Today, Prime Minister David Cameron has written to President of the European Council Donald Tusk setting out his demands for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union.
One of the four planks of the PM’s position is on national sovereignty. He wants to “enhance the role of national parliaments, by proposing a new arrangement where groups of national parliaments, acting together, can stop unwanted legislative proposals.”
Empowering national parliaments within the European structure is an important part of improving European democracy. As things stand, the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is unacceptably large. Only 42% of EU citizens and 31% of Britons believe their voice counts in the EU, against 50% of EU citizens and 63% of Brits who do not.
Last year we published a set of 12 recommendations for closing the democratic gap between the British people and the European Union.
One of these recommendations has been taken up by the Prime Minister – we called for so-called ‘red cards’ to be adopted, whereby if a European law prompts a certain number of objections from national parliaments, it should be vetoed.
While we are delighted that the PM has taken up this recommendation, we respectfully suggest he keeps some of our other suggestions in mind, particularly if he needs wiggle room in negotiations. It’s especially important since some of these suggestions could do just as much – if not more – to improve our democratic relationship with the EU.
For instance, can the periodic decampment of the European Parliament to Strasbourg – with all the expense it incurs – really still be justified? And shouldn’t the European Commission shrink in size to improve parliamentary oversight (at both EU and national level) of the EU’s affairs?
In the meantime, there are things the UK Government can do here and now to improve our democratic relationship with the EU which don’t rely on a renegotiation.
For instance, they can introduce a candidate-centred (rather than closed-list) electoral system for the UK’s European elections (we would strongly advocate the Single Transferable Vote, of course) – this would give UK voters greater choice and control over who goes to Brussels to represent them.
And the Government could give Parliament greater oversight of European affairs, for instance by allowing Parliament to scrutinise its negotiating position before Council meetings, or by making sure European legislation goes to the appropriate UK parliamentary committee and not just to a general ‘European’ committee.
One of the strongest criticisms of the European Union is its lack of democratic accountability. But there are things the UK Government can do to address that, both through the renegotiation and here at home. We will be arguing that they do so, urgently.
You can see all of our suggestions on how to make the EU more democratic in our publication ‘Close the Gap’.