Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working for Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
The Lisbon Treaty saw a massive transfer of power from the member states to the EU institutions, of which the European Parliament was the most richly rewarded. MEPs now have a veto over nearly all EU legislation under a process called ‘co-decision’.
In addition to that prize, MEPs gained a role in the Treaties to ‘elect’, and exert a veto over, the appointment of the President of the European Commission, which they deployed in 2014 to ‘elect’ Juncker, in a spurious Presidential election in the face of stiff opposition from David Cameron.
The growth in the power of the EU institutions has been matched by an equal and opposite decline in the powers of the national democracies, including our own House of Commons.
For those who believe in the EU as a single state, that is progress. The European Parliament and an elected European President are seen as the solution to the EU’s democratic deficit. However, for those who do not (which, judging by the differential turnout between Westminster and European elections, is most of us), national parliaments are and should remain the bedrock of European democracy.
As such the Prime Minister in his 2014 Bloomberg Speech was right to identify a vital reform needed to put the EU on a more sustainable democratic footing:
“…we need to have a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments. There is not, in my view, a single European demos. It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.”
Unfortunately, like Smaug sitting on a mountain of gold, the EU institutions were not going to give up one iota of the power they have fought for decades to accumulate. Cameron’s attempt to argue for a greater role for national parliaments was always going to be a red rag to the MEPs’ bull.
While fundamental reform would have to involve the restitution of national vetoes, and there is a strong case not to involve national parliaments directly in the EU institutions at all (see the Hansard Society’s collection of essays, including one by Gisela Stuart, here), reform was worth attempting.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister gained but one small face-saving measure leaving the European project in the hands of MEPs and their dream of pan-European presidential democracy.
For sake of completeness this is what the Prime Minister achieved:
It is a Rosé version of the originally proposed “Red Card”, (itself similar to the pointless and little-used yellow card), for national parliaments. If more than half of the national parliaments believe the EU is acting contrary to subsidiarity (which it should not do anyway) they can request the European Council ditch the proposal. It is not a veto and cannot be used to repeal (or propose) EU laws. It is highly unlikely to be used as the blocking minority in the European Council is a lower 35 per cent, making it far easier to block a proposal there.
As Stuart, well versed in the history of EU negotiations, told the House of Commons: “a legal adviser during the Maastricht negotiations muttered to me, ‘Oh, that’s the dud they sold to Major.'”
At this point I would like to make a small confession. During the passage of the Lisbon Treaty through Parliament, while working for the Conservative Shadow Europe Minister, we missed the development of the election of the President of the European Commission.
We did center in on the problem for the potential development of “a” President of Europe, with William Hague making a memorable speech imagining Tony Blair as President of Europe. However, we got the wrong president. While focusing on the President of the European Council, we did not give due attention to MEPs’ new role in electing the President of the Commission. Still, if we had it would not have made any difference, as Mark Francois MP explained to Conservative Home, he “spent 14 nights in parliament debating this 300 page treaty and we couldn’t change a single word.”
As such, I was very glad when Cameron appeared to have gained agreement to change the treaties to kill off European presidential democracy. He stated:
“It is therefore important that the European Council has agreed today to review what has happened and to consider how we handle the appointment of the next Commission president next time around.”
This, however, was absent from Cameron’s renegotiation and we must assume will not come to pass. If we vote to Remain in the EU on 23 June we are voting to remain in a system that is on a journey that others wish to end in a European Union President in their own White House. Is that a risk we want to take?