Sixty years ago, Europe confronted the aftermath of the most devastating war in history. A new generation of Europeans was determined to build a better future out of the wreckage as partners rather than rivals. It was a bold experiment – and it worked. The European Union has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to its member states and helped entrench democracy and respect for human rights.
Yet despite its massive achievements, not everyone seems happy about the direction in which Europe is heading. This point was driven home by the rejection of the European constitution in the Netherlands and in France, both founding member states.
Few people want to return to the destructive nationalism of the 19th century, or deny the benefit of collective European action. Many of the problems confronting us – from terrorism to climate change – tend to be transnational in nature. Businesses, non-governmental organisations and individuals want more European action to help them remain competitive in a global economy, to protect the environment and improve co-operation between legal systems. These are areas where member states cannot provide the solutions on their own and where European action can improve people’s lives.
It is not the idea of Europe, therefore, that is being questioned, but the way the EU works. People fear an anonymous European bureaucracy getting involved in too many aspects of our lives at the expense of cultural identity, national sovereignty and individual freedom. They want a Europe that is a heavyweight in defending our common interests and values, but light on needless regulation. Our aim must be to make Europe work better.
The “period of reflection” announced by the European Council in June is
an opportunity to debate these issues frankly and openly and to look at
how the EU can focus on those
areas where it brings real benefits to its citizens.
The Dutch government will not present the constitutional treaty to its parliament for endorsement and the British government has postponed the ratification process. Irrespective of this, it is important to maintain a focus on what the treaty was trying to achieve – including clarifying what Europe should do and what should remain the preserve of national politics.
Today in The Hague, the Dutch government and the British EU presidency will co-host a conference on sharing power in Europe. That conference will look at two principles that can help get the right balance between action at local, national and European level.
The first is “subsidiarity” – that decisions should be made at the nearest possible level of government to the public. If effective action can be taken at local or national level, it should be. This makes government more understandable, efficient and accountable. The idea was first included in the Maastricht treaty, but there is more that the European Commission, the European parliament, governments and national parliaments can do to make it work better. These institutions should work together more closely and at an earlier stage on every piece of proposed legislation.
The second is “proportionality” – that even when the EU can show why it is getting involved, this should not lead to unnecessary red tape. Again, national parliaments can play a valuable role by debating and analysing proposals. A case in point is the recently amended Commission directive on optical radiation. Practically no one denied that workers all over Europe should be able to rely on the same minimum level of protection against harmful rays. The real argument was about whether the EU needed to be responsible for making all builders working out of doors – from Greece to Glasgow – use sunblock. In this case, it was good that the Commission listened to the views of the European parliament.
Some have seen European integration as a drive towards ever closer union in every area. But harmonisation and standardisation should not be the pat response to every problem. The idea – however unfair – of a dirigiste regime churning out endless regulation is what turns many people off the idea of Europe. The recent steps the Commission has taken to cut regulation are positive. The aim of today’s conference is to find ways to strengthen the engagement of national parliaments at an early stage, so that local and national sensitivities are taken into account and the case for European action is made and not just assumed.
Atzo Nicolaï is the Dutch minister for European affairs. Douglas Alexander is the UK minister for Europe