Friday, 18 July 2014

A role for national parliaments: giving substance to subsidiarity

Giving power to national parliaments is a common theme of EU reform. Expanding the power of the European Parliament, it's argued, has failed as can be seen from declining turnout. I don't buy the turnout theory, largely for the reasons Jon Worth has argued over at the LSE blog: there hasn't been a link between the European elections and the policy direction of the EU, never mind the people who run it, making the influence of the EP and the importance of the elections rather nebulous - and hardly exciting for citizens. It wasn't until Juncker was elected Commission President by the EP on the basis of the Spitzenkandidaten and election campaigns that the elections showed their true value, and we have to wait until the next election to see if the Europarty primaries and the campaigns generally come under greater scrutiny for their policy platforms.

The low turnout argument has led to some arguing that the EP should be replaced by the original assembly of national parliamentarians, or that there should be an upper chamber of national parliamentarians. But this wouldn't increase the legitimacy of the EU. The idea that national MPs would return home to discuss European decisions that have no bearing on their re-election clearly has no traction. Frankly, the hope here is that national MPs will socialise themselves into being more pro-European and this will tone down the anti-EU rhetoric at home - but European decisions are too political now not to have a direct democratic input. This is no solution for boosting EU legitimacy.

What about giving the national parliaments a red card power to block EU legislation? This idea has more merit, but to me it's coming at the question from the wrong angle. A system where you can block a lot, but where it's hard to make any decisions that are effective or that people can be happy with loses legitimacy simply by not working very well. By contrast, simple and direct democratic controls would give citizens a more direct route to the EU - compare the old way of picking the Commission President. Technically, it's still there - there's an election, the European Council considers the outcome and nominates a candidate that the European Parliament votes on. How is any voter going to engage in the elections based on that? But now that the winning candidate (with a majority in the Parliament) will be elected, it's a lot simpler and potentially more engaging.

It's the same with a blocking vote for national parliaments - it could prevent unpopular legislation, but it could also block solution-finding and decision-making so much that voters can't see how they can influence any outcome that they actually want. Which is why there needs to be a democratic European forum for European decisions.

But that doesn't mean that the national parliaments shouldn't have a bigger role at a European level. By building on the Yellow Card process, real substance could be given to subsidiarity. What decisions should be taken at what level is a political question that can't really be decided judicially, so it's up to national parliaments to help define what should be done at the national and European levels. But as Kosmopolito points out, the Yellow Card process is hardly used.

Maybe what the national parliaments need is a stronger institutional link with the EU. If they had an equivalent of the Committee of the Regions that could collate the views of national parliaments and give a joint opinion on legislation, and act as a secretariat that could help national parliaments use their Yellow Card powers more effectively. This could replace the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC), which is still a bit too informal to give the national parliaments the institutional support they need at the European level, and use IPEX as a basis. And by publishing joint opinions - or even a summary of the different opinions of national parliaments - this could give a more accessible expression of the different national positions and to the general parliamentary feeling on subsidiarity.

Of course, Member States could go further themselves and use the same system as the Danish parliament to scrutinise national ministers in the Council and give them clear mandates, but that's unlikely to be a popular idea among national governments...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Great British Cabinet Reshuffle

David Cameron has reshuffled his government for the last year of the parliamentary term, giving us the ministerial faces that will fight the next election. Reshuffles in themselves are generally not a major event for the European political sphere - Ireland had a government reshuffle last week, which might be of more interest to those still pondering Juncker's question of how to get elected after running an austerity government - but the UK government reshuffle has attracted some comment over the perceived Euroskeptic shift.

The last of the old Tory Europhiles, Ken Clarke, and some of the more pragmatic ministers such as Dominic Grieve and even William Hague (he of the 10 Day to Save the Pound fame) are gone. In their place is the new class of 2010, who are generally younger and more ideological. Richard Hammond, the Euroskeptic Defence Minister who publicly indicated that he would vote Out in an EU referendum unless there is enough to the reform package, is now the Foreign Secretary. The reshuffle has sparked fear in some quarters that it marks a turn for the worst that could signal the start of moves to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But we shouldn't get over-excited. The main focus of the reshuffle is domestic, like all other reshuffles. Promoting the younger generation of Tories is more about making the ministerial benches more diverse and slightly more gender-balanced while harnessing their zeal for the campaign. In Michael Gove's case (the highly divisive Education Minister), there has been a surprising demotion to Chief Whip (to reports of teachers celebrating in classrooms). The new cabinet is more Euroskeptic, but the focus is on the next election rather than on a big bust-up with Europe.

The next Tory manifesto will be the real test for how far the Conservatives will go. If a pledge to withdraw from the ECHR makes it into it, then we can be sure that Cameron has thrown in the towel on pretending to have a moderate European course. Membership of the ECHR is fundamental to membership of the Council of Europe and the EU, and a pledge to withdraw would indicate that Cameron himself could campaign for an Out vote. Nominating Lord Hill to be the next UK Commissioner may be a pragmatic sign (he's reported to be relatively pro-EU), but the Liberal Democrats would have had a say in moderating the government choice, so it's not exactly a clear signal. Hill is also an unknown figure with little obvious connection to a Commission portfolio, making it harder for the UK to get a good post (or harder for Juncker to reconcile with Cameron!), which could add to the narrative of Britain being sidelined in the EU.

In any case, the big fights will come after the next election, when a new cabinet would have to be formed. This reshuffle may be a Euroskeptic turn for the Conservatives, but it really doesn't tell us much new. Cameron's policy of appeasing the Euroskeptics has been heading this way for some time, and domestic political calculations are the biggest consideration here (Cameron is hardly famed for his long-termist thinking on Europe). It will be the next election manifesto that will be the true benchmark for how far Cameron is willing to go.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Juncker Programme

Yesterday the European Parliament elected the EPP Spitzenkandidat to the office of Commission President, putting the seal on the shift in power between the European Council and the Parliament. In his speech before his election, Juncker set out his political guidelines for the next Commission. Titled A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change (PDF), it's a pitch for the support of his social democrat allies while sending some signals to the right on subsidiarity and "welfare tourism". The coalition pact worked - not that it was ever in any doubt - delivering 422 votes where 376 would do, giving Juncker a majority of 46.

Juncker's "New Start" gives us a new political benchmark for judging the Commission - having set the goals such as coming up with a Jobs, Growth and Investment Package within the first 3 months of his Commission, the Commission President can now be judged by his own platform. This should breathe new life into the Commission, which under Barroso has largely been reactive to the ideas of the European Council. It also makes Parliament's scrutiny of the Commission more meaningful since the political programme is based on Juncker's majority - parliamentary attacks on legislation and the Commission itself for not delivering will be a lot more meaningful where the Commission isn't simply acting as the middle man for the European Council.

So what's in this New Start?

On the economy, Juncker has stressed the need to cut debt and to stick to the Stability Pact, while looking for more investment from the European Investment Bank. It remains to be seen how much the "Jobs, Growth and Investment Package" can actually deliver, but the PES should be happy that Juncker will continue backing for the Youth Guarantee, a big campaign for them over the last 2 years. Juncker has also pledged action on the digital single market within 6 months of his mandate: on data protection negotiations, reforming telecom rules and copyright rules and simplifying the rules for online consumers. Copyright is a particularly contentious issue after SOPA in the US and ACTA in the EU, so this could be an area to watch in the future.

On industrial policy, Juncker's headline goal is for industry to make up 20% of the European economy by 2020 (up from under 16%), though there is little here by way of concrete proposals yet, and it sounds like the measures envisaged are very indirect. Juncker has put forward the idea of a Capital Markets Union to complement the Banking Union and help cut the costs for raising money on the capital markets for SMEs. When it comes to the Eurozone and future "bail-outs", it's out with the trioka and in with "social impact assessments" to complement the "fiscal sustainability assessment" - a big issue for the PES.

The trade pact with the US was a big issue in the debates, and Juncker is still a big backer of it, though he has spoken about protecting European standards. Potentially the biggest change here could be the increasing parliamentary involvement in trade negotiations if Juncker lives up to his promise of more transparency on the negotiations.

On home affairs, there will be a Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, and Juncker is calling for a Directive to combat Discrimination. There will also be a Commissioner for Migration. The "Blue Card" legislation on immigration into Europe will be reviewed, and the new Commission will look into the support the European Asylum Support Office can offer Member States and third countries. Finally Juncker showed strong support for increasing the budget of the border agency FRONTEX. Perhaps linked to concerns over migration, Juncker has said that there won't be further enlargement of the Union for another 5 years - though it's unlikely that there would be much chance of a candidate country joining in the next 5 years in any case.

Politically the rhetoric has shifted leftwards, but I think the programme is still fairly centre-right. Gone are the earlier musings on a band of European minimum wages, though Juncker supports each Member States having a minimum wage, and it is hard to see how the talk on investment will really be translated into tangible action (there is a history of European politicians pinning their hopes on the European Investment Bank to fund their plans in the absence of a sizable EU budget). And while the debt-cutting targets or mechanisms may be softened or bought under more democratic control, the rules will remain in place.

Much of the programme is still a wish-list and we still have to wait to see what the Commission actually proposes (remember, the Parliament still has to grill and vote in the next Commission over the coming months before they can get down to work), but it represents a big departure from the old State of the European Union speeches that Barroso gave. Barroso's speeches where a fairly reliable guide to the legislative proposals the Commission would make, but where usually originally a Council idea or only put forward where the Commission felt that the Council would find a proposal acceptable. This programme, and probably future Juncker speeches, will probably be more significant for not merely being a list of legislation, but part of a political programme: some legislation won't make it, but it's also an opportunity to shape the EU agenda.

This is not to say that the programme, along with yesterday's speech, is earth-shattering or even if it's the right list of policies, but the political Commission is back. And that's a good thing.