By Shirley Williams, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords (THE GUARDIAN, 18/06/08):
A clear majority of Ireland’s voters have said no to the Lisbon treaty. Almost all the other 26 EU members have ratified the treaty, or shortly will. The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has declared that it is indispensable to the functioning of an enlarged Europe. How can such contradictory positions be reconciled?
The Irish referendum result was not just about the treaty. It was an opportunity for voters to express their resentment about many things: the rumoured financial mismanagement of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern; the threat to reduce the common agricultural policy; rising fuel and food prices; and even obfuscation over the treaty itself.
But none of these are good reasons for dismissing the vote. It represents, from the country that has benefited most from the EU since it joined in 1973, the disturbing gap between public opinion and European leaders. The Irish result is a very loud wake-up call.
By any standard, the EU has been a success. It has brought the free movement of goods, services and people to nearly 500 million citizens. It has brought democracy, an independent judiciary and the rule of law to former dictatorships – without war or loss of life. It is the world’s largest source of development finance and foremost humanitarian aid donor. But it has failed to win the affection of many Europeans.
So what is to be done? The European Council, meeting later this week, should launch two working groups with a remit to report back by the end of the year, one to see what elements of the Lisbon treaty that were needed to make the enlarged union function efficiently could be introduced by cooperation between governments. Certainly some of the proposals in the field of foreign affairs, humanitarian intervention and development could be adopted under a Maastricht treaty provision. More effective scrutiny of EU legislation, to ensure the principle of subsidiarity is respected, could be achieved by closer cooperation between parliaments. Most parliaments had started to investigate what mechanisms would be necessary to sound early warnings on subsidiarity but abandoned these when the constitution got into trouble.
The second working group would propose steps to reduce the volume of EU legislation, simplify contorted language and provide explanatory memoranda. At least as important, the council should invite each member to report on what steps it has taken to include education in citizenship, both national and European, in school curriculums. UK citizens know very little about how the union works or what it has done.
The UK has long been a semi-detached EU member. The media rarely report anything from Brussels except scandal and scare stories. The government has never seriously tried to rebut these, nor to set out the vision of a free and prosperous Europe. In the Irish referendum, stories that the EU would impose permissive abortion laws on the republic, or jeopardise its neutrality swayed some votes. That is a reason to take seriously the EU’s inability to get the facts across.
And that is the lesson the European elites neglect at their peril. Paradoxically, the Lisbon treaty made moves towards greater accountability to both European and national parliaments. It was careful to recognise members’ historic legacies, like Nato membership, and allowed the UK to exclude itself from whole sections of the treaty. In all these respects, it was a considerable improvement on Nice and Maastricht, neither of which were subject to a UK referendum. But all of us have to take the democratic deficit seriously if the EU is to realise its potential for good in our troubled world.