Most of the hoary diplomatic clichés have been trotted out since David Cameron’s bizarre performance at December’s EU summit. But while the Tory leader’s cack-handedness has attracted anger and delight – most of it synthetic – his determination to isolate Britain as the odd one out of 27 raises a pertinent democratic problem: should British MEPs and Ministers be involved in decision making affecting only the 26?
This question has been subject of a long running debate in Britain. Back in 1977 Labour back-bench MP Tam Dalyell raised the unfairness of Scottish MPs being able to vote on matters that only affected English and Welsh people during the debates on the then unsuccessful attempt to create a Scottish Parliament. Dalyell’s query, which quickly became known as the ‘West Lothian’ question, re-emerged when the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were established by Tony Blair’s government. The West Lothian question became particularly prominent in the 2005-2010 government of Blair and then Gordon Brown, when Labour was reliant on its dominance in Scotland and Wales for its majority in Westminster. As an issue, it still provokes anger, particularly on the Conservative benches.
In reality, an EU version of ‘West Lothian’ has been a dirty, unspoken secret ever since the Maastricht treaty. When it became clear that the UK, Denmark and Sweden would not join the single currency – although the ‘euro group’ was set up to govern the euro area countries – this did not stop MEPs and ministers from those countries being able to vote on issues that would not affect them. In recent years, other issues such as the rules governing the Schengen agreement (which the UK and Ireland did not sign up to) and justice and home affairs policies (where the UK has string of potential opt-outs) have also come into the equation.
However, the main issue, particularly in the context of the current debt crisis that threatens a number of EU countries and, potentially, financial institutions, is the Eurozone. Both Parliament and the Council spent most of 2012 working on the economic governance ‘six pack’, establishing a series of stiff fines for countries that fall foul of the excessive deficit procedure. Love it or loath it, the economic governance package is arguably the most significant overhaul of the Eurozone since it was established.
Of course, only 17 of the 27 Member States have joined the single currency, but all bar the UK and Sweden are bound by their treaty obligations to join at some stage. Most of the countries which joined the Union in 2004 are making progress towards meeting the convergence criteria with a view to joining the single currency.
Indeed, given that the UK will not join the euro within the next decade, unless there is a dramatic change of public opinion, it is questionable whether they should even be allowed to vote. While both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are, at European level at least, far more integrationist (and, indeed, have committed their parties to supporting euro membership) the Conservative party remains strongly opposed.
The Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, which offers surprisingly therapeutic bed-time reading for euro-obsessives with a masochistic streak, actually has a clause to catch this problem – Rule 2 states that “Members of the European Parliament shall exercise their mandate independently. They shall not be bound by any instructions and shall not receive a binding mandate.”
But although this and other sections of the rule book imply that MEPs represent European citizens rather than just their own country, is this good enough? As an over-represented Brit, I don’t think it is. It is profoundly undemocratic for MEPs to have the right to vote on and influence legislation that they will never apply in their Member States, particularly as we know how MEPs bat for their national interests. For example, some MEPs tabled amendments to increase sanctions against debt laden Member States, when the country they represent would not be liable for the same sanctions if they were in the same situation. Fair? Surely not.
It will be interesting to see the developments of the fiscal union treaty for the EU-26. Some MEPs already want to have sub-committees on policy areas where some Member States have opt-outs. What happens if they push to harmonise corporation tax and introduce a financial transactions tax? Will British MEPs be allowed to vote even if their ministers are locked out of the negotiations? Now that the fiscal union treaty defines a clear line between the EU-26 and Britain, it’s time that the EU’s barrack-room lawyers gather together to resolve our unspoken ‘West Lothian’.