It sounds like a nice line to take – the EU should stop its institutional navel gazing and get on with delivering results, looking outwards to deal with the threats in the world. Those were the words of David Miliband in his speech to the Labour Party Conference this week, as reported in The Guardian and at BBC News Online.
But think about it for a moment. The Labour governments since 1997 have been paranoid about structures – creating different forms of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, establishing cabinet systems and directly elected mayors in local government, and making botched efforts to reform the House of Lords. Most recently Brown at a stroke created BERR, DIUS and DCSF (more from the Number 10 website). If that all of that is not the result of a bout of national institutional navel gazing, then what is?
It’s just at EU level there are 2 important differences. Firstly, making any institutional change needs the agreement of 27 Member States. That’s a lot harder than just putting a paper in the House of Commons Library. Secondly, the EU has a constitutional framework of sorts – its treaties – and hence the debate is structured in terms of amendments to text, rather than the executive just getting on changing things. Few EU countries would accept so much institutional change nationally as the UK has swallowed in the last 10 years with barely a squeak of opposition from the general public; the EU is never going to manage so much, so quickly.
let’s face it: the issues at stake with the European Constitution, and subsequently the Reform Treaty, are not going to go away. The pressures for more democratic accountability, more streamlined institutions and decision making, and the need to be honest that the EU is more than an international institution but less than a state, will not ever be finally ‘settled’. A goal-orientated EU is no bad thing, but that will need a delicate balance of institutional reforms, political leadership and sensible legislation; to argue otherwise runs counter to the experience of 50 years of EU integration.