The pride, prejudice and ignorance of the sceptics

What bad news? The events of last week are good news for the EU, says Julian Critchley

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The glee with which Eurosceptics and Europhobes welcomed the shenanigans that convulsed the European Commission last Monday is perfectly understandable. But they have failed to grasp the point.

Of the three pillars of the Community, the Council of Ministers is particularly opaque, the Commission rather more fragile than we once believed, while the powers of the European Parliament have been deliberately weakened by Britain and others. The fact that the European Parliament was prevented for so long from picking and choosing from among those Commissioners it wished to sack, and was ensnared in the so-called "doomsday scenario" of all or nothing, calls for drastic reform.

The European Parliament's failure to sort out the corruption of several of its Commissioners is undeniably a blot on its escutcheon. But the Parliament exists and we should exploit not excoriate it, in order to serve ourselves better, and to help to bring more transparency and accountability to the Union, in the "Citizen's Europe" of tomorrow.

The challenge we all face is the lack of transparency in the workings of the Commission and (much more significantly) the Council of Ministers. The Commission has a basic culture of transparency that is parsecs away from the Whitehall culture: it consults widely and speaks frankly to any European or national parliamentarian who troubles to go and see it. But the place remains a bureaucracy, headed by unelected political appointees. It now appears that it will be run by a former Italian prime minister. This failure of information and accountability must be tackled before the widening and deepening of the Union proceeds over the next five to 10 years.

Meanwhile, we need to play the European Parliament card. The Parliament already possesses powers greater than most Westminster MPs, in their present disconnected and torpid state on EU matters, have so far realised. Thus when the Amsterdam Treaty is fully ratified and comes into effect this year, the policy areas subject to "co-decision" will more than double from 15 to 38. "Co-decision", already set up under the Maastricht Treaty, gives Parliament the right to amend and if necessary to reject, legislative decisions by the Council of Ministers. The Parliament will be able to exercise some supervision over the "third pillar" (justice and home affairs in the EU including immigration). It will also be empowered to reject, by a majority vote, if it so wishes, a future president-elect of the Commission; in effect Jacques Santer's successor. (And it is high time that British MEPs were granted rights of access to Westminster - if only to the smoking and members' room.)

The Eurosceptics are bored by, or proudly ignorant of, these details, and in their triumphalism last week made much of the supposed north-south divide in Europe. The north, which includes the Germans, is warlike, if basically honest; the south - in the form of Spain, France and Italy - needs its palms greased. This offensive cynicism is a substitute for debate, and has its roots in the old British belief that the "Ities", for example, were all cowards (tell that to the captains of the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant which were sunk in Alexandria harbour by two Italian frogmen).

The purpose here is to bamboozle the public into an unthinking hostility to Europe and in particular to the historic constitutional development whereby each European citizen will have a tripartite identity - in the Union, in his national state, and in his region, whether Brittany or Ulster, Catalonia or Galicia. The Europhobes detest the idea of a devolved Europe with representative government. Even the physical construction of the European Parliament - with members sitting in a semi-circle - bothers them. It is non-confrontational. Yet a non-confrontational approach has to be made to the four really major issues that face the Union. These issues are monetary union; eastern enlargement; budgetary reform (including overdue modification to the Common Agricultural Policy) and further institutional evolution including the streamlining of decisions which, in effect, will give greater subsidiarity and reduce the "democratic deficit".

What new powers should we give to the European Parliament? I would suggest the right to demand the resignation of individual Commissioners rather than the current "doomsday scenario" of requiring all 20 to stand down. Second, the encouragement to exercise, with great discretion and political responsibility, some small degree of parliamentary oversight over the European Central Bank, the culture of which is likely to be even more opaque than that of the Council of Ministers, and which will certainly not be publishing its minutes as the Bank of England now does - although it would be a good thing if it were eventually to do so. It should be possible for the president of the bank, or some of his directors, to meet with a very small group of MEPs (chosen by the president of the European Parliament and endorsed by the major political parties) on a regular basis, for informal exchanges of view on matters which parliamentarians can usefully pronounce.

More powers of inquiry into the committee structures of the EU are needed, to cross-check on the enforcement of EU decisions and the rule of law. It could also be useful for the European Parliament to have a more organised, if still consultative, role in the elaboration within the Commission of its legislative proposals to the Council of Ministers. We should certainly consider inviting the Parliament to be represented as an observer at all but the most restricted sessions of the EU Council of Ministers.

Finally, individual MEPs should be given the chance of being speaking but non-voting participants in the various European scrutiny committees that exist already or are to be set up in individual national parliaments. We must bridge the so-called "mentality gap" between the European Parliament and Westminster. British MEPs, particularly the Conservatives, complain with justification that they are kept at a distance, demeaned and generally viewed with suspicion by their national colleagues at Westminster. This is a view at present encouraged by William Hague and the Tory whips. Under his leadership, the Tory party has become steadily more chauvinistic, and anti-German. Hague will certainly lose his party the election.

The misinformation about Europe renders the nation an ill service. It exploits an ignorant electorate for its own purposes. Britain is a member of the European Union. We should use our influence to improve its workings, and cease denigrating one of the most encouraging political developments to have taken place since the end of the war. The events of last Monday will give us an opportunity to recast the three pillars on which the European Union rests. Tony Blair will take that opportunity; William Hague, who resembles a small boy with a tin drum trying to impress the grown-ups with his continual banging, will abandon Europe - and the electorate - to the Labour Party.

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