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Neil O'Brien: Can Europe Ever Learn to Listen?

Neil O'Brien is Director of Open Europe.  Open Europe is a think tank that believes that 'ever closer union' has failed.  It "believes that the EU must now embrace radical reform based on economic liberalisation, a looser and more flexible structure, and greater transparency and accountability".

The year since the French and Dutch votes against the European Constitution has been a bitter disappointment for all those who hoped that the referendum results might finally trigger reform of the European Union.

It is stunning to think that just twelve months after the amazing referendum results, the main topic of conversation in EU circles is how (not whether) to bring back the rejected EU Constitution. Indeed, since the no votes a further six countries have chosen to ratify the text as it stands.

Supporters of “ever closer union” have chosen to interpret the no votes as protests against economic liberalisation, votes against enlargement, and even as votes for greater powers for the EU - in short, everything except a vote against deeper integration.

Last week the Constitution’s author Valery Giscard d’Estaing explained: "It is not France that has said no. It is 55 per cent of the French people”. 

This rather existentialist distinction seems to reflect a wider confusion in Europe about the whole point of democracy.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained earlier this month that, “The negative results of the referendums in France and the Netherlands were a setback, but this has no bearing whatever on whether or not we need a Constitution. I say yes, we need the Constitutional Treaty”.

Indeed, Italian Foreign Minister Giuliano Amato claimed said last week that the no votes were in fact “a request for more Europe, not less”.  But the polls simply don’t bear this out.  A new poll we commissioned at Open Europe finds that one year on, two thirds of French and Dutch voters now want to take back powers from the EU, or even leave it altogether.

But this seems to be lost on Europe’s leaders. A consensus is has formed around plans to revisit the Constitution in the spring of next year:  France and Holland will have elections and new governments, and the German government, (who are the leading supporters of the Constitution) will hold the Presidency of the EU. 

With this in mind the European Commission is lining up member states behind a plan to sign a “political declaration on the future of the EU” in May of next year.  The UK government has already said it is open to signing up, even though the Commission has made it clear that this declaration will be the precursor to a new treaty.  The declaration is to be modelled on the Messina declaration which led to the founding of the EEC.

President Barrosso has said it will be a document, “which not only sets out Europe’s values and ambitions, but also contains a shared undertaking to deliver them: an ‘obligation d’engagement’. The purpose and style of the document should be inspired by the Messina declaration [of 1955], which was both a response to an institutional setback, and a precursor to a Treaty, in that case the Treaty of Rome.”

So the game is very much on.  Indeed, EU leaders are gradually implementing the proposals in the EU Constitution anyway: the European Defence Agency proposed in the Constitution has been set up, the veto on asylum issues has been abolished, the veto on justice and home affairs legislation is to be abolished shortly, and a recent European court decision has given the Commission the power to propose criminal laws which are then adopted by majority vote.

Is Tony Blair trying to halt the drift back to the Constitution? Not really.  In an interview in Le Monde Tony Blair said this: “I continue to think that the Constitution is a set of rules perfectly apt for Europe to function better. We will have to reflect on it again.”

The Blair strategy in Europe is not one his successors, whether Labour or Conservative, will want to continue. Look at the state of play: Britain has just agreed to pay £10.5 billion a year into a totally unreformed EU budget; there has been an increase in the EU regulatory burden on business - even on the Governments own figures - of at least £30 billion since 1998; and there has been a disastrous drift to a single EU defence which has wasted billions duplicating NATO assets, and infuriated our allies worldwide by leaking key technology to China.

Worst of all, the EU still hits poor countries with huge tariffs to protect the Common Agricultural Policy. For example Malawi has to pay a tax equivalent to 12% of the value of all its exports to the EU, despite having an average income per person of just over €1 a day.  Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland face tariffs of over 20%. This is grotesquely unfair. These are not policies which the UK would choose if it ran its own affairs.

We simply can’t go on like this.  It’s time to return power from the EU to the local and national level.  Now is the time for all of those who aspire to lead Britain in the twenty first century to put serious time and effort into thinking about how to reverse the relentless ratchet towards “ever closer union.”


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