EU faces crisis of legitimacy, warns former Europe minister

'Remote' institutions are in urgent need of radical reform, claims Denis MacShane

The European Union is squandering its remaining legitimacy, and must be urgently overhauled to safeguard its future, a former Europe minister warned last night.

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In a provocative call for sweeping reforms, the MP Denis MacShane warned that without action the European Parliament would lose authority, as ever-smaller numbers of voters take part in elections to choose their representatives in Strasbourg.

He also called for a reduction in the number of commissioners responsible for the EU's administration, from 27 to seven. The commissioners each earn a basic salary of €216,000 (£188,000), with the president earning €264,960.

His intervention is significant because Mr MacShane, who served for three years as Europe minister in Tony Blair's government, is among the most pro-European MPs. His comments also crystallise concerns among Europhiles across the continent that the EU is becoming increasingly remote from voters and is being bypassed by national governments.

Mr MacShane pointed to the steadily falling turnout in elections to the European Parliament which has dropped at every contest. It stood at 43 per cent across the EU in 2009 and less than 35 per cent in Britain. "The declining turnout means that, after a few more elections, with ever smaller participation, the Strasbourg Assembly will lose all representative authority," he said. He warned that the 9,751 parliamentarians in the 27 member states were "alienated" from European decisions.

Mr MacShane suggested that one-third of the Parliament's members should be elected every two or three years to make them more representative of the political balance of their home nations.

He protested that MEPs are chosen "in one fell swoop and often in response to national political feelings about the government of the day", pointing to the election of 13 MEPs from the UK Independence Party and two from the British National Party two years ago. "This means that MEPs do not reflect the electoral politics that sustains their governments back home."

Mr MacShane suggested the creation of a Senate in the Parliament, consisting of representatives of the national parliaments, to act as a link with member states. He is also arguing for a reduction to the 27-member European Commission containing a representative from each country, suggesting it should have seven members appointed on rotation.

"No organisation in the world can be run with 27 executive chiefs," he said. "They sit producing laws and regulation which drive ordinary European citizens insane and do the EU great harm as it is seen a factory for petty regulation instead of a strategic body building a stronger Europe."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said the EU had failed to alter its structure to reflect its rapid growth over the last two decades. "One of the things the people in Brussels haven't recognised is that enlargement has created a very different kind of Europe. You don't just recognise that by putting more people round the table," he said. "I don't think any British political party has seriously thought that through."

Sir Menzies said there should be a fresh drive to ensure that the principles of subsidiarity – that decisions are taken at the lowest possible levels – and proportionality – that the EU does not exceed its powers – were at the core of its operation. Sir Menzies agreed there was a growing sense of distance between European citizens and the EU: "If the economic advantages of the EU were more radically spelt out, or the disadvantage of being outside highlighted more, that might well have an effect on countering that," he said.

Simon Tilford, the chief economist at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, warned the EU was suffering a backlash from citizens and politicians worried about issues for which it stands, such as economic liberalism and movement across borders.

"The EU can only work if the national governments let it work," he said. He said he had "pressing concerns" over the Commission's effectiveness as more member states entered into deals with individual governments rather than operating through the Commission.

"It hasn't exactly been sidelined, but it is having to fight harder now than it has done in the last 30 years," Mr Tilford said.

He accepted that the Parliament faced a "legitimacy problem" and was losing credibility because "people who get elected to the European Parliament are often on the fringe and out of kilter with the consensus in their national parliaments".

Agreeing that the EU faced tough problems and sceptical citizens, he said: "People take much of what they enjoy about the EU for granted, but they are susceptible to messages about the bad things. Governments across Europe are blaming the EU for things for which it has limited responsibility."