National Politics, Politics, World politics

Let’s tackle Europe’s flaws

EU parliament

European Parliament – the good bit, more democratic than Westminster

 

I have been wrestling with how I am going to vote in the Euro referendum.  I feel the Green Party of England and Wales rather rushed into supporting the “in” camp. It was decided by a single “emergency” motion at the conference in Bournemouth – well before Cameron had come up with his half-baked deal with Europe and a referendum date.

To me this was not the way the Green Party should have done this. An online ballot of all members would have been more suitable. It may well have reached the same outcome, but at least more people would have had a say.

But regardless of this conference “decision”, the Green Party is sensible enough not to force its members to speak with one voice and to tolerate those – like Jenny Jones and Rupert Read – who go against the party line on this.

So where do I stand? In or out, or neither?

The arguments from all three sides have been singularly uncompelling and unsatisfying because they never delve properly into analysing what is wrong with the EU and what can be done to fix it. The Innies say Europe has given us loads of environmental and social goodies without saying what it’s flaws are, while the Outties linger on its fundamental flaws but then usually assert that it can not be reformed, because of its fundamental nature, without really adducing any evidence.

So if we are to vote one way or t’other we must first examine the flaws and then see if it is true that they are unfixable.  So what are the failings of Europe, as far as Greens are concerned?

Jenny Jones, the Green Party’s most prominent “out” campaigner,  argued back in July 2015 that there was something “rotten at the heart of Europe”. She is right to an extent. She points to the EU parliament’s approval of TTIP and the EU’s treatment of Greece as evidence that the institution has neo-liberal corporatism at its heart. She says that “Green and progressive voters will lack any leverage so long as we tolerate a bad EU for fear of something even worse.”

Rupert Read (who intends to #VoteNeither and spoil his ballot paper) uses the example of the agricultural policy of the EU, which he rightly says has industrialised and marketised farming in Eastern Europe at the expense of the environment.

But to call the EU “bad” is like calling a barrel of apples bad because half of them are rotten. To me that means the rest are still good and can be saved. Greens across Europe have to keep pointing to the rot and pushing to remove it.  And both Jenny and Rupert are wrong if they say there is no realistic prospect that the EU can be reformed for the good.

The story of the EU is one that is rarely told properly by either side, pro or anti. Though it is true that the earliest 1951 version of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, had as one of its goals cementing peace between France and Germany, and it surely succeeded within a decade in this aim, it’s aim was to do this via trade and to boost production, consumption and economic growth.  It was a trading bloc designed to compete with the might of the US.

As such, it was profoundly un-Green. “Maximise production!” could be said to be its battle cry.  But something happened in 1979 that began to subtly alter that agenda. What was originally meant to be a mere add-on talking shop thrown a few bones by the founding Council  – “the Consultative Assembly” – became a directly elected parliament. This put the democratic cat amongst the bureaucratic pigeons.   Ever since, the history of the EU has been one of the parliament using its democratic mandate to gain more and more powers over the bureaucrats of the European Commission – who see their role as bolstering trade and competitiveness of Europe against other nations – and the often self-serving national politicians of the European Council.

This process is still by no means complete but it would appear to be inescapable. The creation of a fairly elected body in the heart of a cosy bureaucratic trading group has unleashed a “democracy virus” within the EU that is irreversible. The MEPs are largely elected for the presumed ideals of the political parties they represent. The  ideals of at least 50 of them (the Green bloc) include turning the EU into a supporter of sustainability and ending its constant chasing of economic growth.   Ever closer integration is not in the manifesto of many of these parties. Nor is taking more powers from sovereign nations.

The European parliament (though not perhaps the EU as a whole) can now be truthfully said to be more democratic than Westminster with its outdated first-past-the-post electoral system.

But the European Parliament is still the only accountable and responsive head of the three-headed beast that is the EU. The other two heads – the European Commission and the European Council – are appointed. Council members are appointed by the individual Governments of the nations, while the Commission President is appointed by the Council.

From its earliest days, though it was given no powers to do so, the pesky European Parliament began to draft proposals to reform the functioning of the EU.  From the 1980s it began holding votes on proposed Commission Presidents, even though it had no formal power to appoint or veto them.

In 1999 the parliament forced the resignation of an entire set of Commissioners – led by President Jacques Santer – after it threatened a vote of censure following allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

Every time there is a new European treaty, Parliament has been able to use its democratic mandate to negotiate itself more powers over the Commission. It is now legally able to do what it had been doing using its moral authority alone – veto the appointment of Commission presidents. It has been granted equal rights to amend legislation as the Council of Ministers, and it can also approve or reject EU budgets.

There is still much to be done to improve accountability in the EU.

The parliament is keen to end its ridiculously wasteful trip between Strasbourg and Brussels but the decision about where parliament sits is still the gift of the Council of Ministers, not the parliament itself. It is also still unable to hire and fire individual Commissioners (though it can and does veto them) and unable to call them to account before its committees. Worse still, parliament can still not initiate legislation. That is still done by the appointed Commission.

However, back in 2010, in tough negotiations with newly appointed EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a small group of parliamentarians, including the German Green MEP Rebecca Harms,  got very close.

Rebecca Harms

Rebecca Harms Green MEP helped squeeze extra power from Commission to elected parliament

barroso

Manuel Barroso, Commission president, forced to concede

Barroso, fearing that the parliament would not approve his line-up of Commissioners, said that parliament already had a de facto right to initiate legislation. This was because, Barroso said, the Commission usually responded favourably to any “request” for new legislation from the Parliament. This amounted to a promise to do the right thing.

A final hurdle: crucially, parliament is still unable to appoint the Central Bank President, but Greens have been pushing for it to do so.

This shows why it would be wrong to blame the EU as a whole for forcing austerity onto the Greek people.  The “Troika” that wielded the knife was made up of the unelected European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank (whose president, the former Goldman Sachs executive Mario Draghi, was appointed by the European Council).  If the European Parliament had been allowed to vote on Greece, it would have been more likely to force the banks to take more of a haircut and the Greek people less of one.

It is true that the EU parliament voted in favour of TTIP, the EU-US trade deal, in June last year. But subsequently, as a result of a wave of public opposition including 2.3 million signatures on a petition against it, in July the EU Parliament voted in favour of TTIP but only on the condition that a controversial part of it the Americans wanted was removed. This objection meant that America’s goal of sealing the deal by the end of the year was thwarted and there is now more time to apply public pressure on MEPs to reject the deal completely. Because the parliament is elected by proportional representation, few have “safe seats” and the MEPs are more likely to respond to pressure than Westminster MPs. The secrecy of talks, on which Americans are insisting, is also being undermined by public pressure, leaks and the opposition of many MEPs. British Conservatives have said they want to sign a trade deal with the US whether we are in or out of Europe. So leaving will not save us from a US trade deal in which the electorate will have zero input.

As for Rupert Read’s argument about the EU commoditising and marketising farming in Eastern Europe, he is probably right. But the instrument that the EU used was the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP is a creature of the EU Commission. It was dreamt up by the Commission almost at the same time as the EEC was founded. It is only since 2013 – long after EU accession for most countries – that the parliament has been allowed to have a vote on reforms to the CAP. To change the CAP we must continue to push for the European parliament to have powers to initiate legislation and reforms to it. The CAP must be reformed so that it no longer subsidises wealthy landowners and environmental destruction but instead supports a transition to sustainable farming methods. Subsidies for sustainable farming have grown over the years but are still a drop in the ocean. The pressure to change the wasteful CAP however, is already intense.  Allowing the democratically elected parliament to change it could make that pressure irresistable.

The shame is that need for a more democratic Europe is being lost in the arguments about whether or not to be in it.

For Greens, the EU must be seen as a work in progress, not for greater integration or greater trade, but for greater sustainability, deeper democracy and tougher controls on the transnationally rich and powerful.  If we leave it, we will not be able to start again.  There is no other organisation in town. The EU is it, undemocratic warts and all.

I support Rupert’s right to spoil his ballot paper and explain the reasons why, I also support Jenny’s right to vote leave and explain her reasons. I will be voting remain because I believe Europe can be fixed and used to get what we Greens want.

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