Tobias Ellwood is the Member of Parliament for Bournemouth East, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Europe Minister and author of the Open Europe publication Upgrading UK Influence in the European Union. Follow Tobias on Twitter.
So no EU budget deal in Brussels last month – but one significant positive did emerge: British leadership and determination kept together a coalition of countries that stood up for European taxpayers and forced high spenders to recognise that when national governments are taking tough decisions about their finances Brussels must too. It illustrates what British influence and diplomacy in Europe can achieve. What a contrast to the profligate EU budget left to us thanks to the last Labour Government’s lack of such determination.
Yet the traditional mindset (encouraged by much of the British media) is to keep Brussels at arm’s length. And it is easy to see why. Visit the city, and you step into a European political bubble that seems curious, complex, seemingly unstoppable, unaccountable, bureaucratic and remote. For many, this simply confirms their suspicions, and the city is never visited again.
Dig a little deeper and you will find a myriad of issues being discussed and debated by those involved in the peculiar intricacies of the EU. When Britain engages we get results. For example, two of the EU’s landmark achievements (the single market and enlargement) were British-led initiatives. But in general, rather than leading from the front, we have treated European evolution as a damage limitation exercise.
With little appetite amongst MPs to understand fully how the EU actually works, is it any wonder that there are calls to leave the club completely? The question of Europe and the UK’s role in it has for many years been an awkward one for the British. Perhaps influenced by 20th century events on the continent, our historical prowess and our relationship with both the Commonwealth and the US, we have never shared the same strategic vision of ever closer union in Europe that many of our continental counterparts have. Consequently, we have failed to harness the one attribute which arguably has distinguished us from our counterparts over the centuries – namely British leadership.
If we in Parliament do not provide adequate oversight and influence over what the EU does, then we are doing our citizens a disservice.
Few MPs speak European languages well or fully exploit networking opportunities in other capital cities with like-minded politicians. And fewer still are aware of the power Parliament now has, under just about the only good point in the Lisbon Treaty, to promote and protect sovereign decision-making. For example, the Yellow Card procedure allows groupings of just nine of the 27 EU countries to send any proposed EU legislation back for a rethink. Surprisingly, for a nation keen on limiting the EU’s role, to date, only one EU proposal has been sent back by a coalition of national parliaments including our own.
In short, we are poor at amending, curbing or even halting EU policy upstream, but we excel at complaining about the same policy when it becomes law. This strategy is clearly not in Britain's interests considering that around 50% of all business legislation is now EU-related.
If we are in the EU but want to change it, then we must endeavor to understand it.
By doing so, we can exert greater leadership. With greater leadership comes the ability to project influence. And with influence comes change.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore the fundamental shortcomings in the EU’s structure and the Eurozone, nor any desire to repatriate power from Brussels.
But this should not prevent us from broadening the current, underpowered system of EU scrutiny with a cultural shift towards critical engagement focused on projecting Britain’s national interests in EU decision-making and encouraging other member states to support us in the process.
Unlike other European countries, we have no formal working relationship to promote British thinking between MEPs, MPs and the UKREP (The UK EU 'Embassy' in Brussels).
Our Parliamentary Committees (A,B and C) which scrutinise EU policy hold expertise, but have a very narrow remit. We need to draw on the recognised authorities of Departmental Select Committees to make Parliamentary scrutiny of EU business mainstream. MPs should be encouraged and rewarded for developing specialisms and building influence in European capitals.
And with so many laws determined in Brussels, is it not time to have dedicated Oral Questions for EU business?
We must get away from reducing every debate on EU legislation to the broken record of wrangling about our fundamental relationship with the EU – important though that debate is – and focus on the policy in question.
The Eurozone crisis has brought fresh focus to the entire EU project and reopened questions about democratic deficits and the role of national parliaments – indeed, the role of citizens – in European policy-making.
Britain has a global reputation for firm and fair leadership, willing to step up to the plate when other countries hesitate. Yet when it comes to EU matters, our reticence not only restricts British influence, it also betrays the expectations of many EU members who are calling out for greater British leadership against over-regulation and the loss of sovereignty.