a prince and princess, so they called the place Buckingham, and the rest in history. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxons

  • @Richard Dean
    Gosh, what an excellent story, showing a country that can live in harmony not only with it’s near neighbours, but also with nations from across the world.
    Just to think, most of this was happening over such a long period of time prior to the 1970s, so why does that country need the EU then to do something that it was obviously already good at, perhaps they should just leave and carry on with their global interaction rather than be stifled in such a small area of the world? 😀

  • Richard Dean 19th Jul '12 - 3:17pm

    One day, my dearly beloved sons and daughters, I shall tell you of the time of Great Convergence, when mystic giants with a thousand eyes walked the Earth, and all of the World’s Economies, from the small ones with pointed noses to the vast ones with vacant stares, flew into a huge commotion chanting

    Debt and Deficit
    Debt and Deficit
    We gotta fix the
    Debt and Deficit

    There then appeared, out of the rising steam, the Marching LibDems, all sorts of the most wonderful people, from the gaily attired to the severe, from the bearded to the nude, led by two Great Wise Owls, Cleggie and CableDumpkin, and everyone with their heads held high and singing pied-piper-like an enchanting melodious message

    Euro Euro Euro
    Euro it makes sense!

    The socialists began a Humungus Groan, the likes of which had never been heard before, but it soon revealed itslef to be Inconsistency and Internal Strife, and disintegrated into Laughable Confusion. The Blue People sighed as they melted, butter-like in the heat, the Green People celebrated the return of Oxygen, and the 27 stars of Europe danced in Ecstasy as the Dawn broke through and Growth rose up from his Hole and initiatied the New Age of Wonderful Prosperity!

  • Richard Dean 20th Jul '12 - 6:01pm

    Ah, a warmonger! 🙂 The military mind at work, not at all the same as the civilian one. Apologies if my plonker remark fell short of clear political insight. But I do wonder what’s going on when someone needs to make fun of a small nation like Belgium, when there is so much to gain from a sensible and constructive approach to joining the Euro.

    And so much to gain by joining! The UK will soon be small economy compared to many others. If there is a floating pond/euro exhange rate, 40% of our exporters will face exchange risk costs that they would not otherwise pay, and our entire economy will be open to manipulation and attack by pound/euro speculators. This will also be true for pound/dollar exchange, but the euro/dollar rate involves larger currency blocks and so would seem to be less prone to these dangers. By joining the euro we will reduce export costs and speculator risk.

    I am reading an Economist publication that describes how the Euro was a bastion of stability in the 2008 and early 2009 financial crisis. I suppose the subsequent revelations show that the internal controls were far too lax. But once these issues are satisfactorily addressed the Euro will be stronger than ever. I agree that the EU need to better address the democratic deficit and the role of competitive national interests within a coopertive framework, but that’s no reason to stay out. We need to be in there if we are to reap the benefits.

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