Brexit vote gives EU real impetus for change

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

The UK may have given other EU countries the push they need to seek real change in the EU. [Iain Farrell/Flickr]

Europe needs to learn the true lesson of Brexit: that the Union’s foundations are weak, and radical reform is needed if European integration is to flourish, writes Lucas Bergkamp.

Professor Lucas Bergkamp is a partner at the law firm Hunton & Williams.

In June, despite the massive ‘Campaign Fear,’ the UK people voted for Brexit. Although the UK does not intend to give formal notice until March 2017, the UK and EU have begun to prepare for the withdrawal negotiations. To prevent further defections, European leaders want to ‘punish’ the UK and offer it a ‘tough deal’.

They are also pushing for rapid further European integration or a true European ‘super-state’, or at least a reinvigorated EU that delivers for its people. These proposals are misguided and miss the point. Europe needs to learn the true lesson of Brexit: that the Union’s foundations are weak, and radical reform is needed if European integration is to flourish.

Indeed, the EU has structural problems. These problems have been around for decades, but fundamental change has thus far been blocked. For too long, the EU’s existence has been justified by its imaginary peace-keeping function.

The misguided idea that the EU, rather than NATO, has safeguarded peace in Europe, was reinforced by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. To resolve its blatant democratic deficit, the EU has allowed for direct elections of the European Parliament, but has never given it full legislative powers.

As a further quick fix, the EU resorted to a system of direct democracy based on public participation in its legislative and regulatory processes. From the perspective of people without Brussels connections, this only made things worse because it seemed to confirm the image of elitist activism.

Of course, the EU’s structural deficiencies have much to do with its sceptical attitude towards democracy itself. As the Brexit referendum illustrates, the sentiment is that less-educated people are susceptible to misleading ‘populist’ politics, and that there are always unscrupulous politicians around to exploit their fears and concerns.

The EU would therefore function as a necessary safeguard against the populist tendencies of national democracies. These sentiments, however, are unsubstantiated. Non-populist or ‘elitist’ politicians merely employ tendentious propaganda of a different sort.

The resistance against democracy in the EU continues to create glaring problems. The Commission still holds an inexplicable monopoly over the initiation of the legislative process. National parliaments still have no power to approve or reject EU legislation, while the European Parliament is unable to represent its national constituencies in any meaningful way.

The real powers reside with national governments, but the smaller member states feel they have little influence on EU decision-making and tend to blame on ‘Brussels’ any EU legislation that their parliaments do not like.

To aggravate the situation, without a mandate in the treaties, ‘trialogue’ meetings between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament are held behind closed doors. The lack of transparency, public disclosure, and oversight has reinforced feelings of alienation.

Further, the EU’s prescriptive ‘one-size-fits-all’ decision-making model has not only resulted in a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and in widespread welfare-diminishing effects, but also perverted the principal of political separation. It has done so by shifting legislative power away from democratically elected parliaments to executive governments.

The solution is clear: bring the power back to the people and their national representatives. To stay relevant, the EU should move toward a more democratic and flexible design. It should derive its legitimacy not from wielding extensive powers, but from offering its constituencies sound and attractive solutions for common problems.

Under such a model, member states would be bound by a simplified European treaty that guarantees free movement of goods, capital, and services, and, thus, the EU single market, but each national parliament would be free to decide whether it should implement a piece of EU secondary legislation.

This ‘menu’ or ‘à la carte’ approach would allow a member state to adopt only the EU legislation that creates added value for its people. It would be fully consistent with the subsidiarity principle, to which the EU now only pays lip service, and be responsive to the wishes of national democracies, rather than merely advancing a majority interest.

An EU decision-making model based on voluntary adoption of EU legislation by national parliaments would restore the primacy of national legislatures and give the citizens of the member states a renewed sense that their votes count.

The pro-Brexit voters did the EU a huge favour: they have given the EU member states the incentive they need to implement far-reaching structural reforms. The EU should capitalise on the momentum that Brexit generates, and reject the idea of a European super-state and the self-serving theory that attempts to justify it.

Instead, it should restore the nation state, the political separation and democracy, thus putting the EU on a sustainable path.

It is time for Europe’s national political leaders to stand up if they want to avoid a further rise of the growing anti-establishment movement. The time has come for government of the people, by the people, for the people.

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