Maintaining EU status quo post-elections 'not tenable'

The EU must focus on 'core responsibilities' if it is to regain 'credibility' among voters, argues Sarah Ludford.

By Sarah Ludford

26 Jun 2014

I'm experiencing both loss and liberation in leaving the European parliament. I am particularly proud of my work helping to uncover and seek accountability for European collusion in extraordinary rendition, torture and secret prisons (unfinished business); on stopping the export to the US of 'execution drugs', on establishing the visa information system; on data protection and a range of privacy issues; and on criminal justice, victims' and defendants' rights and reform of the European arrest warrant. I expect digital rights and surveillance to be a big theme in the new mandate, as well as completion of the 'area of freedom security and justice'.

My sense of liberation comes from shedding the privileges of elected office. With 15 years as an MEP, on top of eight as a local councillor in the London borough of Islington, I have experienced for nearly a quarter of a century the joys but also the demands and brickbats of answering to the voters. Also, the new parliament will be a challenging place in which to try to work, with the troubling influx of populists and extremists who are mainly gesture politicians. The proportion of serious parliamentarians prepared to do the detailed work of scrutiny and negotiation will be lower and the atmosphere less pleasant. I'm not saying it should be cosy - one mission of ALDE has always been to stop 'grand coalition' stitch-ups - but debate and disagreement should be about more than grandstanding.

"The status quo is not tenable; reform, both political and institutional, is needed to show that the EU is not a power-hungry organisation with an insatiable appetite for mission creep"

It's not easy to discern how much the recent results reflected deep dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the European project and how much was a protest vote against incumbents. But in any case, we do need to examine why current arrangements have failed to convince enough voters, such as on migration, and be prepared to change without surrendering basic principles such as freedom to move for work. On the workings of the EU itself, the status quo is not tenable; reform, both political and institutional, is needed to show that the EU is not a power-hungry organisation with an insatiable appetite for mission creep. It should regain credibility and use its limited political capital sparely by focusing on core responsibilities and doing them well. The focus should be on the single market, trade, environmental protection, consumer rights, human rights, cooperation against crime and corruption.

It needs high-profile leaders with demonstrable ability. My view on the selection of the commission president is 'a plague on all your houses'. I think MEPs need to be careful not to confuse democratic legitimacy with institutional ego and grandiosity. I think it is too extreme to claim that Jean-Claude Juncker must become president - the election results cannot credibly be interpreted as transnational votes for 'Spitzenkandidaten' - and I fear an erosion of the vital independence of the commission if it is too beholden to the parliament.

On the other hand, UK prime minister David Cameron should have insisted just on the reformist and 'breath of fresh air' qualities to be sought, not focused on Juncker personally, not least as that has just pushed people like German chancellor Angela Merkel into a bunker. Cameron's claim that only the 28 national parliaments and governments are democratic is as preposterous as the parliament's claim to such a monopoly. I would like to have seen Christine Lagarde in the job, but it looks like that is not to be.

Read the most recent articles written by Sarah Ludford - New EU data protection rules must ‘safeguard privacy’ and research

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