A few more post-Irish Referendum thoughts – because the EU really, really needs to know what it is that it should be doing if it’s to work out what is the best way forward from its ongoing Constitutional/Lisbon Treaty navel-gazing. More suggestions for priorities gratefully received in the comments.
Two starting assumptions for this list:
1) Institutional reform remains necessary (largely thanks to the short-sightedness of the earlier treaties: it is, after all, entirely possible to have rules for a club of 6 or 15 that also work for a club of 27 – it’s just that the people drawing up those rules made them inflexible), but it’s not essential for the EU to continue to function
2) Neither the Lisbon Treaty nor the Constitution really dealt with what I see as the EU’s two biggest problems (the Common Agricultural Project and the dominance of Russia in the continent’s energy supply) anyway
So, on with a few vague thoughts on the main problems and priorities, in approximate order of importance:
The Common Agricultural Policy
- if anything, more of a priority than institutional reform
- Since expansion to 25/27 the balance of economic power within the EU has shifted yet again, making the current balance of CAP payments (with wealthy France getting 22% of all CAP payments in 2004, despite having only 17% of the EU’s agricultural land, while EU countries with 35% of agricultural land between them received only 18%) ever more indefensible.
- The concurrent rise of a global food shortage further heightens the inanity of a system that sees (to oversimplify) farmers paid for producing nothing and good food go to waste, while simultaneously diminishing the ability of third world countries to compete effectively.
- The CAP also eats up around 44% of the EU’s annual budget, and accounts for the majority of the accounting dodginess that keeps leading to the EU’s accounts not being signed off year after year
- With the current “fuel crisis” only likely to worsen (peak oil, anyone? Even if you don’t buy that argument, it doesn’t take a genius economist to work out that finite resource + increasing demand = rising prices)
- Europe’s own energy resources are, shall we say, inadequate for the long-term stability of a continent with the best part of half a billion people
- Russia is increasingly gaining a monopoly on the supply of natural gas to Europe, and this dominance is only going to increase. Russia (or, more accurately, state energy company Gazprom, whose former Chairman is, erm… the current President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev, and likely to be replaced by, erm… Vladimir Putin) has also shown herself quite happy to withhold supply to gain concessions
- Stability of energy supply is essential for the European economy – short-term that means security of supply from Russia (and Central Asia and the Middle East), medium to long-term it means finding viaible alternatives, be that nuclear, wind, wave, solar or whatever
An ageing population
- Average life expectancy in the EU may have dropped a bit with the accession of economically less well-off eastern European states over the last few years, but the general trend is clear: Europeans are living longer than ever before
- Whether encouraging the reform of pensions, retirement ages, working hours and the rest should be an EU competence is an area of much controversy (myself? Not convinced it should be) – but one of the few indisputable findings of that Tomorrow’s Europe deliberative poll event I attended in Brussels last year was that the people of Europe feel that their governments/the EU should do more to ensure that its citizens are provided for in old age
(As a semi-related aside – though one that’s utterly unrelated to the main point – why are we limiting the amount of time people can legally work? If people want to work more, let them – they have more to put into their own pensions and savings, taking pressure off the state, and end up paying more taxes, taking pressure off the state. Why should anyone ever be prevented from working if they want to?)
The lack of agreement on the EU’s core purpose
- Is it primarily a trading union, or should the EU be pushing for a “Social Europe” – those strike me as the two extremes, though there’s any number of additional disagreements. Are they incompatible?
The lack of consultation with the people
- Whether you’re a believer in the EU’s “democratic deficit” or not (and it’s certainly not as clear cut a case of a lack of democracy as some claim), one of the few similarities between the French, Dutch and Irish referenda on the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty on which most commentators have been agreed is the sense that the “No” votes came in part due to disillusionment with the political class
- Europe is a continent with more than its fair share of experience of dictatorship and absolutism, with a large majority of EU member states having experienced periods of military/undemocratic rule within living memory, during which time literally millions of Europeans have been killed and murdered by the self-same nation states who have now banded together for the good of the continent – to now deny the citizens of Europe a say in their future smacks of taking the piss; and yet the people have never been asked what they want from the EU
The lack of knowledge of the people
- The one point of agreement from those who voted “No” in the Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum was that they didn’t really know what the Lisbon Treaty was all about – but I’d wager it’s not just the Lisbon Treaty that’s a mystery. I’d put at least a tenner on there being a majority of EU citizens who similarly couldn’t tell you the difference between the Council of Europe, the European Council and the Council of the European Union, another tenner on their not being able to tell you the difference between an EU resolution and an EU directive, another tenner on them not being able to explain the powers of the European Parliament, another tenner on a majority not being able to pick either European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering or European Commission President José Manuel Barroso out of a line-up, and yet another tenner on a majority thinking that the European Court of Human Rights is an EU institution (clue: it isn’t).
- Without some understanding of how the EU functions and what its competences are the people will not – by definition – be able to make sensible choices. (For example, that poll finding on pensions I mentioned above? The one problem with that is that I’m not convinced that the participants were made sufficiently aware that pensions are not an EU competence; nor was there a question asking whether they thought pensions should be an EU competence)
- This is certainly related to the old arguments about the lack of a European demos, but even more fundamental – because a demos cannot emerge until the base level of public knowledge is sufficient to support one; if there is no demand for EU information and discussion, there will be no supply
- This is not something the EU can easily tackle without being accused of propagandising
Possible others included for completeness’ sake (though I’m not necessarily convinced about either):
- Climate Change (the argument runs: if the world is warming the food crisis will worsen and Russian dominance increase as the steppes become viable agricultural land; it may also lead to infrastructure damage and increased migration)
- Migration/Immigration to the EU (the argument runs: non-European immigration is on the rise, and this is threatening to overwhelm European public services and/or European culture)