Thursday, 12 March 2009

A busy week for eurosceptics

He may have promised to do it years ago, but it was only yesterday that UK opposition leader David Cameron officially started the process of taking the Tories out of the European Parliament's centre-right grouping, the European People's Party. And with that, the Tories' 'slow walk from Europe' has begun.

Cameron's intent, which he outlined in his 2005 campaign to become the Conservative Party's leader, is to form a new European party that would be more hostile to the federalist viewpoint. The EPP is the largest of seven Europarties in the parliament. It's the main centre-right party standing astride the Party of European Socialists, the main centre-left grouping. Both parties are more or less federalist in their platform.

Since he came to power Cameron has been attempting to take the conservatives in a strongly Eurosceptic direction, something fraught with danger since the party is split over the Europe issue. As time has gone on the inconsistencies between Cameron's platform in the UK and the EPP's platform has become politically awkward for him. For instance, the EPP was opposed to the UK having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty while Cameron was loudly calling for one. The EPP also wants more common European policies on the economy, immigration, defence and foreign policy - while Cameron seems to be opposed to any expansion of the EU's remit.

However forming a new Europarty is no easy task, something Cameron is probably well aware of judging by how long he's waited to make this move. But the reaction in Brussels to the decision can best be described as bemusement. At this moment it's unclear how Cameron will form this mysterious new grouping, when forming a Europarty requires MEPs from at least six countries. Given his level of interest in European issues is fairly low, it's unlikely he or his advisers want to spend a lot of time on the issue. The move may just be designed to score political points at home, but it could leave the Tories sitting out in the cold in Brussels following the June parliamentary elections, politicians without a party. And that scenario would mean less of a voice and less power for the UK in Brussels. Both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties were quick to point out today that the move puts the Tories at the "fringe" of European politics.Liberal Democrat Edward Davey told today, "The Tories now have the most isolationist foreign policy of any modern opposition party, just at a time when countries need to be working more closely than ever."

Even if Cameron is able to form a new party of "European Conservatives" (as the new party is reportedly going to be called), he's going to have to make alliances with some far-right parties of Eastern Europe that will likely make some of his voters back home fairly uncomfortable. The most likely first allies for Cameron would be the hard-right parties of the Czech Republic and Poland.

Give me Libertas or...?

Perhaps Cameron can find common cause with Libertas, the new party launched by Irish businessman Declan Ganley, who led the campaign for the 'No' vote against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland last year. The Irish Party celebrated the launch of its UK arm this week, with a big celebration kicking off their campaign for British MEP seats in the June election. They've said they will put up candidates in all 27 member states in the June elections.

So what is it they stand for exactly? It's a bit confusing. The party platform says that they want to bring "more democracy" to the EU, but short of that they haven't offered any details as to what that would entail. Their UK launch came with no manifesto. Unlike the UK Independence Party, they don't want the UK or Ireland to withdraw from the EU completely. Instead, they say they simply oppose the Lisbon Treaty and want the EU to be more accountable to voters.

But as the BBC's Mark Mardel pointed out in his blog this week, much of what they have called for so far seems to be contradictory. When Mardell asked the new UK Libertas leader Robin Mathews why people should vote Libertas in June, he replied, "It sends a very clear message to those unelected elites and bureaucrats, who seek to daily interfere in our lives more closely, that this cannot go on without proper accountability. The EU needs to change. Libertas believes in a strong Europe but also believes unless democracy is at the heart of that we'll never be able to deliver."

Well alright, that all sounds logical enough, but when Mardell asked him specifically what Libertas could do to accomplish that, Mathews didn't seem to have any idea. Mardell asked him if this platform means that the European Commission, the EU's executive branch made up of representatives chosen by the national governments, should instead be directly elected, he seemed to suggest yes. Would it mean expanded powers for the one body that is directly elected, the European Parliament? Again, Mathews seemed to suggest yes. But if that's what Libertas wants, why then did it campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to expand the powers of parliament and decrease the powers of the unelected Council of Ministers?

A directly-elected Commission would actually mean less power for the national governments and more power for Brussels, which I thought Libertas was opposed to, right? If the Commissioners became directly elected by the people in their countries, then the national governments in power would no longer be able to dictate to their commissioner what they should do, and that commissioner would become a Brussels-based free agent. Considering that all EU legislation originates in the EC, it would actually mean a huge loss of power for national governments.

If this is what Ganley actually wants then so be it, but it certainly wasn't the way the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland was framed. Most 'no' voters in Ireland, and those who called for a referendum in the UK, are concerned about the treaty because they think it takes away power from national governments and hands it over to Brussels.

In the end this is why any alliance between Libertas and the Tories is unlikely. If this huge infusion of direct democracy into the EU is indeed the party's goal, then it is actually even more contradictory to Cameron's Europe stance than either the EPP or the PES.

But such is the current voice of Euroscepticism across the continent: loud, but also fractured, confused and often contradictory. They know what they're against - the idea of a big bad unelected oligarchy in Brussels telling European nations what to do. But what are they for? What's the alternative vision for Europe's future they are presenting? Perhaps Cameron will be able to crystallize this message in the process of creating his new Europarty, but it will certainly be an uphill climb.


Aky Bobs said...

I voted in 1975 against full membership we were then an associate member of the then EEC a grouping of six trading nations,also we were members of the EFTA , if memory serves the UK and the Scandinvian countries, no one parliament, no one currency. I am against being in the EU because of dominance. Trading with but not run by, as a certain W Hague said. I would advocate a once and final referendum on membership of the EU, which we have never had, and would accept the decision of the UK population as final. This I realise will never happen with the presant parties, as they are fearful of the result, and I doubt whether the over bearing EU would allow such a final vote to be allowed, if by any chance it did, and the answer NO then the EU would order another one, backing up the idea that the EU doesn't know what NO means. The fragmentation of so called right wing parties in Europe does't help. My idea that the EU doesn't work was born out with the different countries going their own way i,e banks.

├ůsa - European Federalists said...

If the Tories and Libertas were serious about reducing the power of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels they should opt for a simple solution that they could also affect themselves; a simple way to create accountability and democratic influence of the mighty bureaucrats in the Commission, that is also possible under the present Treaties, is for the European Parties to nominate their candidate to to the position of Commission president. This means that Europe's voter would be given a real choice in the EP elections in June, and trough their votes influence the composition of the legislation initiator the Commission. At of course also have the possibility to tack him/her out at next EP election.

The question is, as you point out, if they are serious about their demands for a more democratic EU closer to it´s citizens?

more under the federalist's blog

Eurocentric said...

First of all, the single market is a much freer free trade area than a classic FTA since it deals with fiscal and non-fiscal barriers to trade not covered by FTAs. In order to do this, there needs to be common regulation and thus common institutions - without the current institutions, the single market would collapse. EFTA was a failed free trade area - it had to compete with the emerging freer trade area of the EEC. Countries like Iceland and Norway and Switzerland benefit from the single market because they buy into it (they must apply similar regulatory legislation in order to gain more access) - it is highly debatable whether or not they would be as successful without such access. An attack on the institutions of the Community is an attack on true free trade, pure and simple. (Britain is strange in this regard as it is the left which generally oppose the EU more than the right in continental Europe - though it did used to be this way in Britain too).

What I would say is that the decision-making should be democratized. Unfortunately the interests of the member states mean that they limit the involvement of the people - the pace of reform has been slow and fitful, leading to a series of treaties which don't change much, but generate fear that the pace of EU reform is going beyond what people want. So as well as enlargement fatigue, we has reform fatigue.

@Asa - the EP does not nominate the Commission President under the current treaties or post-Lisbon. The Council and the EP do have a gentleman's agreement, however, that the Council will nominate someone who comes from the same political family as the biggest group in the EP.