Democratic accountability in Europe is going up in flames along with the single currency
WITH, I hope, many others in Scotland, I find it hard to believe that an independence vote in the forthcoming referendum would trigger an obligation to join the European single currency and, with this, a potential liability for a €9.8 billion (£8.4bn) contribution to a eurozone stability fund.
Such was the assertion earlier this week by two Europe specialists in a report for the House of Commons library. If this is indeed the case then the loss of control, not just of monetary policy and interest rates but also fiscal policy, to a currency area now locked in an appalling existential crisis would make a mockery of Scotland’s independence referendum.
To assert that a vote for one is constitutionally and unarguably a vote for the other would be more than an affront. And if that is the basis on which the referendum is to proceed – and full legal advice given to the Scottish Government on this critical point needs to be published – we would need to be sure that the word “independence” on the ballot paper was contained within two very large inverted commas.
Much has been written in recent months about the collapse of the financial credibility of the single currency project. But what is also going up in a sheet of flame is democratic accountability within Europe itself. First we have had a series of Euro summits culminating in a so-called rescue package that, without any detail as to where vast amounts of additional bail-out funds would come from, was sorely lacking in credibility. Then pressure was put on the Greek premier George Papandreou by France and Germany to call off a referendum on the latest Euro austerity package.
Now there is a gathering stampede for central control of member government fiscal policies and budgets.
Arguably most ominous of all from the perspective of democratic accountability within the EU has been the formation of what is being called the Frankfurt Group – a Merkel-Sarkozy axis together with top EU officials to wield a degree of power unthinkable to those who have voted over the years in EU constitutional referendums.
The first meeting of this group last month is already being accorded the status of a putsch. First the Greek prime minister is destabilised and forced out. Now Berlusconi is on his way out. We may strongly disagree with the way these countries have been run, their rampant bureaucracy, over-generous welfare provisioning and the failure to tackle structural reform. But there are democratic principles to be considered and sovereignties respected. Were it done to the government of an “independent” Scotland, would we meekly buckle under?
The growth of “political Europe” has gone hand-in-hand with much rhetoric about democracy. Indeed, the EU’s greatest claim to give a voice to the European “demos” is the European Parliament. But, as the greatest crisis to Europe since the end of the war has unfolded, barely a squeak has been heard from this institution. This “voice of Europe” has been utterly marginalised in the euro debacle as bond yields soar and governments are pushed over. Looking at its track record, it could be said that the nearest that the European Parliament has ever come to dealing with financial matters is voting through its own budget year after year, regardless of frequent questioning by the Court of Auditors.
It’s not the parliament’s constant schlepping from one domicile to another that is the real offence, but the whole ridiculous, vacuous enterprise. And amid the calls now ringing from one end of Europe to another for budgetary control and restraint, no such strictures seem to apply to this pretend parliament.
Last year – the latest for which figures are available – €317 million (£270m) was allocated for buildings and furniture. A further €521m was spent on staff. A further €220m was spent on expenses for MEPs, €161m on their assistants and €108m on other staff and outside services. The number of officials and temporary staff employed in this charade is 6,166. The total budget for the year came to €1.61 billion (£1.37bn). All this is raised annually from member governments now fighting to account for every centime of expenditure as a black curtain of recession descends across the continent.
How vital is it for Baroness Ashton’s office to be kitted out in the generous way it is, and who cares to what far-flung end of the earth she is dispatched to dispense largesse from a continent whose currency debacle has sent alarm bells ringing in financial markets across the globe? How piquant that her missions have been dwarfed by the panic-stricken – and so far failed – efforts of eurozone leaders to beg, borrow or otherwise cadge vast sums from China and the IMF to keep the single currency project intact?
This searing crisis has exposed the European Parliament for what it is: one of the most useless institutions ever devised in the history of Europe. And now, as the Frankfurt Group flexes its muscles over whichever nation is deemed to place the single currency experiment in jeopardy, and how low its citizens are forced to bend, the parliament’s claim to provide some equality of voice for all 27 members of the EU in key decision-making is reduced to a farce. It is a fig leaf to cover a fig leaf.
Few Scots would demur from maintaining close trade, business and cultural links with the EU. After all, we voted for what was presented as a free trade area. The monster it has now grown into is something else entirely. This issue of the EU’s remit should be of particular concern to us, given the recent upgradings of North Sea oil reserves. One of the reasons why Norway has chosen to stay out of the EU is a concern that its oilfields might be deemed a Community resource, over which it would lose control. A cash-desperate European Commission might well decide that a Community oil revenue tax might be within its bailiwick. Impossible? Look at the battle the UK financial sector is now having against an EU tax on financial transactions.
So we need to take care to clarify what exactly our political and constitutional position would be with the independence option – and, indeed, with whatever option is chosen.
Too many powers have already been surrendered to the EU by a Westminster parliament asleep on the job and careless on that very principle that exercises Scots so passionately: sovereignty. You don’t need to be an SNP “fundie” to appreciate the driving principle at the heart of devolution and to be tolerably sure that the option marked “independence” does not in fact mutate into its very opposite.