Sunday 22 November 2009

Who's Afraid of the EU?

Lots of people judging by the reaction to the recent developments in the EU, in particular the appointment of the new President of the European Council and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Not only are some people and some media outlets hostile to the whole European Union set up, they seem quite happy to tell lies about it. The Daily Mail for example nearly always refers to one of the new posts as President of the EU. Friday’s editorial in the Mail talks about “EU stitch-up” and goes on to describe the decision as “the final act of the squalidly anti-democratic Brussels farce.” Nearer to home a fellow Dundee blogger has a post about our “New Masters” and again refers to Van Rompuy as the President of Europe.

Now these are just two examples, but they accurately reflect the way many people think about the EU. In particular many people accuse the EU of being undemocratic or even anti-democratic. This is a pretty absurd accusation. Now if the newly appointed President was to be the President of the EU as a whole then the charge might have some validity. But of course this is not the case. M. Van Rompuy will be the President only of the European Council. This is but one of the five main bodies that make up the EU. It is not even one of the key decision making bodies. These are the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Neither of these two bodies are significantly affected by the Lisbon Treaty. Not only does the European Council not have any formal executive or legislative competencies, the new President of this Council doesn’t even have a vote. Nevertheless we are supposed to be frightened about M. Van Rompuy and what he might do to us all.

What does the European Council do? The Council is where the heads of government of the 27 member states meet together. It usually meets about four times a year and its main role is to define the EU's policy agenda and to settle issues outstanding from discussions at a lower level. And what about the new President - M. Herman Van Romuy - what is his role in all this. The President's work will largely be administrative, responsible for coordinating the work of the European Council, hosting its meetings and reporting its activities to the European Parliament after each meeting and at the beginning and end of his term. Additionally, the President will provide external representation to the Union.

So the European Council which is the body which represents the national governments within the EU has decided to appoint someone as their non-executive, non-voting President for the next two and a half years and we are told by some people that this is an affront to democracy! The European Council has always had a President. This post just happens to change every six months and there was never any election. Just buggins turn. The national governments think that by creating this new post they can be more effective and we are to believe that this threatens democracy! What do the opponents of this want? An EU wide popular election? How would that go down with the various national governments? I can just imagine how outraged the likes of the Daily Mail would be at this. A democratically elected President with all the additional legitimacy that he or she would have through a popular election would pose a much greater threat to the sovereignty of national governments. Now the Daily Mail and others who oppose the current set up know this or else they are complete fools.

Much the same applies to the other post, that of the HIgh Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This post has been created in order to ensure greater coordination and consistency in EU foreign policy. Though a new post it replaces two previous posts, that of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and that of the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy. As most critics of the EU complain about its bloated bureaucracy, one would have thought that this measure by reducing the number of officials would be welcomed by all. Not so. Once again we are told that this new post threatens the independence of our own foreign policy. This is again not so, as the Lisbon Treaty does not change the key elements of the EU’s foreign policy procedures. Namely that the High Representative can only represent the Union in matters where there is an agreed policy between all member states. And such agreement in nearly all cases relating to foreign policy has to by by unanimity. So where all 27 member states have the same position on a particular issue, and only then, they have agreed that Baroness Ashton can represent them. Big deal!

Now it is true that the two people appointed to these posts, the Belgian-British duo, Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, are hardly household names, even in their respective countries, let alone the EU as a whole. At least Van Rompuy is an active politician - he is currently Prime Minister of Belgium. I would have thought that this is a good thing and much better than some of the retired former political leaders that have been promoted by some. There may well be some questions about the suitability of Baroness Ashton for her post, as she has very limited diplomatic experience. Time will tell how effective she is in her new role.

However all political appointments are to some extent controversial. And in this case most critics are just using this as yet another opportunity to vent their hostility to the whole European Union project. And to show of their ignorance.

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