David Cameron, democracy and the European Parliament

At the height of the Eurozone bailout crisis, Alexis Tsipras went to address the European Parliament. Why bother with that? was the cry of sceptical journalists who have never paid attention to the European Parliament. 887000 viewers of Guy Verhofstadt’s response show that this was a worthwhile political exercise – rather the rumour, and counter-rumour, that leaked out of the otherwise closed Eurogroup and European Council, here was Tsipras standing up and defending what he was trying to do – in public, in front of the cameras, and challenged by the variety of political forces represented in the European Parliament.

Now Guy Verhofstadt wants to repeat the exercise with David Cameron. He wants the British PM to come to the European Parliament on 16th February:

This is 2 days before the European Council is due to debate the deal that Cameron can present to the UK public prior to his referendum that will happen sometime between now and the end of 2017. Whatever gets hammered out late at night in the Justus Lipsius building at the European Council meeting will involve a lot of haggling and trading, and it will all be done behind closed doors. Verhofstadt wants Cameron – quite fairly in my view – to come along to the European Parliament and present his plans, and be scrutinised about them.

Just a few days ago at Davos, Cameron justified holding the referendum thus (full speech text here):

I think it’s absolutely essential to have full and proper democratic support for what Britain’s place should be in Europe and that’s why we’re holding the referendum

The thing is this is not just a one sided process. Even if Cameron deals and the UK votes to stay that will impact the nature of the European Union. If the UK goes the impact will be larger – on both sides. Even the very notion of the renegotiation implies that there are two parties.

Now you might of course quibble with whether the European Parliament is adequately democratic, and indeed also see the double nature of Cameron’s words (his government has shown contempt for UK democracy at other times) or also dislike referendums. But we are where we are – the European Parliament, however flawed, is the most democratic and transparent institution that the EU has got, and Cameron is in a renegotiation with the European Union. So it’s high time Cameron stood up and defended his plans in public in Brussels, for all to hear, and be questioned on them – that’s democracy after all, isn’t it David?

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