Listening to Britain on EU reform
By Benjamin Fox
'Listening' was the watchword of William Hague's speech at the Koenigswinter conference last Friday, an understated - and welcome - approach after the fire and brimstone that has dominated recent debate on the UK's membership of the EU.
"Too often, the British people feel that Europe is something that happens to them, not something they have enough of a say over, said Hague, adding that "the EU is happy speaking but does not seem interested in listening".
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The contents of the speech should not have come as a surprise. Hague's colleague David Lidington, the UK's Europe minister, had laid the ground work in his own speech in Berlin several weeks earlier, contending that the most effective way to listen to electorates was by giving national lawmakers greater control in the EU decision making process.
The idea is not particularly controversial or eurosceptic. Greater engagement of national parliaments with EU law making is not a new idea. Most parliaments actually do a pretty poor job in scrutinising EU legislation and their government's actions in Brussels and most would do well to follow the example of Denmark, Finland and Germany, all of whom keep a close eye on the EU's institutions.
In particular, Hague spoke about making it easier for parliaments to call back legislative proposals that breach either the principles of subsidiarity or proportionality, specifically by reforming the so-called 'yellow' and 'orange' card procedures.
The 'yellow card' procedure, which allows a European Commission legislative proposal to be sent back to the EU executive for review if two thirds of the 27 national parliaments, is one of the more useful innovations in the Lisbon Treaty and has been used several times.
A step up is the so-called 'orange card'. Under this procedure, if a majority of national parliaments vote that a proposal breaches the subsidiarity principle the Commission has to re-examine the proposal, with the proviso that if it chooses to maintain the draft unamended, the EU executive has to justify itself through a 'reasoned opinion'.
It sounds good, but it could be strengthened further. Parliaments only have a small eight week window in which to complain about a proposal. Moreover, even if the proposal is sent back to Brussels to be reviewed, the treaty states that the commission can "maintain, amend or withdraw" it.
Hague's speech drew a swift riposte from Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament's Liberal group, and critic of David Cameron's government. Writing in the Huffington Post, the former Belgian prime minister claimed that Hague was talking about a "reckless and counterproductive" return to the era of unanimity and single country vetoes, leading to "complete and utter stagnation and inaction when everyone is calling on the EU to show more decisiveness and efficiency."
However, speaking with EUobserver, a UK source played down claims that the red card idea could give individual national parliaments a veto:
"This is about extending the current ability of a group of parliaments to work together, and making the EU more democratically responsive."
Defending the idea of reforming the 'yellow card' procedure, the source added, "it's about making it easier for national parliaments to work together, for example by giving parliaments more time to consider the draft law and lowering the thresholds needed to pull the commission back."
The problem with being perceived as constantly sniping from the sidelines, people stop listening, even if what you are saying is sensible.
The groundwork for renegotiation comes at a time when the UK government is distinctly embattled, in large part at its own making, but also because it doesn't feel like the EU institutions are listening to it. Last week, the commission revealed that it was taking the UK to court over its rules on social security tests for foreigners, an explosive issue.
The UK is also unhappy about the current direction of travel for a large part of the EU's financial regulation, taking legal action over the proposed financial transactions tax (FTT) which, as currently drafted, would affect the UK's financial sector.
It also has fears about the implementation of limits on bank bonuses and about the provisions requiring national resolution funds in the resolution and recovery aspect directive currently being negotiated. UK officials involved in the negotiations talk of a "lack of understanding" from their compatriots around the table.
The UK could do with being listened to if its government's plans to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership - and reform the EU, into the bargain - are to get off the ground. In this case, it probably deserves to be.