John Bruton: UK risks shooting itself in the foot with Brexit reforms

Measures to be debated today will slow down decision making and hit trade

A Union Jack flag is raised next to European Union flags ahead of a visit from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels this week. REUTERS/Yves Herman

A Union Jack flag is raised next to European Union flags ahead of a visit from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels this week. REUTERS/Yves Herman

 

The concessions being sought by David Cameron to win the coming vote on British membership of the EU could make Europe even more complicated than it already is.

They could slow down decision-making still further at the very time when problems are becoming more, not less, urgent. This is not “reform”.

Britain is already exempt from joining the euro, exempt from the common border rules of Schengen, and does not have to take part in EU activities to combat crime (although it can opt into these on a pick-and- mix basis).

It is a semi-detached member, which makes it harder for Britain to exercise leadership in the EU.

Now Britain is seeking, and may be granted at a summit today, new concessions.

These concessions are being sought because British public opinion is convinced the only locus of true democracy for Britain is Westminster.

The truth is that neither the EU, nor Westminster, are perfect expressions of democracy.

In Westminster a party can have an overall majority of the seats with only 37per cent of the vote.

In the EU, while the members of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, who make the decisions, each have democratic mandate, the people of Europe do not have a sense that they can throw the EU government out of office.

But, instead of focusing on how to make the EU-level governance more democratic, British negotiators have concentrated on enhancing the capacity of the 28 national parliaments to block EU lawmaking.

Given that Britain is a global player and wants EU markets to be open to its exporters, one would have expected it instead to focus on making global and EU-wide governance more democratic, rather than slowing EU lawmaking down.

In response to British requests, EU rules are to be changed to allow 55 per cent of national parliaments to apply to have an EU law blocked before it has been properly considered by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Blocking mechanism

Subsidiarity is such an imprecise concept that this blocking mechanism could be used for reasons of pure political opportunism.

One could easily envisage this new instrument being used by lawyers to kill off an EU law aimed at opening up the EU market for legal services.

Likewise, one could see a proposal to open up the energy market across borders, being opposed by high-cost producers.

As it is, the lawyers and the energy companies can already fight such laws in the European Commission before they are presented, and then in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament while they are being debated and voted upon. Now they and their lobbyists are to have an extra blocking tool.

All national parliaments are equal in this system, so the 55per cent blocking vote could come from countries that represent only a small minority of the EU population.

Britain is primarily an exporter of services rather than goods. It is in the area of services, rather than goods, that the EU single market is furthest from completion. Therefore services is the area where the EU will need to pass the most laws to sweep aside national restrictions on competition.

As a services exporter, Britain would have more than most to gain from this. So it is surprising that they are putting an extra obstacle in its way.

Another proposed concession to Britain could also complicate EU decision-making on economic and financial matters.

It is proposed that a non-euro zone state, like Britain, be free to appeal a law, which is proposed to safeguard the euro, to the European Council.

This is despite the fact that that non-euro members are to be freed of any financial obligation for euro area costs, and that the supervision of their banks be a “matter for their own authorities” .

It is unclear what happens when the appeal is brought to the European Council.

The council usually decides issues by unanimity, so an urgent euro-area matter could be vetoed by a member state, which was not even in the euro. This would give power without responsibility.

These are matters of judgment on which it may not be easy to find unanimity, especially when time is short and national interests collide.

For the past two millennia, Britain has had a vital interest in the peace and prosperity of continental Europe.

It has gone to war many times to preserve it. English is the language of EU governance. The EU single market is a modern application of the ideas of Adam Smith.

‘Leading powers’

While Castlereagh’s views and record on Ireland were mistaken, his views on Europe were not.

Rather than seeking exceptions and exemptions, Cameron should follow his example and set out his own country’s comprehensive and positive vision for the peace and prosperity of Europe.

Then, perhaps, the British people might decide that they are really in the EU for the long haul.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach and EU ambassador to the US

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