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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A popular Europe, or a politician's Europe?

Open Europe organised an event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week, entitled "What priorities for a Conservative government in Europe?" You can read a summary of the event here or, for the really keen, listen to a recording.

A couple of days later, on Friday last week, the Centre for European Reform organised a conference entitled, "What future for the EU?" Keynote speeches came from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and Giuliano Amato, the former Italian Prime Minister and Vice President of the Convention on the future of Europe (which drew up the EU Constitution).

The various speakers largely addressed their comments based on the (increasingly likely) scenario that the Lisbon Treaty is done and dusted, and likely to be in force before long.

In particular, there was a great deal of discussion about what shape the new Lisbon Treaty institutions of Foreign Minister and permanent President might look like - perhaps worth summarising here.

The conference reinforced the fact that there are two different visions of what the permanent President should actually look like. One of those is the consensus builder, devoting their time to creating harmony within the European Council and speeding up progress toward ever-closer union, and the other being a figure for the global stage, a big name to represent the EU externally. No prizes for guessing which category a Tony Blair presidency would come under.

Giuliano Amato favoured an EU President more in line with the first description, saying that when they (delegates at the Convention on the Future of Europe) were drawing up the Treaty, "we thought of the President of the Council not as a world leader, but as a consensus builder in the Council", later adding "We did not want a European Obama."

Lord Kerr, a member of the House of Lords' EU Select Committee and a former diplomat and Ambassador, agreed , saying that for the President, "the first task is cohesion and coherence", rather than external representation.

However, the Economist's Europe Editor John Peet said that whatever the language of the Treaty, the rest of the world would look to the President as a "symbol and spokesman of the EU," adding: "this choice is going to say something about how seriously the EU sees itself as a world power".

Lord Kerr said, "I think the European Council next week should do nothing about the President, because they don't have a Treaty base", but added that a new EU High Representative for Foreign Policy (currently Javier Solana), should be appointed immediately, taking on the EU Foreign Minister role as soon as the Treaty comes into force.

It was argued that they could get around the pesky provisions in the Nice Treaty to reduce the size of the Commission by telling whichever country takes the Foreign Minister job they would be without a Commissioner until a new one was formed under Lisbon.

Lord Kerr summed up the mood in the room, saying, "most people here reflect the general European boredom with institutional fatigue."

However, David Heathcoat-Amory, MP for Wells, and also a former member of the European Convention which drew up the Lisbon Treaty, pointed out that "the public don't want to move on from institutional questions", because they still want to be consulted about the Treaty, on which they were promised a referendum. He said that despite this, "the EU will try to leave these institutional questions behind... I think they will rely on the self-amending parts of the Treaty, such as the passarelle clause, so you won't have to ask the people again [in a referendum]".

Indeed David was the only speaker at the conference who recognised that there is still a strong public appetite for some kind of overdue consultation on the Treaty, saying "we're trying to make a popular Europe, not a politician's Europe".

Well said.


Insideur said...

I'm curious to know how it is that Open Europe, as a business-sponsored think tank, sees its role as a champion of a "popular Europe" instead of a politicians' Europe.

It occurs to me that politicians, elected by the people, are considerably more "popular" than business.

Open Europe blog team said...

Insideur, we have the support of tens of thousands of people who share our views that the EU needs to be made more democratic and less centralised. As just one example, check out the campaign we ran for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty - www.iwantareferendum.com which attracted more than 40,000 signatures in the first week of its creation. We have consistently stood up for more direct democracy in the EU - in sharp contrast with many of the people in EU office.

In any case, the most important politicians running the show in Brussels are not elected - e.g. the Commission. Unless you are trying to suggest that these are not politicians - if so, then why do they behave like politicians, rather than civil servants?

And we don't think even you will pretend that the turnout in the last European elections is a ringing endorsement of those EU politicians who are elected.

Insideur said...

I count myself squarely among those who ant to see the EU become more democratic and less centralised. But I am disturbed by your assertion that "you have the support" of such people. The fact that I agree with you does not mean I support you.

My point, which you have illustrated quite well with your response, is that you seem to believe that a business-sponsored lobby group speaks for the people and is democratically more legitimate than elected politicians. I am really disappointed with the way OE has campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty in particular. And by this I do not mean the fact that you campaigned against it, but rather the tabloid tactics you have deployed. I had high hopes for you as an effective and serious eurosceptic voice, but am concerned that you are becoming just another shrill, hyperbolic, and hysterical voice that will be all the easier to ignore.

You are of course correct that Commissioners are not elected. But MEPs and national politicians in the Council are, and between them they put the power of the Commission firmly in the shade.

On the issue of turnout at the European elections, I encourage you to read my post on the subject, which I believe will answer your question about my views: http://brusselscomment.blogspot.com/2009/07/turnout.html