Cameron’s principles and the future of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron have both referred to their adherence to democratic values. In democracies, governments are bound by rules and are answerable to parliaments. But even in the oldest and most experienced democracies, this model does not always work well, writes Phedon Nicolaides.

Phedon Nicolaides is professor and director of the European Economics Department at the College of Europe in Bruges. He writes in a personal capacity.

"In her "Bruges speech" in 1988, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to five principles. Twenty-five years later, current Prime Minister David Cameron also structured his recent speech on Europe around five principles.

Despite the fact that the two speeches are separated by quarter of a century, they have remarkable similarities. The aim of both speeches was to define the role of Britain in the future of Europe.

Thatcher spoke of the need for change, openness to enterprise, support for the single market and the wastefulness of the Common Agricultural Policy. Cameron stressed the need for competitiveness, flexibility, support for the single market and reform of the CAP.

Both prime ministers are in favour of respect for common rules but both express their distrust of centralised policymaking.

Although there are differences in the two speeches which reflect the evolution and enlargement of the European Community and its transformation into the European Union, the underlying concerns are strikingly similar. Thatcher famously declared that she did not want the creation of a European super-state.

For Cameron the European super-state already exists. He wants to reverse the process and powers to be returned to member states. Thatcher believed in cooperation between independent sovereign states. Cameron wants a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments.

Much commentary before and after Cameron’s speech focused on whether it would satisfy its intended audiences and whether other European leaders would accept to repatriate powers to the member states.

But one fundamental issue has not been addressed. It is the underlying contradiction in both speeches. Any system based on rules must necessarily erode national sovereignty. It cannot be otherwise. Neither Thatcher nor Cameron has acknowledged this unavoidable trade off.

The burden of being bound by rules is counter-balanced by the advantages of having others bound by the same rules.

Like Thatcher, Cameron can accept binding rules on the single market, but not much more. This, of course, raises an important question. Is the accountability of governments to national parliaments sufficient for effective policy implementation in fields outside the single market?

The issue here is whether control or checks by a supranational body such as the European Commission can force a country to do better. The record suggests that accountability to national parliaments is not enough.

The UK takes pride for being a law-abiding country. Yet, in the five-year period, 2008-2012, the UK was brought by the Commission 17 times before EU courts for failing to implement EU law timely or correctly.

The UK was successful in defending its measures in only one case (on VAT) and partly successful in another. Of the remaining 15 cases, nine concerned environmental protection such as treatment of waste water, atmospheric emissions and environmental assessment.

It cannot be that it was in the UK interests not to protect its environment. EU environmental rules were not forcing the UK to do something that would be detrimental to itself.

Yet, the accountability of the government to Parliament was not enough to either speed up the process of adopting enabling UK laws or enforcing them properly.

In the same five-year period, the EU Court of Justice was asked by UK courts to give guidance on whether EU law was applied correctly in the UK in another 88 cases. It is difficult to infer from these cases whether the UK was at fault or not.

Although the UK is better than most others, the point is that every government makes policy mistakes. In fact, none of the 27 members states of the EU has a perfect record.

One the other hand, these mistakes in policy implementation and enforcement do not necessarily prove that all EU rules can be justified. Cameron is largely right here.

Some EU rules are too bureaucratic, cumbersome or simply unnecessary for the prosperity of Europe. A periodic re-assessment of whether EU rules remain useful can only make the EU more relevant.

Both Thatcher and Cameron have referred to their adherence to democratic values. In democracies, governments are bound by rules and are answerable to parliaments. But even in the oldest and most experienced democracies this model does not always work well.

An added safeguard against not just egregious abuse of power but also genuine policy errors is to voluntarily subject one’s own policies to critical external scrutiny. There is no a priori reason why such external scrutiny should be limited to the single market.

This is not an argument for centralising everything. It only an argument for evidence-based division of powers and for multi-layer accountability. There are benefits to be had from external scrutiny of domestic policy, even in the best of countries. Or, as perhaps Cameron would have put it, policy independence is not an end in itself.

While thinking in other European countries has evolved since Thatcher’s Bruges speech, Britain seems to be stuck in a state of perpetual angst. Therefore, if Cameron truly wishes to contribute to a better future for all of Europe, he should add a sixth principle to his list.

It should explain why and under which conditions independent policymaking by each EU member state results in more effective policies than coordinated definition and enforcement of common rules."

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