Pillars of the Community: Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, argues against more centralising structures for Europe

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The Independent Online
THE TASK that we faced in negotiating the Maastricht treaty on European Union was to create structures that would stand the test of time. I am convinced that we made the right choices; and that our work will in time produce the results we all want.

So why was it right to build the Union around a central Community 'pillar', responsible for issues like single market legislation, and two intergovernmental 'pillars', one covering the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the other Justice and Home Affairs issues? Surely it would have been simpler and more efficient to put all activity within a single pillar, with universal rules and procedures? The reason lies in the nature of the issues with which the intergovernmental pillars deal; the role of the nation state, and the importance of carrying public opinion if this enterprise is to succeed.

The Union must have a strong and solid Community pillar. There must be common rules and standards if we are to bring down barriers and trade freely across frontiers. We needed the discipline of qualified majority voting rules to agree this body of legislation. Competing short-term economic and commercial interests could not be allowed to block measures which were in the long-term interests of all of us.

It was right to ask the Commission to drive this work forward by giving it the sole right to initiate legislation, as it is right to invite it to negotiate on behalf of the Union in international trade negotiations. It is essential that this core of legislation be applied and enforced through a common body of law, respected by all. The product of these disciplines, the single market, is one of Europe's finest achievements; increasingly it is the model followed by the rest of the world.

But there is no immutable principle dictating that the institutions and procedures in the Treaty of Rome should provide the framework for co-operation in all areas. The Community is a community of law and requires mechanisms for drafting, enacting and enforcing legislation. But the issues allocated to the two intergovernmental pillars - such as foreign and security policy - are different and rarely enacted through legislation. The key to successful co-operation here is to persuade your partners by force of argument, without resorting to a vote to override their point of view.

We must take account of public opinion. Matters such as security, immigration and policing go to the heart of the functions of the nation state. Our electorates rightly see them as crucial to their well-being. They weigh heavily when votes are cast and governments chosen. The politicians are then expected to deliver. So it would not, in my view, be understood or accepted if these responsibilities appeared to have been surrendered to a supranational body, however worthy.

Of course we must co-operate as closely as possible on problems like drug-trafficking, organised crime and illegal immigration. These problems cross borders. So must our efforts to combat them. The question is not the need for co-operation but its form.

If our institutions are to last, our citizens must feel comfortable with them. They need to be confident that small states will not be overruled by large, and that vital national interests will not be ignored. The intergovernmental framework, in which all major decisions are taken by unanimity, and governments are directly accountable to national parliaments, meets these concerns. The European Parliament should be informed and consulted on the main policies, but primary democratic accountability for these lies with national parliaments.

The current arrangements have their critics. Some say that they are doomed to fail so long as the Commission is denied the sole right of initiative and is unable to drive policy from the centre. Others say that this co-operation will be ineffective because of the unanimity principle; the convoys will be forced to move at the pace of the slowest. I do not accept these arguments; indeed, the facts belie them. Giving the Commission sole right of initiative on foreign policy etc is just not realistic. Instead of preventing those with expertise from making proposals, we should be making it easier for them to do so.

In foreign policy co-operation, for example, the occasions when we cannot reach agreement are the exception; even on potentially sensitive and difficult issues such as relations with Ukraine we are successfully forging joint policies. It is quite unrealistic to envisage majority-voting arrangements applying to an issue like Bosnia, where some member states have troops on the ground and some have particular security concerns.

WOULD parliaments or public opinion in member states accept their governments being outvoted on foreign policy issues such as these? The notion that somehow Bosnia would have been saved if there had been majority voting in our common foreign and security policy is fanciful. Applying Community procedures to these areas would not be a mechanism for quicker and better policy decisions. On the contrary, it would encourage attempts to override important national interests, engendering dissatisfaction and disunity.

The new treaty procedures for CFSP and justice and home affairs have been in place only a few months. There have already been successful joint actions in important areas, on Russia, South Africa, humanitarian relief in Bosnia and the Middle East. But to expect CFSP, after six months, to have, for example, resolved the enmities of centuries in former Yugos1avia is to ask the impossible.

In the longer term, the EU should consider what its priorities for CFSP will be. In my view, the most important aim is to bring stability and security to our neighbouring regions: central and eastern Europe (excluding the Balkans), North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. As for the justice and home affairs pillar, if we can work together successfully we shall enhance our security and produce tangible benefits for our citizens. They are understandably concerned about rising crime, increasing drug abuse, illegal immigration and about fraud against the EU budget. We must show that these fears are being answered.

If we can achieve at least some of these objectives, we shall win greater public understanding of the treaty we signed at Maastricht. This is important - because in my view there is no alternative to making this structure work. There is no prospect of changing it, and continued debate only diverts energy from the important tasks we face.

Abridged from Mr Hurd's contribution to a collection of essays in honour of Niels Ersboell, retiring secretary general of the EU Council secretariat, to be presented today in Luxembourg.