David Cameron’s EU speech attracted vitriol from the usual suspects last week. Guy Verhofstadt accused him of “playing with fire”, the Socialist group’s Hannes Swoboda said it was “tragicomic” – and those were some of the kinder, printable comments.
And, yes, there is something particularly tiresome about the self-satisfied smugness of many British eurosceptics whenever they launch into yet another tirade on the innumerable evils and iniquities of “Brussels” and then, within minutes, reveal an impressive level of ignorance of the EU decision making process.
But, in truth, it’s hard to disagree with much of what Cameron actually said. The Working Time directive – which Britain (and other countries) have opposed for years – was the only piece of EU law singled out. Even then, the Prime Minister didn’t give an idea of what opt-outs or exemptions he wanted from renegotiation. With his remarks about the EU’s democratic deficit, the need for the institutions to be closer to Europeans, for national parliaments to take a greater role in EU law-making, and for the bloc to become more competitive and outward-looking,
Whether officials in the EU institutions like it or not, it is a plain fact that – and I say this as someone who spent several very happy years working in the Parliament – the institutions feel remote from most Bruxelloise, let alone the rest of Europe. And the same officials are kidding themselves by suggesting that this gap, or the democratic deficit, has not grown wider as a result of the eurozone crisis.
Pro and anti-Europeans can surely agree that the crisis has seen a huge transfer of economic powers from national governments to the Commission and the European Central Bank. Lest we forget, neither of these institutions is directly elected. Without rigorous checks and balances and clear lines of accountability this cannot be sustained, and the evidence from the first two years of the European Semester indicates that national parliaments are doing a far from effective job in scrutinising the EU’s revamped economic governance rules. Closing this accountability gap should be a top priority for the EU as well as national institutions.
As far as the wider implications for Britain are concerned, my sense is that Cameron played a bad hand about as well as he could have done last week and managed – albeit only briefly – to unite his party. But he has still started the clock ticking on a time-bomb that will detonate at some unspecified and unknown point in the next five years. There are far too many “known unknowns” that could derail his plans to renegotiate. There may well not be an inter-governmental conference in the next five years if the eurozone crisis abates and, in any case, there’s no guarantee that Conservative eurosceptics will be prepared to wait that long. The Tories might also lose the next election.
But regardless of whether Britain’s terms of membership within the EU change or not, those who want the EU to survive and prosper should listen to the latest leader of la perfide albion. Just because he’s a British eurosceptic doesn’t mean he’s always wrong.