EU Reform: What do we actually need?

Richard Corbett, a Member of the European Parliament from 1996-2009 and since 2014, explores what the term ‘EU reform’ means for the current UK government. With EU reform demands and strategies still clearly to be defined by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, UK senior officials have been working behind the scenes with their European partners to identify priorities for change. Which conclusions did they reach, and how do their suggestions link up to London’s demands?

A strange thing happened in the second half of last year. As the British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed to the British people that he ‘won’t take no for an answer’ when it came to EU reform, senior representatives of the UK government were working behind the scenes with other EU countries to identify which areas of EU decision-making actually needed improving — and coming to strikingly different conclusions.

The forum for these discussions was a little-known group called the ‘Friends of the Presidency’. This is an ad-hoc, but official, task force consisting of senior officials from each member state, convened from time to time to work on a particularly tricky or controversial issue. The group operates through quiet, open discussion, and aims to identify areas of consensus which it can then report back to national ministers. It is a world away from the politically charged debates of the European Council — and when it comes to the thorniest issues of disagreement and potential deadlock, that’s sometimes exactly what is needed.

In 2014, the Friends of the Presidency was tasked with identifying ways to make the EU more effective in its strategic priorities: promoting growth and competitiveness, improving democratic accountability, and reducing intrusion into areas that are more properly of national or local concern. If these priorities sound familiar, that is because they are the very same objectives that David Cameron has been quoting over the past year to justify the push for EU reform.

It is difficult to find a politician anywhere who doesn’t agree that the EU needs reform. The question is what kind of reform. When it comes to the specifics, David Cameron has so far been vague. In an interview in January, he mentioned only three headline areas:

  • strengthening national parliaments
  • improving regulation
  • getting away from an ‘ever closer union’.

As it happens, these three areas were also on the agenda at the Friends of the Presidency group only a few months earlier, where they were discussed in detail by representatives from every EU country, including Britain. What conclusions did the group reach in its report?

Strengthening national parliaments

David Cameron wishes to strengthen the existing ‘yellow card’ mechanism, by which a number of national parliaments can work together to challenge a proposal for new action at the European level if they think it violates the principle of subsidiarity. However this proposal is superfluous. The ordinary EU legislative procedure (‘codecision’) already includes much more effective safeguards. If a country wants to block a proposal, it can simply throw it out in the Council of Ministers, generally with a much smaller blocking minority. Why bother trying to raise a yellow card when there is access to a much easier red card option later in the process? No wonder the yellow card procedure has hardly been used since its invention a few years ago.

The Friends of the Presidency agreed that the current treaty mechanisms provide a satisfactory framework for national parliaments to contribute to the EU decision-making process. There was broad agreement that there is no need for additional tools, but greater contact and dialogue between the Commission and national parliaments would be useful and constructive.

Improving regulation

Complaining about supposed over-regulation is a recurrent theme of eurosceptics, despite the fact that EU rules are usually an exercise in cutting red tape by replacing 28 divergent national sets of rules with one common system for the common market.

In their report, the national representatives, including the UK’s, sensibly concluded that,

‘[t]here was broad agreement that a lot has been done in the last years in this regard and that progress should continue. Necessary mechanisms to avoid red tape are already in place (REFIT, roadmaps, impact assessments, etc.) but there is scope for improving the use of these mechanisms’ (p. 5).

In other words, consensus for making better use of existing mechanisms, not for creating new ones. 

Getting away from an ‘ever closer union’

David Cameron likes to criticise this phrase from the preamble to the EU’s treaties, saying that it is a bad idea, or at least shouldn’t apply to the UK.

However, it is always quoted out of context. In context, it seems somewhat less sinister. Firstly, it is an aspiration, not a rule: it carries no legal weight. Secondly, it does not mean what Cameron claims: it is ‘an ever closer union between the peoples [not the countries] of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’ — the principle that the EU should act in as decentralised a way as possible. This very clause was pushed for by the Conservative government of the 1990s.

The Friends of the Presidency — including the UK — came to a fairly clear conclusion on this one:

‘[d]elegations concurred that the principles of conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality already rely on a satisfactory framework on provisions and measures. The necessary tools and legal instruments to verify the respect of these principles are already in place’ (p. 3).

The reform timetable

Currently for the Conservative party, EU reform is a one-off which must happen by 2017 at the latest, at which point there will be some kind of minor treaty reform followed by a UK referendum on membership.

Not only is this an artificial timetable, it shows a profound lack of understanding of what the European Union is all about. Reform is a process, not an event. The EU’s members (including the UK) are constantly re-evaluating and adapting to new shared challenges, and the Friends of the Presidency working group was an important part of this ongoing process.

There is a genuine commitment from all national governments to keep questions of reform on the table, and to revisit them after each European election. This should be music to all our ears — even those of eurosceptics!


Richard Corbett is a Labour MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.

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