December 4, 2009
Yesterday saw the last debate on European Affairs in the House of Commons before the next General Election, and by the look of it it was, as usual, very poorly attended and only by the usual suspects – many of whom happen to be extremely well-informed, we might add.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart gave a particularly good speech which touched on many important things, including David Cameron’s proposed ‘Sovereignty Bill’ and the so-called ‘referendum lock’, which she points out is pretty meaningless given that there will in future be no treaties to have referendums on.
The whole debate is worth a read but here are some of the more thought-provoking extracts of Gisela’s speech:
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby talked about what has happened to the word “subsidiarity”. My argument is that rather than argue about reclaiming powers, we should have a different presumption.
Subsidiarity has disappeared from the scene because it does not work. In the past 10 years, the Commission has only ever had one proposal rejected because it was deemed to breach subsidiarity-the zoo directive, which we tried to bring in during our presidency. That is hardly a great record. Every EU directive that comes forward ought to contain in the preamble proof that the measure cannot be implemented in nation states, and therefore has to be handled at EU level. That would change the whole argument and would mean that rather than people always having to defend what is done at EU level, the EU would make the case that the nation state cannot do certain things.
That point brings me to an issue that we never mention here. The debate is about European affairs, and we ought at some stage to talk about the nature of the nation state. I want to do that briefly today. What is our relationship? We say that Europe is great because we are all in favour of co-operation, but co-operation and political integration are two very different things. We saw this earlier when we talked about fiscal stimulus. That was not about political integration: it was about co-operation, and member states doing something at the same time.
The reason why I am so angry about the referendum is that with the passing of the Lisbon treaty, we have created a supranational institution. There is all the talk about rowing back, but it has gone. Forget it, folks; it has been sold. There is now a supranational institution that has never had the endorsement or consent of the 350 million people across the European Union, because referendums were either ignored or were rubbished on the basis that the issue was too complicated and people were too stupid to take part. That is an argument worth talking about. Governments should show leadership and take people to places that they do not yet know are good for them-but although political leaders have to adopt that leadership role on occasion, there is always the reality test of a general election, when a Prime Minister who takes the country in a direction that it disagrees with gets kicked out.
There is no mechanism in the EU that allows the people to be asked whether this new supranational institution is what they want. My suspicion is that they probably do not, but that is neither here nor there. I have become agnostic on this matter. I grew up in a federal state so I have no problem with federalism, but I also remember the Austro-Hungarian empire- [ Interruption. ] Not personally, of course, but I grew up with its heritage. That extremely authoritarian institution finally collapsed because it tried to replace national identity with ethnicity. It is always very bad when identity is represented through ethnicity rather than through institutions in the nation state, and we need to be extremely careful in that regard.
I want to make two other points, and the first is about this place. We are kidding ourselves if we think that by voting on Select Committee Chairmen, setting up better visitor centres or going online and so on, we will achieve a deepening of parliamentary democracy. We are losing power every step of the way: we have not even begun to come to terms with how we deal with legislation coming out of Brussels, because merely being told more about it is very different from actually having power and influence over it.
We have devolved power to Wales and Scotland, but we did not think about what would happen to England as a result of that process. We sit in Westminster, but we have lost power on both sides and we have lost our purpose. I suggest that that is why the expenses scandal has been so damaging. We have failed to defend ourselves, individually and collectively, because we have lost our sense of purpose as an institution. The real challenge for the next Parliament, when it comes in after the election, is to remind itself that its function is not just to talk about things but to hold the Executive to account. We have singularly, totally and completely failed to do that in respect of Europe.
We couldn’t agree more.Open Europe blog team