a guest Oct 7th, 2013 481 Never
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  1. Good afternoon,
  2. Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to address this august society, and share with you some thoughts and ideas on the future of the European Union, and Britain’s role within it.
  3. I am close to thirty years older than most of you in this room – and in the case of one of you, am very literally old enough to be her father.
  4. But while we are at different stages of our lives, we are in essence of the same generation. Born into the same world. Facing the same challenges and difficulties, though the challenges we face pale into insignificance beside the challenges faced by our grandparents.
  5. We are one or two generations removed, you and I, from a generation that sat in these buildings during the day and headed for bomb shelters in the dark because Goering’s Luftwaffe flew into these skies every night to rain death and destruction upon this city.  That same generation were the people who put that memory aside, and extended the hand of friendship to Germany, and Italy, and Japan, and determined that the world, and our relationships, could start anew.
  6. I remember, in 2005, after the 7/7 bombings, offering my sympathies to an old family friend who is a Labour peer. He responded, “Oh Declan, for goodness sake, your uncle John (his brother) and I watched Jerry bombing London from up on Hampstead heath. We can endure.”
  7. The scars left on that generation, and how they overcame them, are not memories that lend themselves to easy imagination. But they are all too real. I remember, in 2008, passionately campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty, and taking the message from Ireland as widely throughout Europe as I could. I met an elderly German gentleman, who I recall listened politely for an hour as I, idealistically and enthusiastically, explained to him everything that was wrong with it. He told me, at the end of the conversation, that he agreed with nearly all my points, but that he had to be for it.
  8. He told me that he had been nine years old when the message reached his house, for his parents, that his elder brother, a German paratrooper, had been killed in the fighting at Montecasino in Italy, and that after what he had seen his family suffer, there was almost no price he wouldn’t pay for peace.
  9. In my own family, also, the history tells its own story. My daughter Rafaella, who is amongst you here today, has photos of her great grandfather in the uniform of Austria-Hungary, fighting the Italians in the Tyrol during the Great War. In that same war, two of her great-great-grand uncles died in the trenches of the western front, wearing the uniforms of the Manchester Irish serving in the British Army.
  10. That those two families, separated by distance, culture, history, and war can both claim a part of my family for their own speaks to more than simple chance – we are European. Our heritage and suffering, even when we inflicted it upon ourselves, is common to us. And a generation of people decided, before any of us here were born, that we in this room should never have to re-live their pain, and their suffering. We owe them so much thanks, and so much vigilance.
  11. That legacy, and that generation’s achievement, must never be forgotten – and yet it is easy to forget because what came before them, and what they lived through, is something that by their efforts they rendered absolutely unimaginable to us today, and it is hard to remember what you cannot really imagine.
  12. And when we do not remember what came before – what drove its creation – why the European Union came into being in the first place, it is very easy to consider it a disposable luxury. We might know, in our minds, that it has been a driver of European peace, and trade, and harmony, but without any of us having lived in a period when there was no European peace, or harmony, or free trade, and when bombs were flown over the channel to fall on our heads, and returned tenfold to Dresden and Hamburg, we cannot truly appreciate the transformation it has wrought.
  13. I speak to you today not as an apologist for the European Union. Not as someone who comes here to tell you that history alone justifies the status quo, or that being thankful for past successes should make us tolerant of the failures of the present.
  14. Rather, what I want to do today is talk to you about what we can learn from history, and how we can apply it to retain the very best aspects of the European Union, and how, I believe, we can shape the evolution of its institutions in a way that promotes those values we all, as Europeans, share. Democracy. Transparency. Political freedoms. Trade, and peace.
  15. Let me begin with the following observation that I hope we can all agree on: In any human society, man is driven to choose forms of Government for himself. At the micro level – you here in this society have chosen to govern yourselves. You’ve chosen a committee, and a Chairman, and you’ve delegated to them powers to set meetings, and membership fees, and organise events and spend the money you’ve given them. Sports clubs do the same. Church halls the same. Man has nearly always had democracy at the micro level – historians of the Roman Republic and the Greek City states both record clubs and societies and sporting teams and so on and so forth. Autocracy is not the natural state of our species when it comes to the micro level. Democracy is.
  16. Another truth about our nature as human beings is that we are ambitious. We want to shape our lives, and mould the world we live in to fit our needs. Ambition comes in many forms – the desire to learn, the desire to procreate – to leave children behind us to build on our work and achievements, and to remember them. We are not happy, as a species, to live in a box and be told thus far shalt we go, and no further. It is why each new generation seeks change, seeks to expand the frontiers of our knowledge and our borders. It is why as Europeans we crossed the Atlantic, why we remember those who first circumnavigated the globe, why we bestow the closest thing we have to immortality on those who first reached for, and then walked, on the moon. Why as we speak people sit in rooms in NASA thinking about how to set the footprint of mankind on the soil of Mars.
  17. We have been granted, by the forces of creation, but a short time in this world. It is in our nature, perhaps unlike any other living being, to be aware of our mortality even in the fullness of our primes. To be conscious, unlike any other species, that there was a world before us, and that there will probably be one for billions of years after we have had our time. And to seek, and struggle, and work, and fight to shape the world in the image of our particular generation, to leave it a better place for the next generation, and to hope that they remember and thank us for our work as we thank those who have come before.
  18. I want to put a thesis to you on that note. I believe that the struggle of the human race can be summed up as the struggle for freedom. For the right to choose our rulers, and to throw them out. For the right to trade, and prosper, in peace. What is it that connects Spartacus, and Saint Thomas More, and Washington, and Churchill, and Aung Yan Su Ki and Nelson Mandela, but a struggle to destroy the idea that one man’s life is owned and controlled by another, or that Government can set a limit to your ambition, or that as a people, you must accept the dictats of a ruling elite without question?
  19. The great human conflicts – the ones we remember as heroic and necessary, were fought to expand freedom. Lincoln went to war with his own country to free slaves. Cato fought Caesar to the very end and died at Utica rather than see the Republic perish. Rosa Parks fought a battle no less daunting – to keep her seat on a bus. And this great nation went to war with Germany to free Europe from tyranny.
  20. I mention all of this, and speak of the past, because the past must inform our future. If we are not expanding the boundaries of human freedom, if we are not entrenching the rights of all peoples to choose their future, if we are not rolling back restrictions on the individual, and are instead increasing them, and if we are not making those who govern us more accountable, and subject to our oversight, but are instead awarding them more power with less responsibility, then we are on the wrong side of the human struggle. We are not fighting for progress, but for regression.
  21. There is, as you all know, the very real prospect of a referendum here in Britain, in the near future, on withdrawal from the European Union. The case for it can be put simply, and could even be said to be in line with what I have just spoken about. It is that the European Union does not expand human freedom, but seeks to constrict it. That its leaders are not accountable, but remote and insulated. That it does not grant to you, as individuals, a greater say in how you are governed but instead gathers more and more powers for itself and treats you as subjects, and not citizens.
  22. These criticisms, I am sorry to say, have a great deal of validity. For years and years now – since Maastricht, in fact, the EU itself has spoken of a democratic deficit. For years and years it has promised to address that deficit, and for years and years, and in treaty after treaty, it has not only failed to address that deficit, it has deepened it – and it should not shock anybody that this country, with perhaps the oldest and deepest democratic tradition amongst the nations of the world, should recoil from that. In truth, all true democrats should recoil from it.
  23. But recoiling from a policy you disdain will not change it. On the really defining questions, Britain has never withdrawn from the world or retreated behind the frontiers of democracy only to allow others to suffer. This country has exported her best ideas to the rest of the world. The ideas advanced here, in this country, beginning at Runnymede with the signing of the Magna Carta, now prevail in Japan and Jamaica, in India, and in Israel, in North America, and New Zealand. When Britain has advanced her ideas, the world has listened, and more often than not, the world has heeded the call sent forth from this small Island to embrace the rule by the many, and not the few. To have laws and institutions that are accountable. To judge people not from on high, but with a jury of their peers, and so the list goes on.
  24. The question facing Britain is not really is Europe working? But rather, can it work? The issue is not is Britain better off out, but can Britain lead? The challenge is not renegotiating Britain’s membership, but renewing Britain’s purpose.
  25. So let us for a moment turn to the challenge at hand, and ask ourselves if it can be met.
  26. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”
  27. In other words, true democracy must be truly participatory. The electors share as much responsibility for maintaining the health of the democracy as the elected. A citizenry must be engaged with the world around them, eager to work within their communities to maintain order and stability and to care for their environments locally while those they elect answer the big questions about security and welfare and economics. A partnership between the individual, and his fellow individuals to form communities, who in turn partner with the state or government, with accountability and separation of function.
  28. That is not today’s European Union. In today’s European Union the citizen has no function save as a target of regulation. We all know the stories. The EU banned water companies from saying that water hydrates you in their adverts. Eggs can no longer be sold by the dozen, but must be sold in weight. Bananas cannot be, you know, too bendy.
  29. And by the way – I know it’s popular in some circles to dismiss the bendy bananas story as a myth –it’s not. It was European Commission regulation Number 2257 of 1994, and was repealed, after fourteen years of effort, in 2008.
  30. The European Union as currently constituted can regulate your bananas and your bottles of water and tell you how to sell your eggs but it cannot do a thing, it seems, to manage the economic crisis. Bendy Bananas did not cause the Greek crisis, and regulating them will not fix it. In that sense, the EU is entirely backwards. It regulates aspects of your life you do not require regulating, and is incapable of performing its most basic function - tackling the economic situation.
  31. There is, in other words, no partnership. The EU tells you how to measure your eggs. And in Britain, many people resent them for it and they are absolutely right to do so.
  32. The prevalence of bad ideas from Brussels should call to mind one more thing de Tocqueville said:
  33. “The genius of democracies” he said, “is that they are a breeding ground, moreso than any other form of Government, for new ideas”.
  34. When we narrow the decision making structures down to but a few thousand people in Brussels – and that is what we have done – then we reduce the fertility of our democracy. The space for new ideas to grow and take root in Europe is narrowed to a few acres of not particularly good soil around the Berlaymont building, and the rest of us, rather than being innovators and thinkers, become simply recipients of whatever bad crop is grown in Brussels.
  35. We have transferred power after power to Brussels. We have created an all-powerful commission that is appointed, not elected. We have a President that none of us votes for. We have a parliament that is supposed to be democratic, but because no effort has been made to create a European polity, we elect our MEPs not based on what we want to see happen in Europe, but based on the transient popularity of domestic politicians. And even then, the MEPs we do elect have powers of oversight so limited as to be practically worthless, and a distance from the voters that renders them irrelevant. What accountability does an MEP feel when he or she knows his or her re-election is more dependent on the domestic budget than the European one?
  36. No, what we have grown in Europe is not a democracy but a bureaucratic oligarchy that is unaccountable and irresponsive to the needs and desires of European citizenry. It has become a black hole for power, sucking in more and more national sovereignty, in many cases for its own sake.
  37. So how do we reconcile these two Europes? The Europe I spoke of at the start, this Europe that has guaranteed free trade and peace and worked to advance the rights and freedoms of man, with the European Union that cares not what you think but cares very much about whether a restaurant sells you Olive Oil in a jug?
  38. Edmund Burke said that the greatest danger to liberty is when it is “nibbled away for expedience, and in parts”. And that is what has happened to the EU.
  39. Each power that has been taken has been taken not through greed or lust for control for its own sake, but for a desire for uniformity and convenience. “Wouldn’t it be better if we all used the same weights and measures to benefit trade” becomes an attempt to ban an old lady buying a pound of mincemeat, and so on and so on. And in that kind of small action we see another one of Burke’s maxims in action:
  40. “The greater the power, the more subtle and dangerous the abuse”.
  41. And so the problem for us as citizens of this European entity is that we are subject to its powers but they are not subject to our controls. You cannot vote out the EU commission. The EU President will never have to face you with his job on the line. The official who draws up a regulation in Brussels is, often, exempt from it himself.
  42. And in this environment, of power without effective limit, those who influence the levers of European government are not the governed, with their votes, but a select few with other ways of accessing and influencing those levers. There is no compulsory registration of lobbyists in Brussels. No regulation of lobbying. No record of lobbying. And why would it be needed? Even if you were outraged by it, there is, quite literally, nothing any of you here can do about it.
  43. Now, here we come to the part where we have to make a decision.
  44. We know two things – that European Union has been, overwhelmingly, a positive for Britain, and for the continent as a whole. And that the European Union has become undemocratic, unpopular, and ineffective.
  45. Do we abandon a great idea because of bad execution? Does Britain, for the first time in her history decide to take a step back from the world, or does she step forward and say we want to renegotiate not our membership of the club, but the rules of the club itself? Does Britain say “give us a few concessions” that allow everyone to save political face, or does she say “here is the way forward, here is a solution to our collective problem?”
  46. Britain has ever chosen the latter path. And it is what she should do again. She should choose the harder path, because it is the harder path. And because the price of failure, the price of a return to a Europe of walls and barriers, is worth our blood, sweat, toil and tears to avoid.
  47. But what is the hard path? What must we do?
  48. There are those who want a federal Europe. I am one of them and proud to be so. But a Federal Europe does not mean an all-powerful centralised Europe.  
  49. A federal system – a federation – means that instead of powers being exercised from the top down, they are exercised closest to the people. I mentioned earlier student societies, and sports clubs, and drama groups. I return to them now because they remain the purest and simplest model of how our society works best.
  50. If you, here, want to send a delegation of members to a competition, or a conference, and it is not funded by the college, you have the option of raising the funds from your members. A levy, for a dedicated purpose, collected and spent transparently. If certain conditions are met – that it is democratically imposed, clearly ringfenced, for a popular and supported purpose, you will not need a revenue collector to collect it. People will happily pay. The same goes for a new roof for a rugby clubhouse or a refurbishment of a church hall.
  51. When people are invested in something, they will contribute. When they can see where their efforts are directed, they will be motivated. When they can see how their work contributes to progress, they will be happy, even enthusiastic, to have made their contribution.
  52. We live in an era when engagement with politics is falling just as the centralisation of decision making is growing. That is not a coincidence. When your local hospitals and schools are funded by a far-distant bureaucracy that treats you like numbers on a page instead of people with needs and ideas, you feel less like contributing to the process.
  53. When that happens at European level, the distance is even more remote, and apathy turns to either complete disengagement, or anger. We cannot have a Europe that dictates to its citizens from on high, because sooner or later those citizens will decide they have had enough – and that moment is perilously close.
  54. A federal Europe would address that simply. Where I agree with eurosceptics is that power should be repatriated. I don’t just believe in national government either, but regional and local government. Communities who want new schools and parks and hospital wings should be allowed to raise the money locally and run those services locally. Nationally, we can set curriculums and standards and thresholds beneath which our citizens cannot fall.
  55. At European level we can do the things that really benefit us at European level – negotiating trade agreements, leading a collective foreign policy on matters like the Syrian crisis, and ensuring that never again will we rely on others to solve a crisis like the Balkans for us.
  56. A strong federation requires strong and accountable institutions, and it also requires a common polity. Europe, as some of you have doubtlessly heard in political science lectures, is a political institution without a common polity. The same rules apply to Bulgaria and Britain, but the political cultures in both countries have little in common. That is as much a problem as the lack of accountability.
  57. If we want to address that problem we have to be bold. So here’s my idea – elect a European President. Let us have a personification of the European institutions – one person – who we all can vote for. Let the creation of that office over time develop our common political culture. The candidate who wins will be the candidate who speaks most to the common needs of all nations, despite language and cultural barriers. The candidate who can forge unity out of difference.
  58. That is not all however. A federal Europe must have strong and accountable institutions, that are simple for people to understand. At the beginning of last year, with Professor Brendan Simms of Cambridge University, I outlined in a newspaper article exactly how that might work. What we said, in summary, was the following:
  59. Following the election of a President, the commission should become the servant of the executive arm and be filled by the nomination of the democratically elected president, and the ratification of a newly created upper house of the European Parliament.
  60. An upper house or senate should be created, with four representatives of each member state each holding equal voting power. That is to say, Ireland will have four senators, as will Germany and the UK and other states. This upper house will be given the co-right to initiate legislation along with the lower house, the current EU Parliament.
  61. The European Parliament should be reformed to give greater balance for population (which would favour larger member states) and should be given the power (along with its upper house) to initiate legislation.
  62. A full insolvency purge of all European financial institutions should be immediately undertaken. A liquidation and asset sale of all unhealthy institutions should take place forthwith. A writedown of significant size, together with a large scale re-negotiation should take place on all distressed EU member state debts. The federalising of all remaining state debt should immediately follow, backed by the issue of union bonds backed by the entire tax revenue of the eurozone.
  63. All lobbying of the executive and legislative branch must be registered and transparent.
  64. The union civil service should be kept small and highly efficient; this should be enshrined in Europe's new constitutional arrangement. A debt ceiling must also be set constitutionally.
  65. The union should have monopoly of external action both in soft and hard power.
  66. The ECB should be guaranteed full independence and a low inflation policy be pursued.
  67. The official language of the union should be English. We understand the major sensitivities involved, but it is necessary to have one official language amongst so many, so as to remove any scope for ambiguity in laws and regulations or their interpretations.
  68. The automatic right of secession for any member state should be provided for with a two-thirds majority of the acceding polity.
  69. Let me say right now that this can only happen in conjunction with a repatriation of power to the member states. National and local Government are essential, and a Federal Europe would remain a federal union of proud nation states. If Scotland and Wales can retain their identity and traditions two centuries on from the Act of Union, this nation can retain its identity in a strong and democratic European Federation.
  70. I am aware that what I have just laid out to you may seem very radical indeed, but I want to leave you with a few quick thoughts on why I think it is so important.
  71. We, as a generation, must deal with several realities. Our power as European Nation states is rapidly declining. Trust in the European Union is declining. Our economic power is declining. We can be the generation that accepts a slow slide backwards, withdrawing from the world stage, and embracing our role as observers of a global race between China and the United States, or we can move together as one.
  72. We share more values than some think. Europe stands for a belief in the value and dignity of every human person. It stands for what some call a social conscience but I have always preferred to think of in British terms – good, old fashioned decency and fair play. We are committed to democracy, and human rights, and liberty, and the creation and conservation of a world where all of us are free to be ambitious and to fulfil our ambitions and potential.
  73. Those things that divide us – language, history, in some cases religious tradition, are things we are used to dealing with and always have been. How many European countries manage these divides within their borders as it is? What is Spain, but the united and culturally distinct kingdoms of Navarra, and Castille, and Leon, and Aragon? What is Germany but the heir to a Federal German Empire forged by Bismarck out of distinct and proud nation states? What about the Union between England, and Scotland?
  74. There are no cultural or historical reasons why this cannot be done. There are many, many reasons why if it is not done, then going our separate ways will equate to going quietly into the night.
  75. Saint Benedict is the Patron Saint of Europe.
  76. In the seventh century, as he travelled the south of France, he met people who would point at aqueducts and amphitheatres built by the romans not half a century earlier. He records that when asked about the Romans, people at the time assumed they had been a race of giants, because no man could build what they had. The knowledge had been lost. Europe had fallen into darkness – what we now call the dark ages.
  77. We cannot, and must not, embrace the arrogant view that history is the onward march of progress. It is only such if humans make it so. If we overcome difference. Solve problems. Respect each other. Trust each other.
  78. Our politics will regain the trust of the people when our politics rediscovers trust in people. We can govern ourselves if we are allowed. We can partner with the Bulgarians and the Czechs and the Irish and the Spanish to effectively govern Europe if they trust us to do so.
  79. I leave you with this appeal: Agree with me, or disagree with me, think big. Europe, Britain, and you yourselves will not benefit from a Britain that pulls back from the world, loses faith in her own ideas, and abandons Europe to her fate.
  80. In this, as in life, I ask you – seize and shape the moment. Do not simply walk away.
  81. Thank you.
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