Viewpoints: What future for the European project?

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Media captionWhere next for Europe - MEPs debate on HARDtalk

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.

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.

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.

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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