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A politician's learning curve

Posted by Helen Thursday, May 20, 2004

It is always pleasant and rather surprising to hear a politician announce that he or she has learnt something. So, it does seem rather churlish to suggest to a politician who has made this absolutely stunning announcement that now that they have started learning, perhaps they should carry on.

That is the way one feels about Gisela Stuart MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. Ms Stuart, famously, went to the Convention on the Future of Europe, as one of the British Parliamentary representatives and a confirmed supporter of the European project.

While there, she was so appalled by the high-handed behaviour of the Convention and its Praesidium, by the lack of democracy in the negotiations and the way the project was being advanced, by the refusal to listen to any but the most integrationist points of view, that she came back and wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society, in which she denounced the Convention and all its politicking.

She also made it clear that she opposed the existing draft of the EU Constitution, though she is not, as she says herself, against such a document per se, it being a good idea, in her opinion to delienate what is EU competence and what is national competence. Apparently, this cannot be achieved by straightforward treaties. Though to give Ms Stuart her due, she does want a great deal of power returned to the national parliaments. As she said in a speech she gave with a rather self-conscious political courage to the Bruges Group on May 19, “[i]f the ‘big beasts’ of politics can change their minds, it seems reasonable that others can, too. My own views on Europe have certainly altered, not least, as a result of my experience on the Convention on the Future of Europe.”

Several other things she said also made a lot of sense. She seems to think that politicians should read treaties they sign and advocate. She also thinks that people should read the constitution that will be imposed on them. And she expressed great pleasure at the thought that the Constitution will go to a referendum. There was a time when she was less pleased with the idea, stating that a referendum goes against parliamentary government but, presumably, she has changed her mind on that, too. And why not? The Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet have done so.

It is at this stage that one wishes that Ms Stuart would carry on with her admirable habit of leaning things. For instance, she should learn a bit more about EU legislation and the powers the Commission and the Council have over national parliaments. She should, perhaps, learn that scrutiny well or badly carried out is not the same as accountability or the right to legislate.

She is right to say that it is the fault of the politicians in Westminster that so little attention is paid to what is coming out of Brussels but wrong to suggest that if only they changed their way of working things would improve. Does she not know how decisions are taken in Council meetings and that European legislation cannot be rejected by Parliament? Apparently not and when informed of this fact during the discussion she took refuge in condescension.

Does she not know that EU legislation proceeds from the general to the particular and if the general is accepted, the particular cannot be defied? Apparently not, for all her experience with the Convention and its participants.

Does she not realize that the reason Parliament cannot think on the same timescale as the Commission in legislative terms is that we have these tiresome things, called elections?

Ms Stuart does not seem to have followed the latest twists and turns of the Constitution game and has paid scant attention to the historical facts, such as that the German economic miracle took place before the Common Market was formed. She has not read any of the arguments for Britain’ withdrawal from the EU or a radical new renegotiation of all the treaties; and has not looked at any of the alternative scenarios presented by people who have thought quite carefully about the subject.

In fact, all Ms Stuart has learned is that there was a lack of democracy in the way the EU Constitution was written and a certain lack of flexibility (her favourite word apparently) in which the EU model is being created.

There are numerous europhiles around, whom one could call perestroika europhiles in their constant hand-wringing about the many problems and the need to reform from within. Ms Stuart reminds one of somewhat different writers on the Soviet Union – those who maintained and still maintain, in the teeth of all evidence that Lenin was a very nice and humane man and it was Stalin who made communism unberable. But when a system goes so badly wrong, either with horrific results as in the Soviet Union, or merely depressing ones as in the EU, it is time, surely, to look at the basics.