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Andrea Leadsom MP: How to repair the EU’s democratic deficit

ALAndrea Leadsom is the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire. Follow Andrea on Twitter.

The over-arching theme of this series has been the need to ensure that the EU fully serves its members’ interests, rather than those of the European “Project”.

The focus in the first two articles was on what matters most to the British people: how to reform the EU so that Britain, and other Member States, can compete successfully in the global economy, and how to reverse the woeful, over-bureaucratic stupidity of so many of the EU's laws.

When we founded the Fresh Start Project (FSP), we were determined to get away from the “in/out” angry debate, and instead to analyse the current relationship in great detail and then propose specific and substantive reforms to tackle the EU’s many shortcomings.

But perhaps the most fundamental and damaging failing of the EU is the clear “democratic deficit” – the sense among British voters that our sovereignty is constantly undermined in ways that were never part of the “Common Market” we signed up to.  This must be resolved in any discussion of EU reform.

Without resolving the democratic deficit, there will be no future for Britain in the EU.  So this will be my focus in this third and final piece.

The democratic deficit is real and considerable, and it markedly reduces the control which British voters exert over whole swathes of their everyday lives. The only way to give them back the control they need, and are entitled to expect, is through significant institutional reform.

The best way to ensure democratic accountability is to connect decision-making in Europe more closely with national governments and national parliaments, and through them to citizens. The best decisions are made by those closest to the people affected. And the best way to realise this is to return a number of competencies back to Member States, and to apply rigorously the principle of Subsidiarity.

The Fresh Start Project has proposed a series of far-reaching institutional reforms to do just that.

What follows is a set of proposals that show the sheer scale of reform that is needed, but also show the way to a far more nationally accountable EU:

A pervasive characteristic of EU institutions is that they are opaque. Their lack of transparency contributes to a dearth of engagement with the real world outside the Brussels bubble. A new Freedom of Information Act should be introduced, and applied to all European institutions.

A major failing of the present set-up is that key institutions such as the Parliament and the Commission have strong incentives to centralise power. To make matters worse, the people they employ are inevitably almost exclusively Europhile.  Worse still, the governments of some Member States are all too willing to enshrine in EU legislation (and thus by default in domestic law) policies which they would simply not get through at home. By way of illustration, if the Working Time Directive was UK, as opposed to EU, legislation I have no doubt that it would have been reformed by now.

Against this background, national parliaments need to be empowered to resist the centralising tendency, and strong enough to deploy all the powers at their disposal.

One way to do this is to make the “Yellow and Orange Card” system more effective. This system, introduced under the Lisbon Treaty, allows national parliaments to reject new initiatives proposed by the Commission if enough of them voice their opinion.

Disappointingly, the mechanism has so far been used only once. In order to increase its effectiveness, the threshold for the issuance of the yellow and orange card should be lowered and the amount of time given to parliaments to scrutinise proposals should be lengthened. COSAC, the EU body that brings together national parliamentarians, should be made more effective. To that end, it should meet more frequently, and be totally independent of the European Parliament.

In the same vein, the orange card system should be upgraded to a red card one – this would allow a group of national parliaments in the EU to block a new Commission proposal outright.

The real game-changer, however, would be if the card system were expanded so that it also applies to existing Regulations and Directives.  Such an enhanced card system would offer the possibility of change to the acquis communitaire – the body of EU law, which has developed over time.

Many vested interests would be appalled at such a prospect. So those committed to meaningful reform will need to be willing to go further still – if a red card can't be agreed, then for instance providing the option at the time of a change of national government for the incoming administration to opt out of any EU Directives or Regulations which any of its predecessors had signed up to.

Finally, all new EU Directives should have a sunset clause – that is, a date on which the rule expires unless deliberately renewed.

Elsewhere, waste, inefficiency and integration by the back door are everywhere. Many agencies duplicate work, and reinforce the federal agenda rather than the Subsidiarity principle. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions should be abolished. The Commission should lead the way with significant administrative savings, including a reduction in the tiers of management, salaries, allowances and changing the pension age and terms.

The three-city functioning of the European Parliament should stop. Abolishing the Strasbourg seat would save at least €180 million per annum. This move would be equally important symbolically. In fact, the European Parliament itself has voted to stop the “Strasbourg circus”. But the EU Treaties prevented this.  In reality, the French need to be “persuaded” to bring this about. The Secretariat of the European Parliament should also relocate entirely, in this case from Luxembourg to Brussels.

The creation of the Eurozone raises a raft of critical institutional issues. In summary, the EU institutions and voting structure need significant reform to deal with the implications of Eurozone fiscal integration. There is the very real possibility of sovereign governments being outvoted in Brussels under Qualified Majority Voting, and thus of laws being foisted upon nations against the will of their governments. The recent legislation limiting bankers’ bonuses clearly illustrates the dangers.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to come up with solutions. One way would be the expansion of the “Emergency Brake” procedure, perhaps accompanied by the greater use of enhanced cooperation of willing Member States. The Emergency Brake would allow any Member State that considers a proposal to be a threat to subsidiarity or to an important national interest to refer that proposal to the European Council – where unanimity, and hence a national veto, would apply. Those states which wanted to press ahead with a measure could do so under enhanced cooperation, but only on condition that this did not impinge on the other Member States or the Single Market.

An alternative would be the extension into the majority of policy areas of the double-majority system of voting, introduced in the European Banking Union discussions. This would ensure that the Eurozone is not able to caucus together to outvote the non-Euro members. The FSP is by no means alone in backing such an approach. For example, senior German officials have indicated that such a solution to protecting the interests of non-Euro members is on the table.

The FSP has also argued for significant cuts to the EU budget – specifically through repatriating regional policy, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and reform of the EU’s institutions. There is far too much waste and too many overlapping institutions.

As the Prime Minister said in his excellent Bloomberg speech in January, “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin,” and therefore that “the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf.”

As the next Election draws closer, I'm sure that voters will increasingly recognise that only the Conservative Party fully grasps the need for reform of the UK’s relationship with the EU, fully understands what needs to be done, is well-placed to secure the right outcome and has the courage to give the British people the referendum to which they’re entitled.

In conclusion, negotiating the changes needed to ensure global competitiveness and the elimination of the democratic deficit must be the Government’s absolute priority.

Get these two right, and the British people may decide to stay in the EU. Get them wrong, or fail to address them at all, and the people will almost certainly choose for Britain to go it alone.


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