Foreign Affairs CommitteeFurther written evidence from Sir Peter Marshall KCMG, CVO

Three recent developments have, in combination, gone far to transform both the perception in this country of the UK role in the EU, and, not less important, the perception of our EU partners of that perception. The situation, if imaginatively handled, could be one of abundant promise for the United Kingdom, and for the EU as whole.

These developments are:

(1)The Prime Minister’s speech on January 23

While reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech understandably concentrated at the outset on the referendum undertaking, and the risks that may attach to it, there has been a growing understanding of the validity for the EU as a whole of the analysis it contains of the Union’s current woes. There has been neither any effective challenge to the analysis, nor any significant alternative to it. Overall, reaction on the Continent has seemed almost more favourable than in this country.

(2)The Multiannual Financial Framework, 2014–20

The adoption by the European Council, at their meeting on 7/8 February, of the next Multiannual Financial Framework covering the years 2014–20, represents a turning point in the Union’s financial—and, indeed, general—history. Hitherto there had been a general acceptance of a virtually automatic increase in the resources vouchsafed to the Union’s institutions by member governments, irrespective of the pressures on their expenditure in other respects. Mr Cameron found allies in his insistence that this could not be the case when austerity and cutbacks were so prominent and painful a feature of life in the member countries.

(3)Review of the Balance of the Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union

The interdepartmental examination of the Balance of Competences announced in the White Paper presented to Parliament by the Foreign Secretary in July, 2012 (Cm 8415) has so far attracted little attention. It was regarded in some quarters as a tool in the repatriation of powers implicit in the “negotiation”, or “renegotiation”, of the UK’s terms of membership of the EU. In reality, it has fundamental and far-reaching implications for the EU as a whole.

One of the extraordinary lacunae in the management by the EU of its affairs is that, although the conferral of competences on the Unions institution is proclaimed to be the essence, and the justification, of its activities, no collective assessment of them has ever been collectively undertaken. Nor it appears, has the need to conduct such an assessment,, still less the obligation to do so, even been perceived.

In the interests both of the efficient functioning of the Union, and of engaging the full support of the governments and peoples of the member countries in the enterprise, however, a thorough-going audit is long overdue. The UK Review, as outlined with outstanding clarity and methodology in the White Paper, even as a prospect, let alone when completed, will have a salutary effect on the Union’s institutions.

Ends, Means and Ways

These three developments, surveying ends, means and ways respectively, afford, when taken together, a comprehensive insight into the lines on which the Union should evolve in the twenty-first century. This insight is a distinctive contribution from the UK to the mighty task we face together in the EU. It is a tailor-made response to the recognition in the closing paragraph of the Declaration of Berlin, issued in 2007 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, that “we must always renew the political shape of Europe in keeping with the times”. Six years is a long time in EU politics.

The Paradox of Our Partners’ Perception of what the UK can Contribute

I have long been struck by the paradox in our partners’ perceptions of us. On the one hand we are told repeatedly told that we probably have the greatest contribution of any member country to make to its future health and prosperity. On the other they insist that this has to take the form of falling in with the views of the majority. It is pointed out to us, for good measure, that we are at the bottom of the league of member countries as regards the level of public support for the EU. The possibility that there might be some connection between the two phenomena has not so far been the common coin of discussion.

The Contrast with the Situation in December 2011

The full significance of the situation can be grasped more easily by comparing what we see today with the panic-stricken reaction to the Prime Minster’s “veto” of the fiscal compact at the December 2011, meeting of the European Council. Hands then were freely wrung, and denunciations were plentiful of our self-inflicted “isolation” and “marginalisation” The panic died down in the months that followed. There was a very different son de cloche by the time the Prime Minister reported to the House on the December, 2012, meeting. It was a harbinger of a more balanced appreciation of our EU involvement.

The Decisiveness and the Incisiveness of the Changes

The decisiveness, and the incisiveness, of these favourable developments in our position in the EU prompt the question how it was that we laboured long under a dreary, defeatist Anglo-Brussels Orthodoxy , as it may be called, of going along in general with the Union flow, however belatedly or reluctantly. It was an orthodoxy which went so much against the national grain on the one hand, and which was so essentially anti-democratic, and so inadequate analytically, on the other. There is less purpose, however, in pursuing the question on its own account than as a means of highlighting the opportunities which now are opening before us.

The Role of the Foreign Affairs Committee

I hope I do not lay myself open to the charge of sycophancy if I add to the three developments to which I have referred a fourth development-in-the-making: namely the Report which you, Mr Chairman, and your colleagues will shortly be publishing on the inquiry which you launched in March, 2012, into The Future of the European Union: UK Government Policy. The immediate reason for offering this comment is the Committee’s day-to-day and practical concern, and indeed familiarity, with every major aspect of the United Kingdom’s international involvement. It gives the Committee an unrivalled standpoint from which to appraise the position. One of the great difficulties in the past in the management of our relations with our EU partners was that it was regarded as basically a self-contained affair, either enjoying the right of eminent domain over other aspects of our international involvement, or somehow escaping the laws of political and administrative gravity. Thanks in large measure to the work of the Committee, that phase is now over.

I would add two further general considerations. First, it is now beyond doubt that the parliamentary element in the Union’s arrangements is unsatisfactory. Fairly or unfairly, the European Parliament has come to be widely regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There is well-justified pressure for greater involvement of national parliaments. The Foreign Affairs Committee, or its equivalent country by country, cannot but be a significant part of this.

Secondly, some adjustment in the balance between parliamentary democracy on the one hand, and direct democracy on the other, has been made possible, and perhaps inevitable, by the worldwide impact of the information technology revolution. Delicate as this development is in national societies, it is even more delicate in complex international entities such as the European Union.

Even so, the requirement identified by the Schuman Declaration of 1950 is the same: namely, the maintenance of an ad hoc solidarity as the essential companion of the step-by-step building of Europe: in EU terminology, that means the maintenance of l’esprit communautaire, in parallel with l’acquis communautaire. This essential linkage was broken by single-minded pursuit first of a Constitution, and then, after the failure of the latter, of a para-Constitution, in the form of the Lisbon Treaty. Once again, the Select Committee system is undoubtedly a key factor in any adjustment of the balance.

It is not altogether fanciful to suggest that the situation has something of the exponential about it. The whole is not the sum of its constituent parts, important as each of them is. It is their product. One does not add them together; one multiplies them one by another. The prospects are as exciting as they are unlimited. We might even repeat to ourselves, if not to others, and without prejudice to the outcome of the forthcoming Scottish referendum, the observation of William Pitt the Younger in the wake of the Battle of Trafalgar: “England has saved herself by her exertions, and, as I trust, will save Europe by her example”. If that seems over-ambitious, would we be justified in echoing the words of Winston Churchill after the Battle of El Alamein: “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning”.

26 February 2013

Prepared 10th June 2013