27 Feb 2014
Valérie Trierweiler – former mistress of Francois Hollande – is not the only woman who now regards the French President with disdain. With the breakdown of the Franco-German alliance, Angela Merkel is determined to woo David Cameron. There is no way the German Chancellor would ever want to see Britain leave the EU, not least because we are the second biggest contributor to the budget. Only Germany gives more! Merkel has now set herself the task of persuading other European leaders that the EU must deliver a package of reforms that will persuade the British to remain members of the club.
With the Euro elections looming in May, Mrs Merkel has no time to lose. Far-right and even fascist parties are on the rise across Europe. In France, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, has high hopes of topping the polls with her National Front party, harvesting votes from people fed up with Hollande’s failed socialist policies. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder’s anti-Islamic Freedom Party is enjoying a similar surge and in the UK, Nigel Farage’s pledge to root out the nutters has seen UKIP vying with Labour to top the Euro polls in May.
The rise of the ‘Brown International’, as the anti-fascists call the far right, has sent a frisson of fear through the EU body politic. What happens if Le Pen and Wilders form an alliance in the European Parliament following the elections? Will their arch Euro-scepticism attract UKIP? Could the Euro-sceptics take control of the European Parliament? It is a nightmare scenario and not one likely to be countered by the emergence of three classic Europhile contenders for the job of President of the European Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker – former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, is a Conservative European arch-federalist; Martin Schulz – current President of the European Parliament, is an authoritarian German socialist; and Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and current Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group in the European Parliament, is a bumptious and self-important Liberal. There is even a fourth candidate, rank outsider José Bové of the French Greens, who was once jailed for the destruction of a McDonalds!
Each fancies their chances of taking over from the long-serving Jose-Manuel Barroso, as leader of the all-powerful European Commission. But apart from Bové, the other three are recognised as Cardinals of the Euro-elite; advocates of a federal United States of Europe where Brussels will control fiscal policy and set taxes, while Member State sovereignty vanishes like snow in Spring. The battle-lines are drawn and Angela Merkel knows that only a major reform of the way Europe works can assuage the disgruntled citizens and see-off the Euro-sceptic far-right.
But what shape will these reforms take? There are some clear emerging objectives that must figure on any list drawn up by David Cameron. Firstly, the European Commission itself will have to be reformed. There are now 28 commissioners. When Croatia joined the EU last year, Consumer Protection had to be stripped off the Health & Consumer Policy Commissioner, to create a new department for the incoming 28th Member State. With Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia, Turkey and possibly Iceland waiting in the wings to join the EU, the terrifying prospect of 34 or more Commissioners, each lording it over a massive department, teeming with highly paid civil servants and each determined to produce a welter of draft legislation and new regulations, makes the blood run cold! Trimming the Commission down to a workable 12 departments with the appointment of commissioners rotating around the Member States is surely a Treaty change that is long-overdue?
There are other clear imperatives for Britain. New centralised rules and regulations for the 18 countries of the Eurozone may not be appropriate for the UK and we need to ensure that we have an opt-out to protect the UK’s financial services sector. We also need to repatriate regulations governing social and employment laws which control everything from the competitiveness of British business to the number of hours doctors are allowed to work in the NHS. In the past 15 years, the Acquis Communautaire – the book of rules, which every EU Member State has to sign up to, has grown from 86,000 pages in 1999, to 146,000 pages today. We need to cut red tape. We also need more control over our immigration laws and our sovereign government and British courts should have the absolute right to deport known terrorists back to their countries of origin, without being overruled by the European Court of Human Rights.
There are key reforms necessary on the wider front too. The EU cannot continue to preach austerity while it travels twelve times a year from Brussels to Strasbourg, maintaining a vast Parliament building in each city and blocking every attempt to curtail the costly travelling circus. The European Parliament must be centralised in Brussels and a Treaty change will be required to achieve this. Similarly, the vast cost of working in 24 official European languages is unsustainable. NATO, with 28 Member States, has two official languages, English and French. Surely the EU could survive and slash costs with only a handful of official languages? Further massive savings could be made by scrapping the wholly useless Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, which are simply bloated travel agencies for councillors and trade union barons.
If all of these reforms were implemented, the UK could secure control over vital policy areas such as criminal justice, the social chapter and employment and financial services and the EU as a whole could run on a more streamlined and cost-effective basis. So if Merkel can persuade some of the other big EU Member States to deliver on such reforms, there is a real prospect that David Cameron could win the next General Election and could call for a YES vote in the promised ‘In or Out’ referendum in 2017. The British Prime Minister has stated clearly that he has no desire to see the UK leaving a reformed EU and he intends to provide UK citizens with an opportunity to say whether or not they agree with him in a referendum. That is surely the sensible way ahead.
We enjoy the benefits of the Single Market and the EU is still our biggest trading partner. It is worth remembering that the only thing that could prevent the British people having their say on Europe will be if UKIP manage to split the Conservative vote and allow Ed Miliband into Downing Street. Then there will be no referendum on Europe, there will be no major EU reforms and Britain will once more be on the Socialist road to plummeting economic decline.
STRUAN STEVENSON MEP