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European reform is already happening

The article below first appeared today in The Guardian and is reproduced with permission.

It’s rare to find a politician in Europe who can talk about the EU without mentioning the R-word. Reform is the apple pie of European politics: every politician wants a slice.

This is fair enough. Nobody would seriously argue that the EU doesn’t need to evolve. But the point that our own prime minister seems not to appreciate is that changes are already happening. Indeed, they have always been happening.

To stay with the culinary metaphor, reform has been starter, main course and dessert at ministerial meetings and in European parliamentary debates since the very earliest days of political cooperation on our continent. Reform is an ongoing process, not a one-off event. The question now, as ever, is simply what’s next on the agenda.

And that agenda is pretty busy at the moment. We’re undertaking a massive, often controversial review and simplification of European legislation. We’ve just implemented a fundamental reform of the common fisheries policy that even Greenpeace has hailed as “the solution to many of the struggles facing local fishermen”. We’re investing heavily in cross-border competitiveness, deepening the single market, and updating our environmental protection rules. We’re improving transparency, rewriting the rulebook about how European laws are made, and hardwiring impact assessments into the legislative process. And we’re focusing our efforts on areas where acting together at a European level rather than a national level will save money, or improve effectiveness, or both.

We’re doing all these things because we, the countries of Europe assembled at the negotiating table, have agreed that we need to do them. Despite David Cameron’s frequent protestations, Europe is not some distant power to whom national governments plead for concessions, at whom plucky British prime ministers must brandish their handbags or “refuse to take no for an answer”. Europe is simply the place where we meet with our neighbours, friends and allies to hammer out common solutions to common problems. In short, Europe is us.

Of course, Cameron has his own reasons for wanting to paint himself as a lonely crusader for change in the EU. His fragile parliamentary majority includes an increasingly vocal core of hard-right Tory MPs who hate Europe far more than he will ever care about it, and who are desperate to force Britain’s withdrawal from the club. Their strategy is to make reform demands that they know are undesirable or impossible or both, so they can claim the whole thing is unreformable. They will be tough for Cameron to face down, especially without a conveniently pro-European coalition partner to blame. But face them down he must, if he is to make progress.

On the other hand, there’s also the temptation to invent or greatly exaggerate “problems” that everyone can then agree to “solve” without much fuss, and then claim victory back home. The real value of such cosmetic changes is obviously next to nothing, but we already know Cameron is attracted to them as a way to appease the sceptics.

For instance, he’s floated the idea of allowing national parliaments to block proposed new laws if they’re judged to violate the principle of subsidiarity (the rule that guarantees we only act at a European level in areas where local or national action would be inadequate). The parliamentary “red card” sounds great in principle, but in practice there’s simply no issue here, for two reasons.

First, a minority of countries can already block any proposal when they meet in the Council of Ministers, which is far easier (and happens all the time). Second, the question of subsidiarity hardly ever arises these days anyway, since nearly all EU decision-making is simply updating or repealing existing rules, not expanding into new areas. If Cameron wanted proof of this, he need only consider the fact that an existing “orange card” procedure for national parliaments has never once been triggered.

If Cameron does manage to steer a narrow course between impossibilist demands and cosmetic appeasement, he may yet find himself able to play a constructive role – perhaps even a leading role – belatedly joining the EU’s genuine, ongoing reform process. That would be a personal legacy well worth aiming for.

No doubt Cameron will have to tell the British people that he personally baked an entire apple pie and then stuffed it, slice by slice, down the throats of everyone else around the table. Fair enough. This is just the way British Conservative politicians have always done their European business.

But the next time other European leaders express bafflement at Cameron’s latest attempt to shore up his crusading credentials back home, remember: they are not baffled by his suggestion that the EU needs to change. Quite the opposite: Europe has always been changing. No, what baffles them is that Cameron – a lonely crusader indeed – somehow seems not to have noticed.


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