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'Better' rather than 'more' Europe

Franziska Brantner MEP sees a pro-European argument that must be more responsive to the EU's problems as well as its strengths.

While the UK government's approach to Europe seems to follow the notion "less is more", on the continent all major political parties – Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals and Greens – argue that "more Europe" is the answer to the euro crisis. While more Europe is certainly needed in some areas, pro-Europeans should focus their forces on making the EU more responsive to citizens. And they should realise that sometimes less can indeed be more – but combined with a real pro-European heart.

Europe is still mired in its deepest economic, social and political crisis since the Second World War. The global financial meltdown has translated across the European Union into an economic downturn, social hardship and a growing loss of political legitimacy and trust. The EU and its institutions and powers have increasingly been put into the spotlight in the search for ways out of the crisis.

Maybe surprisingly (especially for British observers), a broad consensus among decision-makers has emerged across Europe that the answer to the EU's existential crisis should be "more Europe". European Conservatives (which do not include the Tories), Socialists, Liberals and Greens have all voiced their support for more economic and political integration in order to overcome the EU's dangerous asymmetries: a quasi-federal monetary union without the economic and political pillars to keep it in balance.

The situation looks, of course, very different viewed from the United Kingdom, where the public debate on Europe is pretty much disconnected from that on the mainland. However, even on the continent, pro-Europeans should not content themselves with the general lip service paid to "more Europe".

First of all, this seeming consensus does not go far beyond the surface since "more Europe" can mean very different things to different people. Also, rhetorical commitment to deeper integration often goes hand in hand with stalling tactics when it comes to its practical implementation. This has been exemplified by the hypocritical manoeuvring of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government over the past three years.

More worrying for pro-Europeans should be the lack of public support for, and trust in, an ever-more powerful Brussels even on the mainland. Today less than a third of EU citizens have a positive image of the European Union. This fundamental crisis of confidence is "home-made", i.e. the politicians both in national capitals and in Brussels have only themselves to blame. For, generally, Europeans are very open to the European idea. Polls show that not only the majority of EU citizens define their own identity not only in national but also European terms. But also do they support European solutions to concrete problems? For instance, almost 90 per cent of EU citizens agree that EU states should cooperate more closely to overcome the financial and economic crisis.

How does general support for European cooperation and shrinking confidence in Europe's institution go together? One explanation may be that two thirds of EU citizens believe that their voice does not count in EU affairs. Simply promising more of the same Europe to the people won't help address this growing disenchantment. People are not longing for more or less Europe; what they ask for is a better Europe. And they want themselves to have a say in what “better” means to them. The proponents of European integration, especially on the Continent, have so far failed to respond to these sentiments. They have been too quickly calling for ever-more Europe while brushing off valid criticism of actual problems as anti-European. Before calling for more Europe, pro-Europeans need to explain how citizens can retain ownership of the process. The truly historic project of genuinely finalising economic and political union will only be successful if the citizens feel part of the enterprise.

How can this be accomplished? There are some institutional fixes to this, largely centring on the European Parliament. The EU Parliament should finally be put on a fully equal footing with the EU Council of national governments. In particular, in monetary and economic matters, which are often not of a legislative nature and therefore don't fully involve MEPs yet, in the future no major decisions should be taken without Parliament's full involvement and approval. As a concrete step, the 'troika' should be abandoned and replaced by a democratically controlled body. As a result, Europe's response to the euro crisis would become much more transparent and the decision-makers behind it much more accountable.

Also, the link between the European Commission and the European Parliament needs to be further strengthened. At the same time the European Commission is handed increasingly more power in overseeing national fiscal and economic policies. The Commission President needs a stronger democratic mandate by tying his or her nomination to the results of the elections to the European Parliament. Just as the leader of the winning party or coalition of the elections to the UK House of Commons becomes Prime Minister, the leader of the pan-EU Party Alliance winning the elections to the European Parliament will become Commission President.

Despite the fact that these ideas are not new and today enjoy widespread public support in continental Europe, many national governments (and their bureaucrats), whilst paying lip service to the proposals, are reluctant to share power with MEPs and EU-wide political party leaders in practice. This includes the United Kingdom, where national in/out referenda seem to be regarded as a much better way to bolster the EU's legitimacy than enhancing popular participation at EU level.

Proponents of European integration should furthermore accept that “more Europe” cannot be the answer to each and every problem popping up, in many areas we actually could well live with "less Europe". Europe as a community certainly needs a firm and lasting legal foundation, which provides citizens and businesses with a unified framework, in which common laws are enforced and common fundamental rights protected. Beyond this firm and lasting foundation, however, the Union needs to remain flexible enough to evolve.

Certain areas such an evolution can lead to more Europe, in other areas to less Europe. Where we might need more Europe today, we might need less of it tomorrow. Objective circumstances and people's convictions change over time, and the division of labour between the Union and its states (as well as regions and municipalities), should adapt to this evolution and always be guided by the principle that competences must be located at the level at which the given objectives can best be achieved.

Brussels certainly needs more powers to stem the debt and banking crisis, at least as far as the Euro area is concerned. But does it really still need to control what a farmer seeds somewhere in South East England or whether a restaurant owner in Napoli puts open olive oil jugs on his tables?

One would certainly have to be fairly naive to believe that Brussels would voluntarily cede its powers, such as in the field of agricultural policies, back to the national level. It therefore needs mechanisms to ensure that the division of labour is not set in stone forever. One solution would be to tag EU laws with an expiry date. This would ensure that every, say, ten or fifteen years there have to be a fresh public debate on whether a particular issue is best dealt with in Brussels, London or at regional level. For many people, this would probably make it easier to support "more Europe" where and when it is needed.

While the notion of reviewing EU powers might sound familiar in the UK as of late, it is rarely heard of among continental advocates of European integration. It is very unfortunate that David Cameron's ongoing “review” of EU competences with its ideology-driven and blatantly unilateral nature will certainly make it no easier to sell the idea to pro-European circles on mainland Europe.

But the proponents of European integration, both in the UK and on the continent, should not leave this argument to the Eurosceptic and Europhobe camps. Europeans don't simply need “more Europe”. They need a better Europe, which can at times mean more powers for Brussels and at times less, but must always mean more ownership for the people.

Franziska Brantner an MEP from the Baden-Wurttemburg region in South West Germany and a member of the German Green party Die Grunen and the European Free Alliance bloc in the European Parliament