Can the EU Be Reformed?

For those who view Euroscepticism as extreme, but who disagree with the way the EU operates, calling for reformation would seem like a sensible option. Of course, there is nothing that ‘extreme’ about Euroscepticism. Even when the evidence suggests that Britain’s membership of the EU negatively impacts us, in terms of over-regulation, over-bureaucracy, waste, economic costs (as this report by Civitas details) and an erosion of democratic rule and various freedoms, people are still averse to anti-EU sentiments. No doubt this has to do with the connection between Euroscepticism and UKIP – if you want to leave the EU then you also must also be pro-UKIP. And no one wants to be associated with the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and climate change denial attributed to some of the party’s more embarrassing members.

Unfortunately, Euroscepticism has become deeply connected to far-right nationalism and anti-immigration attitudes. But the reality is, Euroscepticism is not party-specific and can sit pretty much anywhere on the political spectrum. Tony Benn, for example, was a Labour politician, anti-nationalist and socialist. He himself was an passionate Eurosceptic, on the grounds that he thought there wasn’t enough democracy in Brussels. A very non-controversial point to make. Another prominent Eurosceptic on the Left was the recently deceased trade union leader, Bob Crow. Indeed, Bob Crow led No2EU – a left-wing Eurosceptic alliance. Their slogan is No2EU – Yes to Democracy. Like Tony Benn, Bob Crow and members of No2EU saw the EU as a threat to democracy.

The European Commission, the executive body of the EU which proposes legislation, implements decisions and upholds treaties, consists of unelected Commissioners. The European Parliament does not function like national parliaments, where the public can use their constitutional right to vote to elect MPs. In the EU, people do not have these powers. Furthermore, the ministers of the EU Council (where laws are adopted) are disconnected from the scrutiny of national parliaments, so important decisions can be made often in secrecy.

Admittedly, a member state leaving the EU is without precedent, so it is understandable to be cautious when planning an exit. However, this doesn’t mean we should sit back and hope for reform or wait for another country to leave first. Surely if the ever-increasing federalism and super-statism of Europe is bad for Britain, we should leave…shouldn’t we? Yet for those on the fence, who are undecided on the issue of EU membership, reform seems like a more moderate and safer option. Why risk possible good relations with the other 27 member states when we can make negotiations with the EU? This leads me onto the following important question: Can negotiations really be made?

When David Cameron made his seven-point plan for EU reforms, opinion was divided on the matter. Was the PM serious and confident about making these negotiations? Was it just a way to win over UKIP voters? Or, as many Eurosceptics thought, was Cameron deluding himself with unachievable aims? Let’s look at these aims in turn.

1.     “Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it”. This demand is questionable. It is questionable whether Brussels would be willing to sacrifice its decision-making powers and whether Britain can regain its national sovereignty while still shackled to the EU and its convoluted bureaucratic machinery.

2.     “National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation”. This demand is fair enough, however it can only be achieved if the European Parliament forms closer ties with national parliaments – it is not clear that it would be willing to do so.

3.     “Businesses benefited from red tape and benefiting from the strength of the EU’s own market to open up greater free trade with North America and Asia”. First of all, the red tape that British small and medium enterprises (SMEs) suffer from is so typical of the EU. This government report highlights how many EU regulations have failed and massively cost British businesses. Recommendations were made on how the EU can correct this, but despite this, the EU hasn’t reacted in the appropriate way. Red tape just seems to be essential to their operation.

As far as opening up greater free trade goes, Britain cannot make trade deals on its own terms. Being a member of the EU means we have to make trade deals with North America on the EU's terms. For example, many are worried about the possibility of Britain joining the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal between the EU and the US. The worry is that such a deal will threaten environmental regulations and democracy and will only protect the interests of big corporations. A EU trade chief was hoping to secure this deal by late 2014. Furthermore, being a member of the 28-bloc means Britain cannot actually make trade deals with Latin American countries, Asia and the rest of the world, if it wanted to.

4.     “UK police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the European court of human rights”. Here, I think, Cameron is deluded if he thinks Britain can opt out of the European Court of Human Rights, as if its rulings were only considerations. The European Court of Human Rights is fundamental to the EU.

5.     “Free movement to take up work, not free benefits”. I’m not even sure this is a particularly important worry. The idea that migrants come to Britain merely to claim benefits is unfounded. There is very little evidence for ‘benefits tourism’ – it is largely a myth. Here Cameron is probably just pandering to the pro-UKIP camp.

6.     “Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the continent”. The principle of free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU’s treaties. It is a freedom I fully support. However, Cameron’s 6th demand is fantastical for two reasons: firstly, Britain could not implement ‘new mechanisms’ to control migration, because these powers rest with Brussels, and secondly, his appeal to “vast migrations” is, again, an unfounded worry, and most likely a pandering to UKIP voters.

7.     “Ensuring Britain is no longer subject to the concept of “ever closer union”, enshrined in the treaty signed by every EU country”. Here Cameron shoots himself in the foot. By admitting that “ever closer union” is enshrined in a treaty, which Britain too must sign, he concedes that we are subject to the EU’s plan of becoming a federal, super-state, intent on homogenising its 28 member states. If Cameron thinks Britain can persuade the EU to take out this clause of “ever closer union” or avoid having to sign the treaty, he really is deluded.

I think it is safe to say then that making negotiations with the EU will be an up-hill struggle; even impossible some may say. Indeed, the Bruges Group, a think tank which favours Euroscepticism, thinks it is a myth that the EU can be reformed and offers various reasons why. They recommend Britain leave the EU as quickly as possible. This is not to say than an exit from the EU should be rash and unplanned. The winner of the 2014 IEA Brexit Prize, Iain Mansfield, describes his version of a sensible EU exit plan in his paper, A Blueprint for Britain: Openness Not Isolation.

However, given the recent success of UKIP and European far-right parties (such as the Front National in France) in the recent European elections, EU leaders have agreed to re-evaluate the bloc’s agenda. The UK government claimed, therefore, that progress is being made in establishing an EU reform agenda. Whether this is true, or simply just more wishful thinking, remains to be seen. I am sceptical that any serious or fundamental changes will be made.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com