A brief one this week, but just a linguistic observation.

David Cameron talks about ‘using the veto‘ a lot these days (and it will be said a lot more in the days to come). However, it’s never clear what this ‘veto’ is.

Think back to last Christmas and the Fiscal Compact negotiations, where Cameron ‘used the veto’, in the sense of refusing to agree to a treaty amendment: this didn’t stop anything, just pushed it to one side and confirmed people’s suspicions about the UK.

Likewise, the Financial Framework negotiations require unanimity, so a ‘veto’ is a block. However, the result of any impasse is the continuation of the existing budget, which would not meet British demands. So again, no win.

In practice, a ‘veto’ is neither a nuclear bomb, that stops everything, nor a constructive contribution. It’s an obstacle and if any organisation has learnt how to deal with obstacles, then it’s the EU, which has working through more crises than most.

Quite when British politicians will learn that you get your voice heard and acted upon in the Union by working constructively and with the flow – a lesson that British bureaucrats learnt a long time ago – I don’t know. But this week doesn’t make me too confident about it happening soon.

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William Hague gave a rare speech on the EU this week. Entitled “Europe at a crossroads: what kind of Europe do we want?”, he sought to map out some of the major challenges the EU faces, having sung the praises of the Single Market.

These he listed as: differentiated integration; democratic legitimacy; and division of competences. Obviously, these overlap and are in turn mediated through particular projects. Hague’s representation of the British stance on the Eurozone crisis highlighted the very difficult position of being an interested by-stander: “Clearly the Eurozone’s current structures are not working. We respect the democratic decision of the countries of the Eurozone to preserve it.  That will require changes. We know the options. It is not for Britain to tell you what the exact remedy should be.” It’s akin to the old Harry Enfield sketch of the “only me!” man: he might be right to point out problems, but it’s not the best way to build lasting relationships.

Hague noted deep public disillusionment with the EU and feeling that it was a one-way ratchet of centralisation: “If we cannot show that decision-making can flow back to national parliaments then the system will become democratically unsustainable.” This was all seized on by some media as a veiled threat to the EU of withdrawal, but that is a hopeful, rather than an accurate reading. Certainly, it seems somewhat willful on Hague’s part, given the Lisbon provisions on national parliaments.

My perspective is that this was a speech about laying down markers, without constraining action. Hague mentioned Single Market reform, the budget negotiations, the JHA opt-out (presented here as “re-balancing”), all to make the point that these areas can be conceptualised in a more pro-EU way, as helping the Union to resolve those basic challenges.  Even the Review of Competences was presented as a means to improving European governance, rather than a prelude to renegotiation or withdrawal.

More notably, the speech didn’t set out a major new agenda or policy: it was a placeholder. The “embracing of diversity” that ran through the speech has been a staple of Foreign Secretaries’ contributions for decades now. Instead, it highlights the primacy of internal Conservative party politics in guiding debate. Just as the ECHR ruling on votes for prisoners is showing, any constructive engagement is shouted down by backbenchers, while the Cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi.

It’s hard to see how this can change within the current parliament: sadly, the rest of the EU might not be on the same schedule.

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A member of your country’s senior government resigned this week, amid charges of improper lobbying: you probably read about it. Or maybe you didn’t, because that individual was John Dalli, European Commissioner for Food.

Indeed, if you didn’t live in the Brussels bubble, or follow the right people on Twitter, it’s highly unlikely you’d have seen headlines like the one here anywhere apart from Malta.

 

At one level, we might not be surprised. Dalli was from a small member state, didn’t hold a senior portfolio, nor was particularly thrusting in trying to get media coverage. However, that would still seem to miss the point.

Dalli, like all his colleagues in the Commission, worked for the entire Union, with responsibilities for food labelling, consumer affairs and other matters that touch on all our lives. OK, the issue that brought him down – snus – wasn’t of any great interest to British citizens, but the principle certainly was.

Moreover, the manner of his resignation is also noteworthy. It was apparently requested by Commission President Barroso in the wake of an OLAF investigation. This cementing of the President’s power marks an important step forward, as does the meaningfulness and impact of OLAF as an organ of good governance, after many years of strife.

All of these things do and should matter to Europeans, and make the lack of media interest all the more disturbing. Indeed, it was remarkable how both pro- and anti-Europeans were able to agree that the situation was unsatisfactory this week: the former because the integrity of the system which it demonstrated, the latter because of the venality.

As I have discussed before, without media engagement, we will find it very difficult to reach lasting solutions to the Union’s current crisis: this week doesn’t give much hope.

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I’ve just contributed to LSE’s EUROPP blog on the way David Cameron has managed his party over the EU. Here’s the intro:

Much as it did for his predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s, the “Europe Problem” has caused headaches for UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. While some have commented that Cameron has been more flexible on these issues than some of his predecessors, Simon Usherwood disagrees. He argues that David Cameron, just like John Major before him, has been unwilling to address the fundamental sources of the Conservative Party’s split over Europe.

Full text here.

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In recent weeks I’ve been working on a new edition of  ‘The European Union: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, all good bookshops, etc…), since one of two things have happened since the 2007 edition came out.

The exercise has been a good one for me, asking me to step back from the more parochial concerns of my various research interests and consider the bigger picture of European integration.

Indeed, it has forced me to ask how I understand and frame the current situation, which looks decidedly poor. An economic and financial crisis that has run almost uninterrupted since the previous edition came out; the constitutionalisation project laid out at Laekendashed on the reefs of public opinion and elite non-engagement; a stalling of the EU’s role as a global leader in environmental protection and trade liberalisation; even a questioning of fundamental aspects of the EU, such as free movement. All of these can be taken as emblematic of the Union’s downfall and collapse. Certainly, to read of the constant disagreements about such key actions as supporting failing Eurozone economies and to witness civil unrest on the streets of more than one capital city makes it hard to be optimistic.

And yet, I have found myself being just that. The basic logic of integration, of working together to find common solutions to common problems, and of providing mutual support in a globalising world, still holds true.

This is not to say it’s pretty or cost-free, but rather that the underlying necessity remains and ultimately I have confidence that this will work its way through. I recall that the Union has had a history littered with failures: the European Defence Community; the Empty-Chair crisis; British renegotiation of the treaty and then the budget; ERM’s collapse; the Constitutional Treaty (indeed, all treaties since Maastricht). This should suggest that there is a capacity to find solutions in the longer-term, even if it has made some rather blase about stumbling into a new crisis.

One could argue that ‘this time it’s different’, given the scale and scope of the problems and of the potential solutions and one would have to concede this to some extent: even what has been agreed so far, from the SixPack to the EFSF and ESM (opening its doors this week) to the Fiscal Compact – all will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of millions, both inside and outside the Eurozone. But this should not mean that no solution is possible. If we look around, we might find a number of more positive signs.

Firstly, we see an emerging debate about strengthen economic and fiscal union, which has the potential to resolve some of the fundamental challenges posed to the Eurozone. Secondly, we see that solidarity between member states does remain: Merkel’s visit to Athens was intended to support, not undermine, the Greek government (albeit with limited success). Thirdly, we see how David Cameron has evaded a definitive commitment to a British referendum, suggesting an understanding of the potentially very deep costs that could incur.

So as I have turned to the book’s conclusions, I have largely retained their positive tone, for I do genuinely feel both that solutions are possible and that those solutions will involve an European Union that continues to play a significant role in our lives.

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So, it appears that Mitt Romney isn’t a robot after all. Who’d have thought it? Engaging, lively, still a little sneer-prone and not all that likeable, the Mittster took the fight to an oddly quiet Obama. Looking tired, POTUS remained resolutely within himself, declining easy pitches he could have smashed out of the park with sure-fire home run answers that have served his ad campaigns so well. Some reports suggest the dampened performance was deliberate and grounded in the cold hard reality of polling data. Others have suggested a tired president simply mirrors a tired presidency. Pundits can’t even agree on whether or not any of this matters, although a humorous media scramble is evident in the rush to suggest that debates are rarely decisive given Romney won this but is likely to lose on November 6th.

Continue reading »

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One of the wonderful things about getting older is that you start to see how things come around again. As a ‘fresh-faced’ (not really) postgrad, I watched as the main British parties found themselves promising a referendum on membership of the single currency. Today (even less fresh-faced), I’m watching them do something similar on EU membership more generally.

In both cases the dynamics are the same. Pressure builds for a vote, either from internal factions (Tory backbenchers now) or external groups (Referendum party, UKIP), leading one party to make the offer of a vote, to try and out-manoeuver the others, leading to the others making the same offer, to close down the issue and the influence of the initial pressure. End result – a general commitment to a vote, but with no actual desire for a debate.

This strikes me as particularly counter-productive. I can agree with many sceptics who say that there has not been a proper debate about membership, either in the run-up to the 1973 accession, or in the 1975 referendum campaign, or since. Largely, that has been because no one (in power) felt it was particularly necessary, initially because it was seen as a technical exercise, later because it would just expose the tensions within all major political parties on the issue. More recently, the lack of public interest in the issue has meant that there’s not even a clear gain to be made by having the discussion, so relatively small numbers of activists hold disproportionate amounts of influence.

Consider 2004, when Blair changing policy and offered a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. No one really believed him at the time when he said it was a wonderful opportunity to ‘make the generational debate’, and nothing since supports that view either: it was a product of Tory policy, decisions in other member states and a need to kill the issue in the run-up to the EP elections that year. In brief, people didn’t come into it.

A referendum appears to be a good idea, because it makes a decision. Supporters of a vote can appeal to democratic values in support, which trumps  the more prosaic matters of economy or political strategy. A referendum also suggests a debate on merits and costs.

but to my mind, a referendum is not a solution, but rather a means to one. How can we reasonably boil down all of the many discussions we have had, and are could have, about the EU into a simple ‘yes/no’ question? Anything other than an ‘in/out’ question will just be treated as if it were that question, and that question doesn’t tell us what we do with either outcome (e.g. ‘yes, but this sort of Union’, ‘no, but we’d like to have access to markets’, etc.).  The only other sort of question that could be asked would be to give the government of the day a mandate to renegotiate membership (the 1975 process in reverse), but then we’d have to have another vote to decide on the outcome.

Moreover, and more consequentially, a referendum will not produce a lasting debate. 1975 didn’t do that. Nor did the commitments to euro membership or the Constitutional Treaty.

If we want to work out what we want, in an informed and considered way, then we have to talk about it in a more structured and structural way. That means politicians expressing their views, debating with each other and with other actors. It means civil society groups engaging with policy-makers and -implementers. It means a programme of meaningful education about what the EU is and does, based on even-handed materials. It means a media that will devote time and space to this.

That’s a big programme of action and one that we cannot achieve very easily. However, this shouldn’t stop us trying. Otherwise, we risk locking ourselves into a process that produces outcomes that no one really wants.

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