Brussels Briefing – 24/10/2005

There are some die-hards in the European Parliament who still think the Constitution can be revived. The socialists, always masters of self-delusion, are certainly in this camp, but so too are some of the more integrationist centre right MEPs in the EPP-ED Group. As Christian Democrats they believe in resurrection and they are convinced the Constitution will rise again.

There are two scenarios that these wishful thinkers pursue. Firstly, they want to introduce the institutional questions addressed by the European Constitution by stealth – through the back door – piece by piece. They believe this is entirely justified as they claim that the people of France and the Netherlands weren’t voting ‘NO’ to the Constitution. Rather, they were voting against high, long-term unemployment in France, particularly amongst the young, who sensed that the EU was making their lives worse. In the Netherlands there was a feeling that they were not getting value for money as the EU’s highest net contributor to the budget.

In truth, I think that these views are patronising. It is like saying ‘the people got it wrong’. ‘We, the politicians, know best!’ There is a famous story set at the time of the Crimean War, when the Chief Medical Officer said “The medical services would have been perfectly adequate had it not been for the casualties.” We cannot say the people got it wrong. The Euro elite got it wrong! I believe that the French and the Dutch were instinctively voting against the Constitution because they understood that it embraced and set in concrete those very policies, which led to 10% unemployment in France and 5 million unemployed in Germany – almost the same level that brought an end to the Weimar Republic. France, Germany and Italy all have serious economic problems. Growth is static at around 1%. The famous European social model about which we hear so much, has failed to deliver.

The second scenario that is pursued by the Constitutional optimists is the hope that a newly elected French President will call another referendum, on exactly the same text as before. This is breathtakingly naive! To think that a new French President would risk his reputation and career at the start of his presidency in the almost certain knowledge that the French would vote NO for a second time, is to go beyond the bounds of reality! In any case, there will be no presidential elections in France until 2007.

To me, all of this discloses one simple fact. Europe is suffering from a lack of leadership. There are too many cautious leaders in Europe, paying too much heed to opinion polls. This has created a weak Europe, politically, economically and militarily. As far as the rejection of the Constitution is concerned I’m not shedding any tears. It has ‘died the death’. We must leave the institutional model alone. I recently heard a great speech from the former Spanish Prime Minister – Jose Maria Aznar. He said “The Constitution was a failure. The great liars who worked on the Constitution did not tell the truth to the people. They tried to deceive them. That is why the people rejected it in France and the Netherlands.”

Aznar was right. EU leadership doesn’t depend on a Constitution. We need courageous leaders working together, not the ‘leadership-lite’ situation that we have at the moment – lots of smiles for the cameras, but no-one knows what they stand for! The Constitution was just a new attempt at a share out of power because some EU leaders didn’t like the share out agreed at the earlier summit in Nice.

The Constitution represents the past and not the future. We have 20 million unemployed in the EU and yet we are beset with red tape, regulation and bureaucracy, which throttles entrepreneurial flair at birth and stands in the way of job creation and economic growth. The book of rules – The acquis communautaire – was 85,000 pages long when I was first elected as an MEP 6 years ago. It is now 110,000 pages long! When an Accession State wishes to become a full member of the EU they must sign every single page into their laws and statutes. This is ridiculous and because we have clamoured for reform, President Barroso has, at long last, ordered a review of directives waiting in the legislative pipeline for our approval. He has ordered the scrapping of 68 directives, the contents of which he has described as “absurd”. Scrapping 68 directives is a good start, but there are 600 more waiting to be introduced.

But what all of this means is that Europe is in a state of paralysis. The leaders of four of the key nations in Europe have been becalmed. Chirac’s reputation, never high at the best of times, has been wrecked by the French rejection of the constitution. Berlusconi is limping towards certain defeat in the next Italian election, his record smeared by allegations of corruption and maladministration. Following the disastrous German election results, Angela Merkel must now share power with the German socialists, a recipe for disaster. And Blair, having announced his intention to give up the job of PM, has brought the EU budget process to a halt by demanding, quite justifiably, radical reform of the CAP. So Europe is leaderless at precisely the time we are crying out for leadership.

So, European political paralysis, a lack of leadership and a failing EU and UK economy are coming together rather like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse to undermine our future. For Scotland the outlook is bleak. We are witnessing economic decline against a background of escalating fuel costs and burgeoning growth in China and India. And make no mistake, Scotland and the UK cannot afford to see a decline in the EU economy. 56% of Scottish exports go to the EU. So, if the EU is not growing economically, it directly affects us. Only radical surgery can save the ailing patient.

If Europe is to escape from the current economic malaise then major structural reforms are necessary. Three key areas are ripe for reform. (1) We must complete the Single Market, opening up more businesses to competition. (2) We must invest more in research and development (R & D) and education. The EU spends 1.8% of GDP on R & D, while the US spends over 3%. (3) We must seek changes in the labour market and welfare state reform so that public sector funding can be slashed. If we are to turn Europe into an economic world-leader in the months and years ahead, we must forget the Constitution and start focusing on what the people of Europe want, jobs, prosperity and security.