The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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Wednesday, 19th May 2004

The suggestion that EU Constitution was just "tidying up" is a silly phrase best forgotten

 

Gisela Stuart, MP


The EU Constitution: Where Next?


Thank you for asking me to speak to the Bruges Group tonight.

Some commentators have expressed surprise that a Labour MP should speak on such a platform, but I had no hesitation in accepting. I see no point in only talking to my own side.

Of course, the Bruges Group will forever be associated with Lady Thatcher's address in 1988 and perhaps that explains why my appearance is thought a bit eccentric in some circles.

My understanding is that the Bruges Group today advocates withdrawal from the EU, something I don't think Lady Thatcher has actually called for and even she hasn't always been entirely consistent on Europe. No harm in that, as Maynard Keynes said: "when the facts change, my views change too."

The Prime Minister who gave her speech in Bruges in 1988 set out very different views from those she had expressed earlier in her career. For example, just before the 1979 election she accused Jim Callaghan of being insufficiently communitaire, and suggested that, "it would be more to Britain's advantage if he and his colleagues dropped their abrasive and critical attitude towards our Common Market partners". Of course this was the very charge made against her later.

Other examples could be quoted, but the purpose is not to cast doubt on Lady Thatcher's integrity still less to make cheap political points, but simply to point out that great political figures with strong convictions have changed their mind on Europe. We all know that Tony Blair stood on a platform of withdrawal in1983 and of course he has done an about-turn about having a referendum: good for knock-about in the House of Commons, but something that should be welcomed across the political spectrum.

If the "big beasts" of politics can change their minds, it seems reasonable that others can too. My own views on Europe have certainly altered not least as a result of my experience on the Convention on the Future of Europe.

The suggestion that EU Constitution was just "tidying up" is a silly phrase best forgotten

The suggestion that EU Constitution was just "tidying up" is a silly phrase best forgotten, but even if the Constitution were simply consolidating previous treaties without fundamentally affecting the way Britain is governed, the case for a referendum was always a strong one.

There are many people in Britain who are unaware of the contents and implications of various European treaties that have been signed. As a cabinet minister at the time Ken Clarke took pride in not reading the Treaty of Maastricht, so why should the bulk of the electorate be assumed to be aware of what had been agreed in their name. It's clear from his comments that Ken Clarke hasn't read the Constitution he advocates either.

But then he is in good company. I well remember the outrage by government representatives from all across Europe when the first 15 draft articles of the Constitution where published in the autumn of 2002. Their fiercest criticism focused on things already agreed in previous treaties!

Some of those who voted "yes" in 1975, endorsing Britain's member ship of the European Economic Community (EEC) may have become disillusioned while others who voted "no" then may well have become converts now. People do change their minds. And there are many too young to have participated in 1975 and still other not born then, who have never had a chance to express a vote on how they are governed within the present structure of the EU.

A new treaty that simply spelt out and codified the implications of the EU for holding our elected representatives to account for decisions affecting British citizens would in any event have been a good opportunity to seek renewed endorsement in a referendum. But of course the actual Constitution does much more.

It is not just another Treaty - it is a Treaty that establishes a Constitution. This has political and legal consequences. Unlike all preceding Treaties it dissolves the old Union, establishing a new Union on altered foundations.

A union of 25 members and growing does need to re-examine the way it makes its decisions, but the notion that the most important thing is to help the EU make more decisions more swiftly is somewhat bizarre. The EU is not suffering from too little legislation.

the notion that the most important thing is to help the EU make more decisions more swiftly is somewhat bizarre. The EU is not suffering from too little legislation
The focus should be on making the right decisions at the appropriate level.

Hitherto every extension of EU membership has been used as an opportunity for further integration. It has become accepted wisdom that this should be so. In the Constitution the phrase "an ever closer Union, has been replaced by "united ever more closely" - but I would not attach too much significance to this.

But as membership increases the process needs to be reversed, if the EU is to operate for the benefit of member states, individually and collectively.

As membership increases the process needs to be reversed, if the EU is to operate for the benefit of member states, individually and collectively


As an American commentator recently remarked:


"The politicians spearheading the move toward greater integration appear to believe they can manufacture legitimacy by fiat, by creating facts on the ground. The attitude seems to be that the more entrenched the EU becomes, the more accepting the man on the street will become. That's a dubious proposition".

As my kids would say - he is dead right!

The politicians spearheading the move toward greater integration appear to believe they can manufacture legitimacy by fiat, by creating facts on the ground. The attitude seems to be that the more entrenched the EU becomes, the more accepting the man on the street will become. That's a dubious proposition


The opinions expressed by the Bruges Group may not be to everyone's taste, including my own, but they often do reflect a wider, if still minority, opinion in this country about Europe. Too much of the so-called "debate" on Europe is carried out through megaphones by entrenched groups from their respective bunkers, leaving much of the public confused or simply apathetic - just look at the turnout in European elections.

As party politicians we have to come out of our boxes. Conservatives are too often afraid to support anything good about Europe and many in the Labour Party are too reluctant to oppose some of the nonsense. And both for the same reasons: the issue of Europe has become tribal. Those in favour argue that European integration is good without being specific. Those who find fault are able to illustrate specific shortcomings, but fail to offer a real alternative.

As I understand it, the Bruges Group does have an alternative: Britain should leave the EU. This is not a course I favour, though simply asserting that it would be damaging to Britain is an inadequate response and itself simply reflects an unthinking consensus among much of the political elite. Those arguing for endorsement of any Constitution will have to do better than the implied threat "you may not like what is on offer, but you'll like the alternative even less," or more prosaically, "hold onto nurse for fear of something worse."

The phrase "there is no alternative" is one usually associated with Lady Thatcher in her heyday. It is now being uttered from some very unlikely lips to argue that the only alternative to further European integration is withdrawal from or relegation within the EU, but there are alternatives and there is a duty to put them before the public in an honest way.

It is now being uttered from some very unlikely lips to argue that the only alternative to further European integration is withdrawal from or relegation within the EU, but there are alternatives and there is a duty to put them before the public in an honest way


I imagine I approach the EU from a very different starting point from most of you here today. I was born in the mid 1950s in Bavaria: my father was a farmer and my mother a refugee from the East.

Even as a child I was conscious of what was happening in Europe. At school we held collections for the children of Berlin and the key historical events that are lodged in my memory include Adenauer and de Gaulle in reconciliation at Reims Cathedral, the Elysee Treaty, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

I also remember watching the 1966 World Cup final, and I am still convinced that Geoff Hurst's shot was not over the line, but that no doubt is a very German view.

My view of the world - or Weltanschauung - accepted without question that the European Community was a good thing; and as a farmer's daughter I even approved of the Common Agricultural Policy.

You may be pleased to know that my views on the CAP have changed, and on a broader front too, though this took time. When I arrived in Britain in January 1974 the economy was a basket case and the country promptly switched off the lights for three days a week. During the 1975 referendum I could not understand why there was even a question to be asked. As a child of the Wirtschaftswunder - the economic miracle - I saw for myself what state this country was in, and how much better things were in continental Europe.

Things have changed a great deal and not just the relative performance of the British economy. I still believe that the supra-national framework of Monnet and Schuman was an appropriate one for reconciling the antagonism of France and Germany after the Second World War, but I understand why it was inimical for Britain.

When it did eventually enter the European Community - after twice being vetoed by France it should be remembered - it was bound to be more difficult for Britain than for other countries to accommodate and feel at ease with an arrangement that inevitably bore the footprint of the predominant political, economic and legal culture of the continent and which represented and still represents a discontinuity with our history and political sense of identity, to a far greater extent than for most other countries of the EU.

But in a sense this no longer matters in quite the way it did since the political and economic framework of the EU is now not only uncomfortable for Britain, but it is also inappropriate for the EU as a whole: this is the real significance of the Constitution.

The text must be examined closely, but drawing "red-lines" and treating each clause in isolation misses the point. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The Constitution that is likely to emerge is based on a political, social and economic structure that reflects the attitudes moulded by the prevailing climate of fifty years ago. The world has moved on, Germany is united, Communism has collapsed, the integration of the international economy continues apace, and the EU needs to bring itself up to date too. The model designed and built in 1957 has done pretty well, but it needs more than a lick of paint and smart new registration book for the road ahead.

The Constitution that is likely to emerge is based on a political, social and economic structure that reflects the attitudes moulded by the prevailing climate of fifty years ago


There are other models available. These include an EU with a more overtly federal and democratic structure or alternatively an EU that has a much less comprehensive political and economic agenda with much of the existing authority in Brussels returned to the democratic accountability of Member States.

New ideas are coming from all quarters of the political spectrum. They deserve to be heard. Vincent Cable from the Lib Dems recently suggested that all social policy be handed back by Brussels. People will have their own idea on this and other options, but there are alternatives to one that simply compounds the worst features of the inter-governmental and community methods that currently dominate the EU.

I am not opposed to the concept of a Constitution as such. I can see the case for setting out clearly what is to be carried out at different levels within the EU, not least as a means of prescribing the activities of the centre, but the present proposals don't do that at all and anyone who pretends otherwise is deluding themselves or, more likely, trying to delude others.

I take issue with Michael Heseltine who wrote in The Daily Telegraph on April 26th: "The Treaty defines clearly what the EU can and cannot do. For the first time the limits of EU powers are defined in one document"

I take issue with Michael Heseltine who wrote in The Daily Telegraph on April 26th: "The Treaty defines clearly what the EU can and cannot do. For the first time the limits of EU powers are defined in one document"


An opportunity has been missed to think boldly about where the EU should be going next, this being the case it is even more necessary to be aware of the implications of the existing text.

An opportunity has been missed to think boldly about where the EU should be going next


I beg your forbearance at this point. If I start to become very technical and sound like Bill Cash - or an Anorak, a term you understand, but the translators in Brussels have great difficulties with - it simply serves to illustrate that small words matter. Take the matter of "competence" and the role of national parliaments, for example.

The Constitution defines three categories of competences.

Article 12 defines "Exclusive Competences" i.e. only the Union can act and the principle of subsidiarity does not apply.

Article 13 refers to "shared Competences" and Article 16 defines "Areas of supporting, co-ordinating or complementary action".

Articles 13 and 16 are subject to the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality. This is important, because national parliaments will have a role in relation to Articles 13 and 16.

Article 17 - called the Flexibility Clause - in essence says that the Union can do anything that the Constitution has not thought of, provided heads of government agree unanimously and national parliaments have had their "attention drawn to it".

What this really means is that a "shared competence" is one where the "Commission has not occupied the field" - or in simple language member states can only make decision in those areas the EU has decided not to take over.

Two things are important here:

First - there is no area that is specifically excluded from EU competence. Provided all heads of governments agree, without having to seek the approval of their national parliaments, anything can fall within the competence of the EU.

Second - once something has become an EU competence, it can not be returned to member states at a later stage. In other words, the flow of power is only one way. Or as the Prime Minister said in another context "there is no reverse gear".

A close reading of Article 11 creates a small opening. Article 11 (2) refers to "Member States shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised, or has decided to cease exercising, its competence".

Believing as I do, that powers need to be returned to member states, I insisted on the inclusion of this phrase in the Presidium in the hope that it might be broadened and strengthened. As it stands it is no more than a small wedge on which the government must keep hammering. If the EU is to thrive the Constitution must create a framework within which powers can credibly flow from Brussels as well as to Brussels.

The government has drawn up its set of "red lines" which define areas they regard as vital to Britain's national interest and these certainly must be secured, but in some respects they are more easily defended than forms of words, often apparently innocuous, that open up additional fronts for further integration, later.

As a simple illustration I want to highlight two articles. I-24 [4] allows heads of governments to move from unanimity to qualified majority without having to seek the consent of national parliaments. This undermines national parliaments, as it allows for changes that would normally require Treaty amendments..

III - 175 sets up the institution of the European Public Prosecutor, but only if all heads of governments agree - something referred to as the unanimity lock.

Either we need a European Public Prosecutor - in which case we should create one now - or we don't - in which case, there is no need to put into the Constitution, because heads of governments could always set one up, provided they all agree.

But it illustrates the "direction of travel" for the EU. The Constitution does strengthen the role of National Parliaments. But as it stands it is a token gesture. Parliaments are "informed and consulted", but it does not anchor EU decision making in national institutions. This is very dangerous: when electorates sense that the people and institutions they elect are increasingly unaccountable and that the political institutions that define the nation are undermined, nationalism will find expressions in other ways: colour, religion or ethnic origin.

No one knows whether there will be agreement to a text in June this year, but no agreement is better than a bad one. At the very least, any Constitution must return powers to member states and establish a framework that provides a credible process to allow others to be repatriated too. Without that it will not be acceptable. The EU will only regain authority if member states regain some of theirs: not in response to a "British problem" but to a European one.

When electorates sense that the people and institutions they elect are increasingly unaccountable and that the political institutions that define the nation are undermined, nationalism will find expressions in other ways: colour, religion or ethnic origin

Margaret Thatcher in her speech in September 1988 said: "Europe is not the creation of the Treaty of Rome. Nor is the European idea the property of any group or institution. We British are as much heirs to the legacy of the European culture as any other nation".

I agree and it is time that those of us who want the European Union to survive into the 21st century faced up to the real challenges ahead. The world has changed since 1957 and the EU better change too. If it doesn't the pressure for withdrawal or some peculiar form of associate membership, will increase in Britain.

The world has changed since 1957 and the EU better change too. If it doesn't the pressure for withdrawal or some peculiar form of associate membership, will increase in Britain

This may please some of you here, but it is not a road I want to follow.