Europe’s New Balance – necessary EU Reforms

Minister for Europe David Lidington spoke at the WDR Europe Forum in Berlin on 16 May.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Minister for Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests. It is a real privilege to be invited to speak at the WDR Europe Forum, and a pleasure to be back in Berlin.

Berlin has, of course, long been at the heart of Europe. But its face has changed a great deal in my lifetime. I was first here as a schoolboy in the 1970s, and my most vivid memories are of a city divided. I remember changing trains at Friedrichstrasse; the armed guards patrolling the cat walk below the station roof; the urban waste of no man’s land – barbed wire; minefields; the wall itself.

And I remember a few years later at Travemünde on the Baltic Coast. On the West, a beach crammed with holidaymakers enjoying the sunshine. On the East; a comparable beach. Deserted. And down the centre of the bay; just visible; a sinister line of buoys marking the border.

Contrast those memories with what we see today and it is difficult to overstate just how much has been achieved since 1989 – here in Berlin, in Germany and in Europe.

And as an historian by training I look back at the twenty years after the end of the First World War; a democratic Spring snuffed out by political extremism both red and black, and I contrast that experience with the twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Europe’s achievement - to put in place lasting democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law in parts of our continent where those values were crushed for most of the twentieth century - is truly remarkable.

But we cannot take that stability and prosperity for granted, as the current economic crisis has amply demonstrated. We must continue to renew and reinvigorate our democracies.

When I became Minister for Europe three years ago, I made a personal commitment to enhance our understanding of German interests and promote UK-German cooperation across the range of European business.

I have, together with my counterpart, Michael Link, launched a process of bilateral consultations between the German Committee of State Secretaries for European Affairs and the British Government’s European Affairs sub-Committee, which I chair. We have held three meetings in the last 18 months.

We have also seen a fourfold increase in the number of bilateral visits by British Ministers to Germany, including just last month by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

And for rather different reasons, I think we can expect a number of leading German politicians to make their way to London on 25 May.

This may not be the day on which ‘football is coming home’ for British clubs, but we are nevertheless looking forward to hosting the Champions’ League final at Wembley and to witnessing the skills of FC Bayern München and BVB Dortmund. We do hope that the absence of goal-line technology will not prompt a fifty year debate about the result.

I was very pleased to be invited to speak at this session on European reform. As you may have noticed we are having a vigorous discussion on this in the UK!

But this is not a British debate and nor are the necessary reforms for one Member State. Right across the continent the same questions are being asked.

Europe as a whole is facing a generational challenge; in part about addressing the Eurozone crisis but more fundamentally about responding to a crisis in our continent’s competitiveness as relative economic power shifts to the south and east.

David Cameron and Chancellor Merkel have been at the forefront of making this case; pushing for deepening of the single market, reducing the burden of regulation on our businesses and strengthening trade links with the rest of the world, including what would be a landmark deal with the US.

I want to talk today about another aspect of this crisis, a subject close to the hearts of both our nations: democracy in Europe.

At a time of great change, particularly for those in the Eurozone, trust in the EU is at a record low and public dissatisfaction at a record high. The EU is often seen as inefficient and out of touch with the real world. The ordinary European does not feel that his or her voice counts.

In his recent speech on Europe, David Cameron described the democratic consent for the EU in the United Kingdom as ‘wafer thin’.

But, again, this is not just a British phenomenon. Populist parties have emerged across Europe on a platform based on rejection of the EU and more-of-the-same politics.

Of course, politicians should lead public opinion and shape the debate.

And that’s exactly what David Cameron was doing in his speech on Europe in January. He argued that membership of the EU was in Britain’s interest. But that reform was needed, not only for British people to feel comfortable with that membership, but to enable all Europeans to feel that the EU is responsive to their needs and aspirations.

This afternoon I will consider the challenges that EU democracy faces. And I will argue that there is much we can learn from Germany in addressing them – on issues such as:

How powers are devolved to the local level. How links are fostered between the EU and national levels. And how your parliament holds Brussels to account.

The democratic deficit in the EU is not a new problem. It is as old as the EEC itself. But the current economic crisis has accelerated an underlying trend. The latest Eurobarometer polling data on public opinion provides clear evidence of a fundamental lack of support for the EU across almost all Member States.

Trust in the EU has never been so low. It has fallen from a pre-crisis high of just over half of those surveyed to just a third last autumn. New survey data from Pew, issued this week, confirms the downward trend in support for the EU.

And for the first time since Eurobarometer started their surveys in 1978, more respondents across the EU were dissatisfied with the way democracy works in the EU than were satisfied.

But, you might ask, why does this matter?

It matters because stable democracies rely on citizens accepting the rules as effective and legitimate, and feeling like they have a stake in how decisions are made.

It matters because people feel that decisions affecting their lives are taken faraway, by unaccountable individuals.

In some countries we have seen the rise of protest parties and social unrest.

In Germany, you have had a difficult (but necessary) debate – in the Bundestag, in the media and at the Constitutional Court in Karlsrühe – over how much liability to take on for Eurozone debts and how much control to exercise over how German taxpayers’ money is spent in other countries.

The UK and other ‘Euro-outs’ have wrestled with a different set of issues around ensuring equal access to the single market. But ins and outs share a concern over fairness and control of economic decision making – in other words getting the relationship right between the EU at 27 and the members of the single currency at 17.

Now, some people might argue that the loss of trust in the EU is a temporary blip and is linked to the current crisis.

My experience tells a different story. Economic recovery will not solve the democratic deficit.

Politicians and academics talk about principles – about subsidiarity and proportionality. Our citizens put this in more practical terms. People question why the footwear and jewellery worn by hairdressers should be regulated at the European level.

Why they cannot determine shop opening hours locally in accordance with local traditions and practices.

Why it is that the EU needs to ban branding on cigarette packets or set quotas for women on company boards.

And they question why their local hospital or fire service no longer offers 24-hour cover due to judgments on working time rules made far away by the European Court of Justice.

In short, public dissatisfaction is not solely a consequence of the economic crisis, though that has of course emphasised the trend, but results from a longer-term and much broader sense that decisions at European level are remote from both citizens themselves and their interests.

At home, if people dislike the way their country is being run, they can throw out the government at the next election. In the EU it is not so simple.

None of this is good for the European Union which our two nations have helped create, nor the European people. So what can we do to help our voters to connect more with the EU?

For some the answer to this puzzle is to strengthen the role of the European Parliament. I am not convinced.

Of course the European Parliament plays an important role, and its Members are often expert and committed to their work.

But it is clear to me that the peoples of Europe do not sufficiently identify with the European Parliament. Just six months before the 2009 European Parliament elections, for example, three-quarters of those surveyed did not know what year they were scheduled for.

And if we look more historically, previous attempts to address the democratic deficit during each revision of the EU treaties have focused on strengthening the European Parliament’s role. This has clearly not worked. Indeed turnout in European elections is at record lows across the Union, and falling faster than in national elections.

In many ways this should not surprise us. Democracies are not scientifically constructed, but are the product of culture, tradition and the individual circumstances that make up each of our countries. And if many Europeans feel that the EU is artificial and technocratic, then solutions which are themselves artificial and technocratic are unlikely to succeed.

I do not mean by this to suggest that we resign ourselves to failure. I am positive that we can and must address this problem. But it can only be done by working with the grain of what our citizens want and the institutions with which they identify.

I take as a starting point the fact that as David Cameron said in his Europe speech: “There is not a single European demos. It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.”

In the recent crisis, it is instructive that the public turned primarily to their national leaders for direction and leadership.

In Germany, only a football cup final or the Eurovision song contest could rival the attention which the German people paid to each Bundestag debate on the various rescue mechanisms.

So we should work and look for ways to strengthen the links between national democracies, their parliaments and the European Institutions.

We can do this in two ways: through strengthening the role of the European Council, and through closer involvement of national parliaments.

First, most people in Europe hold their Heads of State and Government accountable for delivering their interests at EU level. The European Council enjoys the unique advantage of being both a European Institution and the link back to national democracies.

We should be asking if there is more that Heads can do to set the direction of the Union and bring citizens’ wishes to the fore?

Without calling into question the Commission’s right of initiative, could Heads play a greater role in setting the direction of the Commission’s work programme?

Can we do more, perhaps by reinvigorating the role of the General Affairs Council, to ensure that commitments made by leaders are acted upon?

Second, in his speech, David Cameron spoke of the need to have a ‘bigger and more significant role for national parliaments’ in EU business’. Others, including a group of national parliaments convened by the Danes, are also looking at this issue.

One way to achieve this is through more effective parliamentary scrutiny arrangements. This is something we are looking at in the UK, and I know that we have much to learn from the close attention the Bundestag committees pay to EU business, including the involvement of German MEPs in their discussions.

But we can go further to ensure the legislature holds the executive to account on EU business in the same way it does for domestic business.

There are also things we can do at EU level to ensure greater respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. National parliaments have a key role to play here.

In Germany you have a strong attachment to these principles. Doing things at the right level and applying just the right amount of intervention to accomplish the task.

And in your federalism reforms, you showed it is possible to move competences in both directions. To the level that made the most sense as circumstances changed.

These are principles that our Government also holds dear and it is a central tenet of our domestic agenda that services should be delivered, and decisions taken, at the lowest level possible.

There are already powers in the EU Treaties to uphold the principle of subsidiarity. The ‘yellow card’ mechanism gives national parliaments the power to require the Commission to look again at a proposal if a third of their number objects within an eight week period. But this power has been used only once since its introduction in 2009.

Our parliaments are already looking at ways to improve co-ordination to enable them to make more effective use of the ‘yellow card’, and they have my full support.

Small changes – like more systematic identification of Commission proposals which raise subsidiarity concerns – would help parliaments meet the Treaty deadlines.

And we could help to facilitate this – for example, by loaning some staff to the inter-parliamentary co-ordinating body, and by providing parliaments with early warning of challenging proposals.

We should also support our Parliaments if they want to go further.

And there are other more ambitious ideas we could consider. I will give three examples.

First, we could establish the practice that national parliaments can summon a European Commissioner to explain a proposal if they demand it.

Second, we could make it easier for national parliaments to challenge new EU legislation on subsidiarity and proportionality grounds. For instance by extending the scope of the yellow card to include proportionality, lowering the thresholds and giving parliaments more time.

And thirdly, we could look again at proposals to give national parliaments powers to force the Commission to withdraw a proposal (the so-called ‘red card’).

Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests.

The European Union faces a crisis. Not an economic crisis – although that threat remains very real – but a crisis of democracy.

For the first time, more people are dissatisfied than satisfied with democracy in the EU.

People see the EU as something that is done to them, not by them or for them - with the result that democratic consent for the EU, not just in Britain, but in other parts of Europe too, is perilously thin.

Such a serious threat demands an innovative response, not simply more of the same, which will do little to bridge the gap to the public.

This is why in his Europe speech, David Cameron called for fundamental EU reform.

To bring the EU closer to its citizens. To reconnect Brussels to their lives, their interests, and their aspirations. To recognise that it is national parliaments that are the true source of democratic legitimacy in the EU.

This would be a better deal for Britain, but a better deal for Europe too. Ignoring the growing concerns of people from across the EU about the democratic deficit is unsustainable. Failing to act, irresponsible.

And on the basis of this reformed EU, David Cameron has set out his commitment to put the choice to and secure the fresh support of the British people in a referendum.

And, just as with football, it seems that there is much that Germany can teach the rest of Europe.

Your federal system encourages the clear demarcation of powers between the centre and the local level. Something my own Government has sought to implement in the UK by decentralising and devolving power to the local level.

And we could learn from how the Bundestag defends the interests of the German people in Brussels.

And to return to the football analogy. The EU itself would perhaps benefit from one of the main tools in a referee’s toolkit – more effective use of yellow and red cards – to reflect the will of national parliaments and the people they represent.

That said, with next Saturday’s big game in mind, I hope this is the last we will hear of red cards until after the final whistle at Wembley!

Published 16 May 2013