Belfast Telegraph

Fate of EU on the line this year

By Shirley Williams

Decisions to be made this year will shape the future of the UK. The elections to Scotland's Parliament in the spring will tell us whether the SNP will retain its dominant position there. The EU referendum will determine whether we stay in or leave it, yet, so far, this debate has not engaged much of the public.

Four decades ago, at the time of the first referendum in Britain on membership of the European Economic Community, the debate reflected the Cold War: it concerned the division of the European continent between the satellites of the Soviet Union and the western European countries allied to the US. The division of the continent remains, but it has been transformed since 1989.

There is, of course, a serious problem stemming from the remoteness of Europe's institutions from most ordinary people. Voting for members of the European Parliament is consistently below voting for national parliaments.

Lobbyists (especially those representing business) know their way around the EU system, but few NGOs or backbench MPs share their understanding.

The Prime Minister's emphasis on a larger role for national parliaments is welcome in the renegotiations. That is, however, only one step in the democratic development of the EU. Another relates to the appointment of European Commissioners. Nominees proposed by national governments should be subject to the advice and consent of national parliaments. Commissioners should also be expected to attend national parliaments on a regular basis to respond to questions about European affairs.

Europe badly needs continent-wide communication. The main public broadcasters in the EU should be able to construct between them a European channel reporting not only on the European Parliament, but also on significant developments in other national parliaments.

Through measures such as these, the UK could regain its influence in the world by contributing to the political development of Europe - as it once did. Or, it could abdicate from the world's problems. This will, indeed, be a fateful year.

Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby is a Liberal Democrat peer

Belfast Telegraph


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