Richard Lewis: It’s time for European Union to seize moment

A European Union flag in front of the Palace of Westminster. Picture; PA
A European Union flag in front of the Palace of Westminster. Picture; PA
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For those of us who are unashamedly in favour of further European integration, perhaps the least edifying aspect of the recent referendum campaign was that we were faced with having to choose between two equally uninspiring options.

On the one hand, we were not going to line up with the “Little Englanders” on the Leave side, no matter how much one might have some sympathy with aspects of their criticism of the European institutions which have grown up over the last 50 years.

But, similarly, the option of voting to remain and embrace the profoundly negative “vision for Europe” outlined by the former Prime Minister – based upon aggressively repatriating powers to Britain, denying child benefit to EU citizens working here and a halt to further integration – was equally unappealing. Where was the third option for those of us who share the vision of a more integrated European state; fitted with a modern constitution and the symbols of European identity which have been so badly lacking over the last 50 years?

So today, while the UK referendum may be done and dusted and the crucial debate on Scotland’s position post-Brexit is just getting under way, one thing remains clear: Europe must not hesitate to seize the opportunity of finally ridding itself of its least constructive member over the last 40 years.

For it is deeply ironic, in the context of a Brexit debate which focused so heavily on migration, that Britain has always been at the forefront amongst those calling for expansion of the union, when other members (notably France and Germany) were trying to slow down the process.

When I worked in Germany between 2001 and 2003, the dominant slogan of the time was “Vertieferung statt Erweiterung” (further integration rather than expansion). In other words, there should be a “deepening” of the union between the existing members, rather than expanding prematurely before a sound EU constitution was in place. How, if we were bringing in a number of economically less developed countries with barely a decade’s experience of democracy, would the goal of a creating a more united Europe ever be realised? Would it not make the task of further integration all the more difficult?

In many ways, what has happened in the recent referendum was the inevitable outcome of the deliberate weakening of the EU from within from consecutive Conservative and Labour governments since the treaty of Maastricht was signed back in 1992.

Happily, however, the opportunity for the EU with Britain leaving is clear. Given the chance of a fresh start, the remaining members can now step forward with a blueprint for a deeper union. They should begin with the small but vitally important step of creating powerful symbols for a Europe with whom we can better identify. For the next European elections there should be candidates for a directly-elected European President. Even if the post remains largely symbolic (like, say, the Irish or Austrian Presidents) we will finally have a member with whom all Europeans can identify.

The issue of giving greater powers to MEPs is also irrefutable. A recent post-referendum conversation with friends from Hungary, Italy and Germany showed that I was unique in being able to name my MEP (hardly a major achievement coming from an elected representative!). To start the important process of creating a relationship between MEP and electorate, members of the European Parliament must be permitted to propose their own laws, rather than only vetting those coming from the member states (through the commission). This was one of the sticks which was powerfully used to beat the EU with during the recent referendum campaign. And surely it was partly in reference to this anomaly that the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, said “there has been a failure in the way in which we govern Europe.”

MEPs’ powers to propose legislation could at first be limited, and, as with the example of the US Congress, be subject to a Presidential veto. Crucially, however, it would begin the process of creating genuine parties and identities across national boundaries and the possibility, for the first time, of a truly pan-European consciousness coming into being. For the EU not to seize this opportunity risks the organisation becoming what it was branded by the Leavers during the recent referendum: an organisation unsuited for the 21st century.

With Britain no longer around to cripple the institution from the inside, the EU has a chance of moving forward. I only hope that Scotland, as an independent EU member, will share in this opportunity.

Richard Lewis is an SNP councillor and the convener of the culture and sport committee