A recent item at this blog posted by Editor, ‘EU-it really is getting sillier by the day’, refers to the attempt at an EU ban on serving olive oil in restaurants except in packaged bottles, and the reversal of this idea of by the Commission. While I think the item makes a very good point about the persistence of over-regulation by the EU, and proposals which rightly attract public ridicule, the headline at least was a bit harsh. After all the ban was reversed by the Commission. This reality also undermines the image of the EU as driven by out of control bureaucrats in the Commission dreaming up bizarre projects for an over centralised and over regulated Union. The post hints at, but does not quite reveal, the economic interests behind the proposal. It was driven by big olive oil producers in southern Europe, who claim to be ‘maintaining standards’. By extraordinary coincidence ‘maintaining standards’ in this case would have the effect of driving out competition by small scale ‘artisanal’ producers, who would find the cost of the required packaging less easy to bear than big producers.
The point here is not just that the EU often falls prey to this kind of attempted manipulation by sectional economic interests, but that regulation in the nation states of the EU, and nations all over the world, is driven by this kind of distortion of decision making through sectional interests able to undermine the common good, including that central good of depoliticised open competitive markets. The proposed olive oil in restaurants regulation was pushed by national governments in those EY countries which are large scale olive oil producers, and the political process is under the influence of the major producers in that sector. The liberal reform of the EU must include very strong, clear and enforceble measures against these forces which ravage all countries, and which are particularly necessary in the EU because it has failed to create a political system, on the whole that can resist the EU being defined by vulnerability to such forces.
As the original post points out, the Liberal Democrats, have been long term supporters of the EU, leaving open the question of what attitude the Liberal Democrats should have now, and what contribution Liberal Vision should have to make to debate on the matter. I’m sure there are differences of opinion within the Liberal Vision group on this, but we have overall taken the line of supporting a political union of European nations while questioning the form it should take. Some LV people present and past (before passing onto non-party political roles)have been deeply involved in the European Movement, and I did a few very minor things within EM and the Liberal Democrat European Group myself before I became an ex-pat academic in Istanbul.
My proposal is that we should stick to the policy of political union, but separate ourselves very clearly from the administrative centralism which is supported by the mainstream pro-EU groups. Of course the people concerned do not describe themselves in that way, but the reality is that their default attitude is to support any centralising measure, and to dismiss any and all opposition and criticism, as populism coming from the fringe of the left or the right. The Euro crisis has dampened such attitudes, but they will keep coming back, and we should contest them. What we should aim for is clear but limited political union, a form of federalism but emphasising that federalism limits the power of the centre, We should aim for a limited number of areas of EU legislation and action, which are done well but kept within limits. I will list a series of proposals which I hope will be of interest to those who want a European political union without the drift to regulatory bloat and grandiose projects adopted regardless of the risk and the downside.
1. More of a role for national parliaments. Maybe a minimum number of national parliaments to give assent before legislation is passed.
2. All areas of EU legislation to be jointly legislated by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. A very easy to understand procedure to be adopted for how this works.
3. Abolition of the European Council, a deeply absurd addition to the EU institutions.
4. Abolition of the Commission, its best employees to be redeployed as EU civil servants.
5. Formation of a European government (probably with some less provocative name) on a roughly Swiss model, that is ministers from the main political groups in the European Parliament in accordance with representation in the EP. The idea of national style competition between political blocs across the EU has it charms, but is unrealistic for reasons which include linguistic differences and differences between national parties within the European ‘parties’. These considerations should be considered as fatal for any idea of directly elected president of the EU.
6. Some form or EU basic law, or constitution (maybe with a less provocative name), designed to limit powers. Strong institutional arrangements to enforce limits on powers, and prevent centralist drift. This can be very difficult as US experience shows, but let the EU adopt more and stronger measures to prevent such drift.
7. A completion of the internal market to eliminate all barriers to trade, particularly with regard to contracting out of public services and cross border entry into ‘professional’ and ‘skilled employment’. The least onerous regulations of any nation to be the de facto regulation across all nations.
8. Internal market to be accompanied by equivalent (or near as possible) opening up to non-EU competition. Maybe there should be a law to bring this in within 10 years.
9. Tax competition to be allowed and encouraged.
10. The Euro, if it survives and I presume it will, to be optional for new EU countries, and to be based on a relatively clear set of enforceable restraints on debts and borrowing, and bail out conditions, with a presumption against bail out of private financial institutions, except as a genuine last resort.
10. Other big European projects, to be based on opt ins and coalitions of willing governments, not enforced uniformity.
11. Laws and institutions to be based on restraint of new regulations, with very robust tests regarding economic costs, before formulation, and certainly before enactment.
I do not make any claim to expertise on EU institutions and I recognise that not all the above are easy to combine. However, discussion of the EU has too long been the preserve of a few who understand its structures, and all political associations have some tensions within their institutions and constitutional arrangements. In any case, I offer these proposals as a stimulation to discussion, not as a prediction of where the EU is going.