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The leaders and the led

By ucyow3c, on 9 December 2011

The European project that developed over the 65 years following the Second World War has delivered great benefits to Europe and the UK, but it also suffers from a severe democratic deficit and perceived illegitimacy.

This was the view that Ben Davies heard from Jack Straw MP – former Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor – at his inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor in Public Policy at UCL’s Department of Political Science.

Mr Straw, supported by a densely footnoted handout, ran us through an impressively detailed ‘brief history’ of the project to bring the countries of Europe closer together after 1945, focusing mainly on the Council of Europe – the organisation that still co-ordinates European legal standards – and the European Union.

He noted the UK’s instrumental role in establishing the council in 1949, although he also pointed out that the UK was out of step with continental neighbours in failing to acknowledge the now highly controversial European Convention of Human Rights in domestic law. This was only corrected (or not, depending on your view) between 1998 and 2000 by Mr Straw when he was Home Secretary.

Although he argued that the council has “helped embed basic principles of common decency and treatment of others”, and paved the way for an assortment of ex-fascist and Soviet countries to become “relatively mature democracies”, he voiced the familiar accusation against the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that it oversteps its boundaries with “insufficient care as to how it sustains its own legitimacy”.

He cited the famous case of prisoners’ voting rights, on which the court ruled the UK operates illegally, and of the use by asylum seekers of “the right to a family life” in blocking otherwise safe deportations.

Similarly Mr Straw, acknowledging the cultural, social and economic benefits that have been brought by European integration, argued that the European Union suffers from a paradox of leadership. It is set up to facilitate the operations of political elites on a personal basis.

This often makes for the decisive political progress that is necessary in such a tightly-knit, multi-national body (although, as the current crisis seems to indicate, it hardly guarantees it). Yet this apparent strength is also a fundamental weakness, since it means that decisions are taken without reference to the millions of individuals whom they affect. As Mr Straw put it, “the leaders and the led” are often coming from very different perspectives on Europe.

Of course, one doesn’t have to agree with Mr Straw on the claim that European institutions do overstep their bounds to accept the second claim that advocates of the European project have failed to convince Europeans of its legitimacy, and that this is a major problem.

The failure of the European Parliament to engage the voters of Europe is testament to this issue. Mr Straw’s solution, which he stressed “will not happen”, is to abandon the “pretence” of direct representation and make the EU an intergovernmental body with more clearly defined – and reduced – scope for interference.

On the UK’s role in Europe, he counselled that the failure of the Euro would affect our economy severely, warning that “Schadenfreude is not a policy”. Similarly, he advised that “we do best for our nation in Europe when we are fully engaged, not on the sidelines”. If we want to see a union with more democratic legitimacy, we need to be involved in bringing that about.

We also heard a response from Sir Stephen Wall, chair of the UCL Council and British Permanent Representative to the European Union at around the time Mr Straw was Home Secretary. Sir Stephen was more defensive of the European project and the way it has been conducted, but he agreed that an elite-run Europe had only been possible with broad democratic support, which is now on the decline.

Despite his evident support for European involvement, he said that if democratic legitimacy could only come from an in-out referendum on UK membership in the EU, then “so be it”.

This was an interesting pair of talks in what might euphemistically be referred to as “interesting times”. As Mr Straw indicated, current scepticism about the European project can sometimes mask widespread support for close interaction on a range of issues, from terrorism to international trade negotiations.

The trouble comes from half-heartedness in attempts to deliver direct democracy. Mr Straw’s argument is that we should either pull back to an intergovernmental institution, or commit more resolutely to letting democratic consultation guide the project. Doing so when there is little will to engage democratically with the union, however, is an interesting problem.

Ben Davies is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing.

Watch the full lecture here:

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