Viewpoints: What future for the European project?


Where next for Europe - MEPs debate on HARDtalk

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The eurozone crisis has triggered much soul-searching about the purpose and relevance of the 27-nation EU.

The phrase "ever closer union" may be anathema to Eurosceptics, but a more federal EU is now being hotly debated, as common economic rules and targets are deemed vital for the euro's survival.

Generally poor turnout in European Parliament elections suggests that many voters struggle to identify with EU issues, including further integration. So are the politicians leaving voters behind? Is the EU democratic enough?

We asked two leading Euro MPs to comment - Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Democrat group (ALDE) and a former Belgian prime minister, and Richard Ashworth, head of the British Conservative group in Europe. (You can also watch their debate on the BBC's HARDtalk TV programme - see below.)

GUY VERHOFSTADT, Liberal Democrat leader, European Parliament

Euroscepticism thrives on a basic - often wilful - misunderstanding of the European Union, its history, its institutions, its goals and its working methods.

Guy Verhofstadt, Liberal Democrat leader, European Parliament

National capitals use "Brussels" as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, without giving the EU any credit for things that go right.

European elections are treated as national referendums on the government in office, rather than a chance to debate the political choices to deal with continental and global issues like climate change, terrorism, immigration or globalisation.

The eurozone crisis has demonstrated again that no country is an island when it comes to protection from global financial turmoil. Our banking institutions and economies are interdependent and require broader oversight and accountability.

Member states have lacked the political will to reform and modernise their pension systems, labour markets, taxation policies etc. The crisis has been exacerbated by lack of competitiveness and the absence of a genuine fiscal union. There are no quick fixes any more.

EU leaders agreed in June to put in place four building blocks to complete economic and monetary union, including closer supervision of banks, a central budget for the euro area, more convergence of economic policy and a strengthening of democratic accountability. There is some urgency, so politicians must act swiftly and take responsibility for difficult choices.

What voters think of the EU

European election turnout - bar chart
  • Most voters polled think their voice doesn't count in the EU
  • More than a third could not name three EU institutions
  • Majority think EU membership 'a good thing'
  • Democracy and freedom and the euro seen as main components of European identity

Source: Eurobarometer survey for EU Commission (26,622 EU citizens polled by TNS Opinion)

Within three or four years a new treaty will be necessary to legitimise the measures and that will require referendums in some countries. In the meantime, the European Parliament is the best guarantor of transparency and legitimacy and the only EU institution to openly debate and vote on the necessary changes.

The European Parliament has legitimacy through direct elections, but still lacks credibility in the minds of many voters who are less inclined to vote in European Parliament elections than for their national parliaments.

There needs to be a sea-change at all levels of public consciousness. European political parties need to make a real effort to mount EU-wide campaigns, and the prospect of electing the European Commission President would be an incentive to improve turnout, so that voting is seen to have consequences.

The EU was intended to bring together the peoples of Europe, after the devastation of two world wars fuelled by nationalism on the back of economic depression. If we allow these forces to gain a foothold once again we will have wasted a century of building closer ties and condemned history to repeat itself. Federalism is our bulwark against nationalism. It is the best model for addressing the challenges of the 21st Century.

RICHARD ASHWORTH, Leader of UK Conservatives in Europe

Let us be clear about one thing - the crisis which cripples Europe is not in any respect a crisis of democracy. Right now it is not a lack of democracy that is causing the rest of the world to look at Europe with such a combination of dismay, trepidation and alarm.

Richard Ashworth MEP

Fundamental lack of competitiveness lies at the heart of Europe's problems, not lack of democracy. Too many reckless bankers and too many unpaid debts have dragged the European Union into the mire, not too many unelected bodies.

European politicians tend to talk about a democratic deficit without defining exactly what they mean. When they call for action to cure it, they are in reality engaging in another round of displacement therapy. They prefer tinkering at the edges to tackling the real problems - a floundering economy, crumbling competitiveness, the eurozone's north-south divide and Europe's debt mountain.

I'm sure there is some room for improvement in the way the EU relates to voters - the very poor turnout in European elections tells us that. But those who want to forge ahead with their dream of "ever-closer union" in Europe should be warned that the further you shift power and decision-making away from nation states, the more dislocated and uninvolved citizens will feel.

The way to engage voters more fully is for national politicians as well as European candidates to emphasise the important role the European Parliament plays in the EU - not least by holding the unelected European Commission to account.

Some are now calling for an elected Commission. I feel those calls are misguided. Let us not forget that the commissioners are essentially the senior civil servants in the European administration. Would we want an elected civil service in the UK or anywhere else? I should think not.

The Council represents the role of our member states in the EU decision-making process. It is quite right that national governments should wield substantial influence and power - and their democratic legitimacy stems from the fact that they are elected. That will remain true so long as we stay a confederation of nation states and not the European superstate some would seek to create.

Would we want to have three separate elected bodies in Brussels all claiming the greater validity, all claiming to represent the voters and all vying for the upper hand? No - the European Parliament is the one and only directly-elected body in the EU and that is how it should remain. But that means that the EP needs to be more vigorous, more ambitious than it has been so far in driving the reform of the EU as a whole, which is desperately needed.

You can watch the full HARDtalk TV interview with the MEPs on BBC World News on Wednesday 26 September 2012 at 03:30, 08:30, 15:30 and 20:30 GMT.

It also broadcasts on the BBC News Channel in the UK at 04:30 BST on Wednesday 26 September and 00:30 BST on Thursday 27 September 2012. You can download a podcast from the BBC World Service.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Guy Verhofstadt "National capitals use 'Brussels' as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, without giving the EU any credit for things that go right".
    And the EU is never responsible for anything that goes wrong and Brussels uses national capitals as scapegoats !

    Guy Verhofstadt , a fanatic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    19.legasud - " Britain civil servants don't decide policy. Big difference."

    Another myth used to justify an anti EU stance.....big decisions are made in the Council fo Europe by the relevant Govt ministers from each member state.....

    Smaller decisions are made in the EU Parliament, by elected MEPS.....

    EU officials can suggest policy but they don't make it.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Why do we need Europe ?. Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all nice fellows and jolly good sports, they need us and the monarchy, they are desperate to buy all our goods. The US loves us and will protect us from all harm. Without Europe on our backs the whole world will and cheer and throw money at us.When the Chinese navy has an aircraft carrier just off our shore we can give them a cheery wave

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Even now in the crises EU is in Croatia still wants to join - Why?

    Because the political class will get loads of money from funds the rest of Europe throws into the communal pot, every public development in Croatia will get 80% funding from EU, making those organising and skimming off the projects very rich, in a country with endemic corruption bribery and log jammed legal system

    Please wake up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    1) Neither talking head is really suggesting anything concreete.
    2) The validity of the EU's constant 'let's be more European' push has been rather badly compromised by the recent German insistence that THEY at least refuse to pay for the privilige.
    3) Ashworth's comparison of EU commisioners & GB civil servants avoids the fact that in Britain civil servants don't decide policy. Big difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    To emphasise comment 17 a question:

    What links bendy bananas, fishermen's hair nets & hard hats for tight rope walkers?

    Yup, all erroniously used as examples of "EU madness" by the antis, even though not one of them was ever proposed, let alone enacted, by the EU......(they were all made up by journalists to see how gullible people are.....!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    13.Paul - "....The history of the European project is one of deceit, obfuscation and the exploitation of crises and sheer lies...."

    True, but the lies all come from the anti could only choose to say that of those pro further intergration if you don't bother listening to what they are actually saying.....bendy bananas anyone...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Britain needs the EU like a fish needs a bike. (I'm sure I've heard that said about something else.)
    It was interesting to see the UK is going to share embassies with Canada, and possibly Australia and New Zealand. Now that is a small step towards common sense, and common interest; and away from an artificial and unnatural combination of nations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Our European neighbours and friends seem likely to proceed with a further step towards a United States of Europe. If that is the case, then we should not stop them, but the time has come for the people of the UK to be asked whether they wish to go along that road as well.

    There is no halfway house here. They are going and we need a choice over whether we go too.

    I say no - time to leave the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    European Union and the UK:
    - Costs the taxpayer £40million a day
    - Un-elected bureaucrats set 75% of our laws
    - EU aiming for fiscal union between economies that are not remotely similar (e.g Germany & Greece)
    - The commissioner formerly belonged to the Portuguese Communist party
    -So much more could be said if i had more words

    Why does David Cameron refuse us a full, free and fair referendum?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Whether you are pro or anti a Federal Europe you should be highly concerned about the way others seek to bring it about. The history of the European project is one of deceit, obfuscation and the exploitation of crises and sheer lies. Democratic accountability is overridden at every opportunity and if you ever vote NO you get told to vote again.

    There is no democracy in the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    to Itakethatback: if you are such a commited voter, all you have to do to clear your 'confusion' about who your MEP is and what they do is to look it up the way you found this article. simple. Don't blame it on ignorance when is in fact lazyness to get involved and contribute constructively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This is the man who essentially leads 1/2 a billion people.

    Mr Barroso said he was not calling for a "superstate", but rather "a democratic federation of nation states that can tackle our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty".

    You can't share sovereignty, Mr Barroso. It's either sovereign or just another brick in the wall!
    Your knowledge & endless propaganda has become infantile!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Dont know what Federal Union means. All I do know is I have no idea who my EuroMP(s?) is/are. I don't know what they stand for. I have never voted for one. Similarly I don't know who is standing as police commisioner, what they do what they stand for or why. I have voted for my local councillors and MP at every opportunity. I cant regard the EU & recent national developments as democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Wars were fought and millions killed to to save freedom and identity. Seeking European harmony and togetherness was purely an act of self gratification by deluded people from another time, now sadly replaced by today's EU leaders. The differences between European countries is 'precisely' what made the continent the powerhouse of invention, art and culture, not it's similarities!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The EU project is of the politicians, by the politicians and especially FOR the politicians. The people are repeatedly ignored and treated with contempt, as the referenda in France and Holland over the EU constitution and the Irish referendum over Lisbon so clearly demonstrated.
    The Politicians should be asking us first if we WANT further integration, if we WANT their Superstate before continuing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    6. London
    I want a strong Europe,a Federal Union. A strong EU army and a healthy economy. A directly elected president and more democratic reforms.

    This is the only way we can sit at the table with the big boys.Actually, Europe should be the biggest boy.

    Then move to Brussels, cause if you stay in the UK, it won't be long before your going to be well disappointed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I want a strong Europe,a Federal Union. A strong EU army and a healthy economy. A directly elected president and more democratic reforms.

    This is the only way we can sit at the table with the big boys.Actually, Europe should be the biggest boy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Foisting more Europe on an unwilling citizentry might create a massive tinderbox for the future.

    If they continue along this route it will not be long before citizens start demanding an alternative.

    More Europe is not what we need right now - they should scrap the project because people are sick of the spongers in Brussells.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    As long as the EU seems to subsume national interests & ride roughshod over the people, being the "holy grail" of beaurocrats; it will alienate the people it intends to champion. I think many of the areas into which it has intruded should be best left to national politics, even if that is at an abysmal low qualitatively & ethicly. I want the best relations with our partners, but not a superstate.


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