THE Brexit debate has produced a lot of anti-EU rhetoric. At this critical moment in our country’s history, we need to remember the EU’s achievements.
With its origins in the post-war need for reconciliation, it has played a major role in preserving peace and uniting east and west Europe.
For countries such as Ukraine and Serbia, the prospect of EU membership is a beacon of hope. A weakened EU (an inevitable result of Brexit) will please no-one more than Vladimir Putin.
The EU’s single market, which Margaret Thatcher helped to create, is the world’s largest trading bloc – 500 million consumers enjoy frictionless tariff-free trade and common standards.
Free access to that market was a major incentive for companies like Nissan to invest in the UK. We also benefit from EU trade agreements with more than 50 countries around the world. Brexit may make it harder – not easier – to secure good access to markets like China and India. How can the UK hope to secure better deals than a trading bloc the size of the EU?
But trade is only part of the picture. The EU has been in the forefront of efforts to improve environmental protection – 95 per cent of Britain’s beaches are now clean enough for swimming thanks to the EU’s Bathing Water Directive.
EU legislation such as the working time directive has brought real benefits. As a district nurse, my wife was grateful for the 1990 directive covering the manual lifting of patients.
Membership of Europol helps to ensure our security through EU-wide cooperation to combat terrorism and serious crime. The EU’s Regional Development Fund, originally a UK initiative, has helped to promote economic growth in Ireland, Portugal, less advantaged regions of the UK and elsewhere. Our cultural heritage is European. We now have the European Union Youth Orchestra and the annual European Capital of Culture.
But the EU is far from perfect. Is it run by unelected bureaucrats? The work of the European Commission is directed by its President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) and its 28 Commissioners – one from each EU country. None of these is directly elected. Moreover, the Commission has the sole right to propose legislation which, if agreed, is binding on all member states.
But that’s less than half the story. Bear in mind two very important facts. First, although the Commission can propose legislation, decisions are taken not by the Commission but by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament – bodies consisting entirely of democratically-elected politicians. Moreover, national parliaments are able to scrutinise proposed legislation before decisions are taken.
Second, EU Commissioners are nominated by the heads of democratically-elected governments and approved by members of the democratically-elected European Parliament. So they are indirectly elected.
A survey conducted by the US’s Pew Research Center showed only a third of Europeans having a favourable view of the EU institutions, with two-thirds believing that their voice does not count in Brussels. The turnout in European Parliamentary elections is low and votes are cast largely on national issues.
Certainly, there seems to be a disconnection between the EU institutions in Brussels and the man or woman in the street. Is there not a similar disconnection between people in Yorkshire and Westminster?
The EU has shown that progressive reform is possible. For example, the Common Agricultural Policy has evolved over the years as priorities have changed.
Three further reforms could help to reduce the so-called democratic deficit. First, the Commission President should be directly-elected. Rival candidates from different political parties could be voted on. This would provide a degree of public engagement with the EU.
Second, the European Parliament should become a proper legislature able to initiate legislation.
Third, the Commissioners, rather than being nominated by national governments should also be elected – either by national electorates or by national parliaments or by European Parliamentarians. The latter would encourage high calibre candidates wanting to become Commissioners to stand for election as MEPs.
None of this could be done quickly or easily. These reforms would involve treaty change, for which (with memories of Maastricht and Lisbon still fairly fresh) there is currently little appetite.
Even without such reforms, the EU is overwhelmingly a force for good. Many of today’s major issues – climate change, terrorism, internet crime – cannot be tackled effectively by one country acting alone. International collaboration is vital. And one of the most successful ever examples of that is the European Union.
Tony Rossiter is a former diplomat from North Yorkshire who took part in many EU negotiations.