In the second half of last year, EU member states quietly set up a working group to discuss how to improve the functioning of the EU. This was not some ad-hoc campaign organisation or think-tank. Rather, it was an official series of meetings convened by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union — a role which rotates around all EU countries for six months at a time.
Around the table sat representatives of every EU country, and on their agenda was the important question of EU reform: what we might need and how to achieve it. It therefore included a first look at the issues that David Cameron says need to be addressed.
The document I have in front of me is the conclusions of these detailed discussions, which took place over six months. It makes for interesting reading, with lots of reform ideas being brought to the table and debated. But it’s most revealing when it’s read in the context of the supposedly “central themes” that David Cameron declared were his priorities for EU “reform” last month.
On the role of national parliaments
Here’s what Cameron claimed in January:
We need [national] parliaments to be able to combine to block regulations. I think that is very important.
This is supposed to be about beefing up the so-called ‘yellow card’ system. I argued in my earlier blog post that this is nothing more than a damp squib. And it seems that EU countries, including the UK, came to the very same conclusion in December:
It was agreed that the current Treaty mechanisms provide a satisfactory framework for national parliaments to contribute to the EU decision-making process. There was broad agreement that there is no need for additional tools, but greater contact and dialogue between the Commission and national parliaments would be useful and constructive.
In other words: more dialogue, yes; new procedures (let alone treaty change), no.
On cutting red tape and improving regulation
Sniping about supposed over-regulation is a constant theme of eurosceptics — despite the fact that EU rules (when they’re done right) are usually an exercise in cutting red tape, replacing 28 divergent national sets of rules with one common system for the common market.
Hence this sensible conclusion by national representatives including the UK:
There was broad agreement that a lot has been done in the last years in this regard and that progress should continue. Necessary mechanisms to avoid red tape are already in place (REFIT, roadmaps, impact assessments, etc) but there is scope for improving the use of these mechanisms. The group welcomed the focus of the new Commission on these issues.
In other words, consensus for making better use of existing mechanisms, not for creating new ones.
On conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality
Here’s what Cameron claimed in December:
We need to get out of ever-closer union. That is something that shouldn’t apply to the United Kingdom.
I’ve pointed out before that the treaty declaration on “ever-closer union”, read in full and in context, doesn’t mean what Cameron likes to pretend it means. It’s a declaratory preamble with no legal weight, and it’s anyway overshadowed by three legally binding treaty commitments: the principles of subsidiarity, conferral and proportionality.
(Quick primer: Conferral is the guarantee that the EU only has the powers that sovereign member states choose to give it. Subsidiarity is the guarantee that decisions are taken as close to the citizen as possible, and in particular that we only act at European level when we agree that local or national action wouldn’t work. Proportionality is the guarantee that we do no more at European level than we have to in each case.)
Bearing this in mind, here’s what the UK agreed with other EU countries in December:
Delegations concurred that the principles of conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality already rely on a satisfactory framework on provisions and measures. The necessary tools and legal instruments to verify the respect of these principles are already in place.
Again, not quite in line with Cameron’s rhetoric!
On the reform timetable
Cameron claims that his ideas for EU reform are a one-off and they must all happen in 2017 or before. This is patently silly, but of course it’s based on political motives: he’s desperate to placate his backbenchers and neutralise UKIP before the election.
In fact, reform is a process, not an event. The EU’s members (that’s us) are constantly re-evaluating and adapting to new shared challenges, and this particular working group (dubbed ‘Friends of the Presidency’ as it took place outside of the standard Council working groups) was an important part of this ongoing process. Hence their final conclusion:
The Friends of the Presidency Group on Improving the Functioning of the EU has proved to be a very useful exercise, that should be periodically repeated, for example at the beginning of each institutional cycle of the Union.
This is a genuine commitment from all national governments to keep questions of reform on the table, and to revisit them after each European election. Next time in 2019 — not 2017. There is no hint here of Cameron’s artificial timetable, which would appear to be scuppered — with the acquiescence of the UK!