Belgium gets diagnosis right but fails to prescribe the best medicine for ailing EU

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Series Details Vol.7, No.46, 13.12.01, p14
Publication Date 13/12/2001
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Date: 13/12/01

By Gareth Harding

This weekend's talkfest in Laeken was supposed to kick-start a no-holds-barred debate about the future direction Europe should head in. Instead, it looks like being the launch pad for another sterile institutional debate that will interest no one but a handful of policy wonks and constitutional lawyers.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel has said that the aim of the next bout of institutional soul-searching should be to make the EU "less remote, more transparent and more efficient". Few would argue with that.

However, the real problem is not diagnosing the patient, but coming up with the right prescription. Unfortunately, having pinpointed what ails Europe's body politic, the team of Belgian doctors charged with resuscitating the patient has prescribed the wrong drugs.

Creating pan-European political parties or drawing up an EU constitution will not make the Union more popular or more relevant. Europe's citizens are crying out for solutions to their everyday problems - healthcare, pensions, jobs, transport and the environment - not more blueprints and treaty changes. And the dozen or so countries that have waited over a decade to join the club are becoming increasingly impatient with the EU's incessant navel-gazing.

If the Laeken declaration is to be worth the paper it is written on, it needs to be radical and prepared to reform the EU's policies as well as institutions. It should outline a 10-point plan to make the Union leaner, greener, more democratic and more relevant to people's concerns.

Scrap the Common Agricultural Policy as it currently exists. The CAP is damaging to the environment and the third world and a waste of taxpayers' money. Rather than spending half the EU's budget on 5 of its people, far better spending the money on real problems such as eradicating poverty, cleaning up the environment and tackling urban blight.

Structural funds should be abolished. They are a crude form of wealth distribution that often fail to tackle remote regions' concerns and create 'aid junkies' out of poor countries. If Spain wants to spend billions of euro building roads to outlying areas, Madrid should pick up the tab, not Berlin or Brussels.

The EU should stop meddling so much in states' economic affairs. Countries that achieve high growth rates should be rewarded, not slapped on the wrist and paper-promise targets should be avoided at all costs. Setting EU-wide goals to cut unemployment doesn't manufacture more jobs, creating the right economic climate does.

The Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee and other toothless EU bodies should be shut down.

They are not listened to by policy makers, have little democratic legitimacy and are a drain on the EU's limited resources.

The European Commission should become a civil service like any other. It should lose the right to propose legislation - everywhere else in the world, that is Parliament's prerogative - and concentrate on making sure laws are properly implemented. This would avoid the need to have unelected European Commissioners and their bloated private offices.

The Council of Ministers should meet in public and Coreper should be scrapped and replaced by a permanent council of European ministers.

The European Parliament should meet in one place - Brussels. It should decide on the EU's entire budget and co-legislate in all areas currently decided by majority voting.

National vetoes should be removed in all areas. If a policy area is going to be transferred from the national to the European arena then the community method must apply. Unanimity in an EU of 30 states would grind the bloc to a halt.

One person should represent the Union on the international stage, not the present four or five. EU member states must scrap all third world debts and make good their promise to raise development aid to 0.7 of their budget.

The EU's information policy needs a complete overhaul. It should focus on information, not propaganda, and be run by professionals, not amateurs.

A pledge card such as this, explained in simple terms to Europe's voters, would show that the EU is listening to the public's concerns, that the transfer of powers is not a one-way street and that the Union is serious about reform rather than cosmetic change.

Unfortunately, given the body's tradition of fudging difficult issues and turning a blind eye to its manifest failings, the chances of any of these essential changes making it into the Laeken declaration are slimmer than Ireland's hopes of winning the World Cup.

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