James Reekie 9.00am
The European Union’s unresolved constitutional status, and the sticking plaster approach of the Lisbon Treaty means that we need some new thinking in order to resolve our qualms over Europe. The Prime Minister can provide this.
Like most people on the centre-right, I am sceptical of increasing European powers. I don’t believe the UK should be outside of the EU, but I do think that Europe needs to change. That is why I welcomed David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate our place in Europe and put the results of those negotiations to the British people in a referendum. Mr Cameron is providing important leadership in Europe by examining as part of this exercise those parts of the EU that are fundamentally incompatible with not only British values but also those of other Member States. It means that the European political classes will at least begin the debate by asking ‘What powers and competences need to be returned?’ rather than ’ How much state sovereignty can we take from Member States?’. The former question being the one which the British public have been rightfully asking for years.
The slow creep of European power cannot be simply blamed on the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’ or on the European institutions, for on every European Treaty we find the tacit endorsement of Prime Ministers, Presidents and Foreign Secretaries in what has become a shameless acquiescence in the diminution of parliamentary sovereignty - if not in a theoretical sense then at least in a practical one.
David Cameron has demonstrated that he is no friend of this approach and finally at last, we have a leader in Europe who is actually willing to provide a robust alternative to the ‘integration will solve it’ mantra of the federalists.
However, simply moaning and groaning about Europe won’t solve the problem for us eurosceptics. We must call for a constitutional settlement that reigns in and defines in clear terms the powers and limitations of the European Union and its institutions. There does exist a reasonable approach to the European Union which satisfies our ambitions for free trade and co-operation that does not rely on full blown integration or withdrawal.
Eurosceptics need to take a much more coherent and holistic approach to the EU constitutional debate.
Firstly, by recognising that from its early conception until now the European Union has in fact developed along a distinctly British constitutional tradition. This type of constitutional evolution has made Britain’s constitution distinctive in its flexibility and contributed to our many successes within a state context but it is no remedy for a supranational entity such as the European Union. Of course in a legal and political order such as the European Union this was always going to lead to a constitutional crisis, especially considering there is the sovereignty of member states constitutional traditions to consider.
Secondly, by recognising that our alternative is the one sought by the vast majority of people. The former treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe contained articles on a European flag, anthem and various other nonsensical provisions in order to attempt to garner some sense of constitutional patriotism from citizens of member states, which was completely out of step with the vast majority of the European public. There is little clamour for a federal Europe. So let’s argue for an abandonment of pie in the sky symbolism and advocate a focus on solid constitutional reform.
We hear far too much nowadays of European human rights legislation or the next nanny-state measure to come through Brussels. This leads us to forget the fundamental reason why the European Union exists.
The common market in principle is good for business and good for trade within Europe and internationally. In fact, it is the principles of this common market that may just save us from the absurdity of minimum pricing for alcohol. The common market is not without its faults but the law makers and political leaders of Europe must appreciate that the fundamental premise of the European Union is a Common Market. It is time we got back to something that looks like one.
Thirdly, we need to recognise the European Union for what it is. It isn’t a state and we don’t want it to become a state. I often hear those across the political spectrum talk of the European democratic deficit. Of course the democratic deficit is still far too large but we must also appreciate that if we do not want Europe to become a state we must stop holding it to standards we expect from nation states. We must see it as a unique order which we are responsible for shaping and not leave the left to determine the future of the European Union.
Therefore, governments must also take some responsibility for constitutional collisions when they arise. Often constitutional compatibility issues can be resolved well beforehand but they often lack the political will or courage by both the EU and national parliaments to be tackled head on.
So what next for our relationship with Europe? Depending on the process followed in determining any future treaty, Mr Cameron must ultimately ensure that he plays his full part in leading and maintaining a coalition of centre-right reformists, but most of all he must also ensure that prominent eurosceptics from across Europe are playing their full part in the debate. There has been some interesting thinking about what the process could look like in order to ensure democratic legitimacy for a European constitution which has been decidedly lacking in any.
So far, David Cameron has led the way admirably. Firstly for promising a referendum and secondly for promising a renegotiated settlement to be put forward in that referendum. It’s time for all right-thinking eurosceptics to get on board and shape a European Union settlement that is democratically and constitutionally legitimate.
James Reekie is the Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party