10 December 2015

Cameron’s renegotiation “red card” demand is impossible


David Cameron’s four-part demands from the EU in his “renegotiation” have been widely condemned as useless from a UK perspective.  But that does not mean they are easy for the EU to deliver.  If I ask for “all the sand in the Sahara in my living room”, that’s simultaneously useless and impossible.

Much attention has been given to the difficulties of Cameron’s four year benefits delay demand.  But another of his demands is likely to be just as difficult, namely his demand for a “red card” system, whereby enough national Parliaments getting together can block EU rules even in areas where the EU has policy-making competence.

Donald Tusk’s letter on Monday, replying to Cameron, made no mention of this proposal, but as it stands, this measure is a no-hoper.  That isn’t widely understood, because there is already a “yellow card” system whereby enough national Parliaments can get together and formally express dissent – issuing a “yellow card”.  However, the yellow card system has no practical significance, and the EU has totally ignored yellow cards up to now.

Another reason commentators haven’t grasped how impossible a red card system is is that other Member State governments have expressed sympathy for the idea before.  However, there is no way the EU institutions will agree that, once policy-making in a certain area has become an EU competence, any national parliament or parliaments will be permitted a veto over it.  The most a “red card” system could involve would be a formal process of reviewing a policy (basically the same as the “orange card”, which already exists though it has never been used).  And that won’t meet the substance of Cameron’s demand at all.

Fans of the red card idea say that it is a means for the EU to respond to complaints of a “democratic deficit” in decision-making.  But such an analysis misses the crucial point that insulating policy-making from national democratic pressures is one of the main reasons – usually the main reason – policy-making competence is passed to the EU in the first place.  Member State governments that could not pass laws to liberalise their industries, stop using state aid to subsidize inefficient businesses, avoid intervening in cross-border mergers, resist bans on cheap foreign workers, and so on get around these domestic pressures by passing policy competence to the EU.  If, once the EU has competence, it then tells national Parliaments they can block its decisions, that negates most of the policy-making purpose of the EU.

In that sense, the EU should be thought of as akin to an independent central bank.  Having Member State politicians unable to affect its decisions is not a flaw in the decision-making process.  It is the point of it.

Insofar as the EU recognises any “democratic deficit” it is solely at the pan-EU level.  It will in due course resolve that by having an elected EU president.  Even the current one – Jean-Claude Juncker – claims he was elected for obscure reasons we don’t need to go into, though everyone else denies it.  He may not have been, but it won’t be long before an EU president is elected.

The red card system proposal represents the EU going down a whole new path it has no interest whatever in travelling.  It does not want national Parliaments having more role in EU decision-making, and that just ain’t gonna happen.

So no four year benefits delay and no red card system. Tusk’s letter also said changing “ever closer union” is unnecessary.  “Competitiveness”, then.  Ho, hum.  One out of four ain’t bad.

Andrew Lilico is a political and economic commentator.