Margarida Vasconcelos: Do we really have a choice?

The idea of a federal Europe is not new; in fact it goes back to the early days of the European Community. And then Jacques Delors started talking about it in the early 90s. As Margaret Thatcher said, in her statement to the House of Commons on the European Council held in October 1990, Jacques Delors "wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate”. Hence, the European Commission’s drive for a EU federal state is not new but it has been revived due to the euro crisis. Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, and particularly Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission are doing everything they can to drive the EU towards a political union as they believe that a creation of a federal Europe is the only possible way to address the causes of the sovereign debt crisis. In fact, they believe that a democratic and effective EU must be based on a stronger political union between its member states. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even before Barroso’s “State of the Union” speech in 2012 where he called for a political union of EU member states, and stressed that the EU “will need to move towards a federation of nation states”, Viviane Reding has called for the establishment of the United States of Europe in several speeches and articles. In an article written to Wall Street Journal in February 2012, A Vision for Post-Crisis Europe: Towards a Political Union, Viviane Reding presented a road map to a political union. She proposed a Five-Point Plan for 2020 and suggested that following the European Parliament elections in 2014 a convention should be convened “to draft a treaty on European political union.” Then, in December 2012 Viviane Reding in two articles for the Malta Independent, The time has come for a European Federation and A powerful vision for our future - Why we now need a United States of Europe she advocated the idea of a European Finance Ministry with “clear powers of intervention in relation to the Member States.” She said, “we need to turn our Economic and Monetary Union into a strong European Political Federation with a Monetary, Fiscal and Banking Union, covering at least the euro zone, while being open to all EU Member States that wish to join.” She stressed, “The time has come to build a European Federation.” According to Viviane Reding “… the European Union should start moving towards a United States of Europe” as “This is the way to greater democracy”. In December 2013 Viviane Reding called “for a real European Finance Minister in a real European government.” In fact, she reiterated her call for a political union. In January 2014, in a speech to KPN's New Year's reception “Time to make a choice”, Viviane Reding reiterated, “we need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a "Senate" of Member States.” More recently, on 17 February in a speech at Cambridge University's law faculty, Vivien Reading stressed that "the Eurozone should become the United States of Europe."

In the meantime the European Commission is seeking greater competence in several areas namely fundamental rights. Last September Viviane Reding gave a speech on the EU and the rule of law, which has shown her ambitious as regards the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. She not only wants the Charter to have a broader remit but also that all fundamental rights are directly applicable in the Member States by abolishing Article 51. Consequentely, the Commission would be able to bring infringement procedures on fundamental rights against Member States even if they are not acting in the implementation of EU law, meaning when they are also aplying national law. The Charter would then be transform into the so called United States of Europe Bill of Rights a written constitution for Europe. Obviously, such further step in European integration would have to be included in the broader reflections on the future development of the EU into a political union.

It is important to recall that the group set up by Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, on the Future of Europe, composed by the Foreign Ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain, in September 2012, also suggested far reaching proposals on the “governance structures of the EU”, such as “a directly elected Commission President who appoints the members of his “European Government” himself, a European Parliament with the powers to initiate legislation and a second chamber for the member states.” In a interview to the Spiegel, Germany’s Finance Minister, Mr Schäuble, said, that “the Commission has to develop into a real government. To that end, it ought to be elected directly, either by the parliament or through the direct election of a Commission president.” Viviane Reding also suggested that the Commission president, should become also be the president of the European Council, hence such person would be the president a United States of Europe. Moreover, Mr Schäuble said “… It would be best to have a body representing the countries that's based on the model of the German Bundesrat or the US Senate, with each country dispatching a certain number of representatives to this body.” In November 2012, in her speech to the European Parliament, Angela Merkel endorsed the call, made by Guy Verhofstadt, for a federation of nation states to be set up as soon as possible, she said "Of course the European Commission will one day become a government, the EU council a second chamber and the European Parliament will have more powers."

Viviane Reding is calling for a Federal Europe, modelled on the USA. According to Viviane Reding’s vision the Commission would be the government of a United States of Europe and then there would be two chambers – the European Parliament and a "Senate" of Member States. This is what a federal Europe would look like, with disastrous consequences to member states sovereignty, as national governments and parliaments would have just a minor political role. A political union and Vivien Reding’s vision for a United States of Europe would entail more powers to the EU and the Commission itself ignoring democratic principles, and it would be ineffective for the euro and democratic crisis the European citizens are confronted with. The EU would become a single sovereign federation of states consequently national member states would lose their national sovereignty to become part of a European federation.

Barroso wants to use the European elections campaign to debate the future of Europe and promote a new treaty to create a federal union. He referred to “A debate of a truly European dimension” and from a “European standpoint”. In fact, he stressed, “We must use the 2014 election to mobilise all pro-European forces. We must not allow the populists and the nationalists to set a negative agenda.” Vivien Reding has also said “We will need to get a broad, truly European debate going before we make these changes and set up new structures.” Departing from assumptions such as "The European Union is a success story", "what we need is more Europe", there has never been a serious debate on how the EU could be reformed, and a constructive debate about the kind of Europe that each member state wants. They are calling for a debate but they are not listening and those presenting arguments against further EU integration and advocating repatriation of powers from Brussels to national parliaments are likely to have little say. Brussels is not interested in a serious debate whereby those who are in favour and those against European integration have equal say. In fact, Barroso, as well as Vivien Reding, have already decided about the way to move forward.

The European Commission is ignoring the increasing public resistance against the EU by claiming powers that should be returned to the national parliaments. In fact, according to a Eurobarometer poll trust in the EU institutions has gone down from 57% in 2007 to 31% in May 2013. Hence, trust in the EU institutions is therefore presently very low. People around Europe not only feel disconnected from the EU but they are also losing faith in their political representatives.

Vivien Reding acknowledged, “More and more decisions that affect the daily lives of citizens directly are taken at European level”. In fact, one can say that over 50% of member states legislation originates from EU legislation. The majority of laws enacted in each member state are a transposition of European acts proposed by the European Commission and then voted by MEPs and by member states in the Council of Ministers. It is shocking how much the daily lives of people are impacted by European law. The EU regulates on almost all aspects of our lives, undermining member states national sovereignty. Vivien Reding also noted that the EU “institutions and decision-making processes have to become more democratic and transparent.” Indeed, but the solution does not lie in having a “true political union” as they are advocating. We are facing a democratic crisis but the EU leaders have failed so far to address it. Further integration entails further surrender of national powers. European integration is depriving member states of their national democracy and sovereignty. Voters are loosing their ability to choose at the ballot box the laws under which they want to be governed and to elect their representatives to make them. Yet, Brussels takes the view that democracy in Europe can only be achieved by increasing the powers of the European Parliament. In fact, according to Barroso “the European Parliament is the basis of the European democracy.”

According to Vivien Reding “this year's European Parliament elections are the decisive moment for citizens to have their say in this debate” and “that they have a real choice here.” She is hoping “that the campaign for the 2014 European Parliament elections will serve as the ideal occasion to sort out what kind of future we want to share.” Pointing out that “ These elections are not about more Europe or less Europe”, Vivien Reding stressed, “citizens across Europe will be able to choose the Europe they want to live in”. However, it is always about “more Europe”, consequently voters do not have a real choice as they just want more Europe not less.

Since 2009 the European Parliament and the European Commission are trying to heavily influence the European elections in terms of turnout. The European Parliament and the European Commission have joined efforts in promoting the EU and enphasising the so called EU added value. They want people to believe that the EU and its policies are benefiting them and that more Europe is the solution. However, more Europe is not the solution but the problem. The EU sticking plaster policy won’t solve the euro crisis. The EU is to blame for the economic, financial and social crisis affecting several member states. People want jobs and security however due to overregulation there is a huge percentage of unemployment in Europe. The EU regulations and directives undermine the ability of any government to promote growth. In fact, the EU overregulation and employment laws have been preventing growth and employment in all member states. The policies that are being pursued won’t bring unemployment down and are far from creating jobs. The EU employment and social laws, which have been strangled the small and medium-sized business in Europe should be repealed. Member States, particularly eurozone countries, are facing recession, high levels of unemployment, falling living standards, and riots in the streets. Moreover, according to Eurostat, in 2012, 124.5 million Europeans were considered “at risk of poverty or social exclusion”. Further European integration and demands for fiscal and political union is having a damaging impact on member states’ citizens that cannot be ignored. As Bill Cash has been saying the real problems are contained in the existing treaties and they are the reason why we have the crisis in Europe, consequently they must be fundamentally changed.

The European Parliament is in fact the only EU institution directly elected yet it has no democratic legitimacy, which has been showed by the outcome of the EU elections. It is interesting to note that the European Parliament since the first elections in 1979 has been acquiring more powers through the Treaties whereas the voter turnout has declined from 63% in 1979, to 56.8% in 1994, to 49.8% in 1999, to 45.6% in 2004 and 43% in 2009. Obviously, low turnout shows the lack of legitimacy of the European Parliament and the EU. The outcome of the EU elections has shown how the European Parliament is disconnected with the European electorate. The Europeans have been losing confidence in the institutions. Opinion polls have been showing the increased discontent of EU citizens with the EU and as well as their unwillingness to accept more national sovereignty being given away.

The EU decision making is as far from being close to the voters as the European Commission and the European Parliament want us to believe. The Commission has almost the exclusive right of initiative over all EU legislation nevertheless it has no democratic mandate and is not directly accountable to European citizens. The European Parliament is the only EU institution directly elected but it has no democratic legitimacy. The European Parliament has acquired more powers, but at the expense of voters and national parliaments who have lost more power. National parliaments may show their opposition to EU law  through the yellow card system and a member state’s government may voted against it in the Council but then if the measure is adopted by QMV they are bound to comply with it. It is absolutely inadmissible that by a majority vote decisions are taken and binding upon national parliaments but without MPs having any effective opportunity to stop them.

National Parliaments, despite the European Commission saying otherwise, have no real direct role in the EU decision-making process. They involvement through the subsidiarity control mechanism is ineffective. The required thresholds for the so-called yellow card procedure are very high and difficult to achieve. Since 2010 national parliaments have issued over 250 reasoned opinions however the yellow card threshold was met in just two cases, on the Monti II proposal and on the EPPO. The Commission took the decision to withdraw the Monti II proposal because there was insufficient support in the Council and the European Parliament for its adoption but not over subsidiarity concerns. In the case of the European public prosecutor, the Commission has completely ignored the yellow card and decided to go ahead.

National parliaments should not be obliged to accept a EU measure just because the required threshold has not been reached. It is important to note that the European Scrutiny Committee rejected the proposals from the Minister for Europe and the Foreign Secretary on a collective red card, so that if a given threshold of national Parliaments opposed a measure on the grounds of subsidiarity, they would be able to block it. The European Scrutiny Committee recommended the introduction of a unilateral veto over EU legislative proposals instead, as it believes that should be a unilateral decision taken by an individual Parliament. There should be therefore an unilateral red card for national parliaments.

The EU decision making process is not transparent and is prepared and adopted behind closed doors. Most of the time voters do not even know how their representatives have voted on EU laws that would be binding upon them. Moreover, democratically elected governments are underrepresented because of QMV. In the EU decision-making process, the common interest prevails over national interests. The text ultimately adopted by the legislative bodies takes into account the EU interests as a whole. Hence, the EU decision-making is a horse-trading bureaucratic procedure, with no democratic debate, whereby policies are adopted not because of their merit or benefit to member states but for the sake of reaching an agreement benefiting the EU or the eurozone as a whole.

The European Parliament and the European Commission are placing emphasis on the fact that citizens by voting on the European elections can influence the decision making process. In fact, the European Parliament plays central role within the EU institutional framework and decision-making, it influences the EU political agenda and, together with the Council, adopts the endless regulations and directives proposed by the European Commission that deeply affect us. The European Parliament has a stronger negotiation position as it can use its right of rejection to negotiate compromises with the Council. However, the European Parliament votes, as a rule, for further harmonisation of the EU Member States laws. The ordinary legislative procedure enables the European Parliament to overrule a decision taken by the Council. Hence, individual countries can be outvoted not only by other countries in the Council, but also by the European Parliament.

The political majority that will come out from the European elections will influence how the EU will be governed for the next five years. However, this does not mean that voters have a real choice. Voters do not have the chance of truly influence EU policy making, by directly electing members to the European Parliament. We cannot change the EU policies. In fact, neither our vote in national or European elections can change EU policies in the sense that it is always more Europe and further European integration.

The European Parliament and the European Commission want us to believe that our vote counts and that we will have a say on who would become the next president of the European Commission. We might play a small roll in deciding who will be the next president of the European Commission but far from choosing he or she. Under the EU Treaties, “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission.” Then, “This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.” It is far from clear whether the EU leaders will automatically choose the candidate from the largest party in the new Parliament as the next Commission President as they are solely required to take into account the result of the European elections. Most political groups have decided that their leading parliamentary candidate will be the party’s choice for the role of European Commission president. Hence, if the European Parliament’s plan is accepted by the Member States the candidate from the largest party in the new Parliament would be elected as the next Commission President. The next president of the European Commission is most likely to be either from the EPP or from PES, and, obviously, their political agenda is different but they have something in common, both parties favour further EU integration.

This so called almost directly elected method won’t provide the European Commission with democratic legitimacy. As the president of the AECR, Jan Zahradil MEP, said: “We believe that the voice of this growing group of people should be heard in the debates, but we cannot subscribe to a scheme that will give the President of the Commission an artificial mandate from the people, even though most people have never even heard of him”.

People know that decision-making is done by EU technocrats, therefore they do not bother to vote as they rightly believe that they vote makes no difference. This year’s European elections will show the general discontent, among the European citizens, with the EU. The outcome of the European elections wont provide a mandate for further political integration nonetheless our vote wont stop the EU institutions to pursue their plans. Our vote is not going to stop the EU institutions to move towards further EU integration.

Brussels has been taking decision-making away from national parliaments. In fact, voters would no longer be able to change important decisions, particularly about economic and fiscal policies that massively affect them, at the ballot box. People want their national parliaments to take decisions on their name over important issues that affect them. The Treaties need to be fundamentally renegotiated in order to achieve democratic stability and economic prosperity in line with what member states’ voters want. As Bill Cash has been arguing the foundations of the treaties must be changed if we want to preserve democracy in each member state. It is about time to have a convention to debate what kind of Europe each member state wants. Then, as Bill Cash suggested “the negotiation position of each country” should be followed “by a referendum in each country to ascertain the question of democratic consent and then after that, the future structure of European Union could be identified.”

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