Thursday 20 October 2016

The winds of change are blowing through Europe

Reformers should ally themselves with David Cameron to face down the Eurocrats, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

David Cameron and Angela Merkel.
David Cameron and Angela Merkel.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is galloping around the EU, trying to persuade its leaders to reform an institution suffering from sclerosis, democratic deficit and bureaucratic authoritarianism among many other serious diseases.

  • Go To

Many agree with him. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, sums up the need to devolve power away from Brussels thus: "European where necessary; national where possible."

Last week, Dara Murphy, our Minister for European Affairs, said: "Much of what's being suggested and proposed to date by David Cameron would be to the advantage of all of the people of the European Union, particularly in the space of regulation and growth, so we are very optimistic that the UK will remain, as it should be, at the very very heart of decision-making in Europe."

Ireland, of course, is rightly terrified by the prospect of a British exit from the EU. Last month, the think tank Open Europe tried to put some figures on the impact of a Brexit on Ireland. Using detailed economic modelling (and we know how fallible that can be) to predict where the two countries would be by 2030, the best case for the UK was a 1.6pc gain in GDP and worst case a 2.2pc loss; the Irish equivalents were losses of 1.1pc to 3.1pc.

Vast costs for Ireland would include a new customs border. Profound political implications would include the major blow to the EU's international prestige in the loss of one of Europe's largest economies (a net contributor to the budget), one of its only two military powers and its most prominent advocate of the liberal free-trade policies favoured by Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and several other states. French-led protectionism would be handed a blocking minority; the EU would become more insular and less globally competitive.

And then there are all the complexities about Northern Ireland.

Of course, on the plus side, there's the possibility of a vast inflow of foreign investment from the UK, but that could be countered by the attractions of more economic deregulation and liberalisation from a UK free of Brussels.

The EU resembles any unaccountable institution. It's human nature to protect the club you are comfortable in against outsiders who seek to change it. Just think Roman Catholic Church.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the Commission's eyes are much, much bigger than its belly, which is why - as it makes a hames of pretty well everything - it tries to expand its reach even further.

What do you do when you realise the External Action Service, the EU's foreign department - which has delegations in 140 countries - is costing around €700m annually and achieving nothing? Well, if you're Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the Commission, you admit that 'in terms of foreign policy we don't seem to be taken entirely seriously' and call for the setting up of an EU army.

Juncker, of course, is the Eurocrats' Eurocrat, who symbolises so much of what has gone wrong with an organisation which countries joined because it offered a single market but was secretly being driven by well-meaning people trying to achieve a united Europe by stealth.

In 2004, half-way through his 18 years running Luxembourg - a tiny tax haven with a population of around half-a-million - Juncker became president of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers. He stayed in that job until 2013, presided over Euro disasters, and was elevated the following year into the EU presidency.

Juncker likes to get things done secretly in the corridors of EU power without being bothered by grumbling citizens or nosey reporters. I look forward to his tussles with EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, the Irish ex-journalist who cut her supervisory teeth here as Ombudsman and Information Commissioner.

Last week, there was an illuminating insight into the secrecy of EU decision-making in her annual report. "Lack of transparency, ethical issues, such as conflicts of interest, and problems with citizens' participation in EU decision-making" were among the major complaints she had been dealing with, she said. She was now opening an investigation into the transparency of "trilogues", the informal negotiations between the EU Commission, Council and Parliament aimed at reaching early agreements on new EU legislation which for them have had the happy result that around 80pc of EU laws are now agreed at first reading and often come as complete news to those they are going to affect most directly.

All that kind of unaccountable back-room fixing is getting worse and worse and has to stop.

The EU has been floundering over the problems of the eurozone, still refusing to accept that blind pursuit of monetary union has put the whole EU project at risk.

No one sane believes it is capable of dealing well with the barbarians of Isil on its doorstep or with the horrendous and urgent problems posed by the millions of would-be migrants fleeing persecution and poverty and prepared to die for a foothold in the EU and free movement within it.

Reform is being driven by the fed-up citizens of Europe: in the case of Cameron, the 4,000,000 who voted for the UK Independence Party and the 11,000,000 Tory voters promised a referendum.

That Cameron unexpectedly won the election has given heart to reformers everywhere. Matteo Renzi, the chap with the terrible job of being Italy's prime minister (25 in 66 years, of whom many have had the job for about 10 minutes), put the present state of things very neatly.

"The wind in Greece, the wind in Spain, the wind in Poland…blows in opposite directions, but all these winds say that Europe must change."

And so it must. And Ireland, which always punches above its weight in Brussels, needs to jump into the ring. @ruthde

Sunday Independent

Read More