The EU’s long record of reform

by David Hannay | 06.05.2016

One of the accusations frequently deployed by the Leave campaign is that the EU is unable to adapt to new challenges and is resistant to all reforms. True or false? Do words and phrases like “sclerotic” or “shackled to a corpse” make sense? Or are they just another myth? Here are five examples which give the lie to the suggestion that the EU is incapable of changing.

First, it became clear in the 1980s that the original construct of a tariff-free customs union was failing to maximise economic gains due to the continued existence of hundreds of national non-tariff barriers to trade. Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Cockfield, the Single Market was created and those barriers were gradually dismantled, increasing prosperity across the EU. Much remains to be done – completing the single market in services, creating a level playing field for the digital economy, building an energy and capital markets union. But every one of those objectives is now agreed by the European Council. The task is to put them into effect.

Second, the word “environment” is nowhere to be found in the original Treaty of Rome. But over the years, as the need for transnational action to deal effectively with environmental damage has become more evident, the EU has forged a policy which has brought us cleaner air, drinking water and beaches as well as better-protected habitats for wildlife. The EU has also taken a lead in combatting climate change, culminating in last December’s global settlement in Paris. The commitments made then were recently enshrined in a binding international agreement, and the EU will be a key player in ensuring they are implemented.

Third, in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe regained their independence, the EU spearheaded the massive Western response of aid and technical assistance which enabled those countries to complete successfully and peacefully their transition to democracy and a market economy. In due course the process was crowned by welcoming them into the EU as members – hardly the handiwork of a corpse.

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    Fourth, the EU’s competition policy, originally designed to break up cartels and to prevent market dominance by international companies and government monopolies, has developed over time into an effective instrument for dealing with new challenges. It is abolishing roaming charges on mobile telephones, getting to grips with international tax avoidance and clamping down on illegal government subsidies.

    Fifth, as international crime burgeoned around the turn of the century, the EU devised ways to cooperate against new cross-border menaces including terrorism, cybercrime, human trafficking and child pornography. Agencies such as Europol and Eurojust help national law enforcers tackle the growing transnational dimensions of crime; the European Arrest Warrant facilitates the extradition of criminals; the exchange of information through the European Criminal Records System and the Schengen Information Service helps bring criminals to book even when they cross international boundaries.

    That leaves one other claim by the Leave campaign – that the EU is a ratchet mechanism geared solely to amassing more powers and blocking reforms. But is that true? The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy may not have been a complete success but the production subsidies which created butter mountains and wine lakes are a thing of the past; and the share of the EU budget absorbed by the CAP has fallen from 70% to 40%. The reform of the Common Fisheries Policy will end the discarding of unwanted catches and will result in many management decisions being made regionally rather than centrally. A larger share of the EU budget is going towards research and innovation, which disproportionately benefits UK research establishments and universities. And a system has been agreed for an annual review of progress towards simplifying legislation, avoiding excessive regulation and reducing burdens on business – perhaps not a complete answer yet to the charges levelled against “Brussels bureaucrats”, but firm evidence nonetheless that the EU is indeed capable of adapting and reforming.

    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    3 Responses to “The EU’s long record of reform”

    • The whole article is quite laughable, but item 5 “devised new ways to cooperate on cross border crime….? ……..would be to have open borders and uncontrolled immigration? A crime wave that the future historians will study with incredulity.
      The EU is a disaster. The Euro is a disaster. It’s undemocratic commissioners & the judge’s are a disaster for democracy.
      The whole lot will fold, and likely with war unfortunately.

      Probably the most utopian bilge I’ve read in years

    • If the EU was ever going to be serious about reform, the first thing it should do is to get an outside independent agency in to investigate its finances. With a view to prosecuting any fraud/ theft /misconduct found; plus with the real threat of serious gaol time for some very senior members. This will of course never happen, and our failed politicians will always be able to ‘Do a Kinnock’. The EU is a corrupt failing mess, and deserves nothing more than to be consigned to history as yet another good idea, that was destroyed by incompetence, rigid political ideology and greed.

    • Just as Mountbatten learned the “priceless secret of victory” from the Dieppe raid: not to attack a well defended town without proper intelligence and a preliminary naval and air bombardment when you already know that you have lost the element of surprise, so the EU commission has found out one of the priceless secrets of fish stock conservation: not to operate a policy which obliged fishermen to discard up to 80% of their catch.