UCL European Institute


Jack Straw on Britain and Europe

6 December 2011

This is an abridged version of his inaugural lecture, delivered on 6 December 2011, as University College London’s visiting professor of public policy. The event was co-organised by the European Institute and UCL Public Policy. You can also download the full text and a summary of the event, including the response given by Sir Stephen Wall, Chair of UCL Council and formerly the UK's Permanent Representative to the EU. The abridged text was first published by the Daily Telegraph on 7 December 2011.

In 1818, Castlereagh claimed that the Congress System of diplomacy – established to secure peace and stability across a war-ravaged Europe – amounted to “a new discovery in the European government… giving to the counsels of the Great Powers the efficiency and almost the simplicity of a single state”. While the style may have dated, the sense is extraordinarily contemporary. For the huge pressures built up within that system – and its ultimate collapse – remind us of the drum beat of European history, of the fact that few political institutions, supra-national ones included, are perpetual. The more entrenched they become, the greater the stake the elites have in them; but without refreshing their popular legitimacy, they can easily fail. 

In 1975, I worked on the “No” campaign in the European Economic Community referendum. That “In” or “Out” argument is long past: our institutions, markets, businesses and people have not just adapted to membership, but in many ways embraced it. Indeed, the EU has some noble achievements to its credit: the free movement of people, labour, capital, goods and ideas, above all the extension of
democracy south and east.

Yet Europe has changed not just in size, but in scope. In the government pamphlets and “Yes” campaign literature from 1975, there were endless reassurances that we would not “have to obey laws passed by unelected 'faceless bureaucrats’ ”; that our common law would be sacrosanct; that ministers could “veto any proposal for a
new tax or new law”. 

With a larger EU, a move to qualified majority voting was inevitable. The problem is that the drive for “ever closer union” has been led principally by Europe’s political elites, who have been less than careful to ensure that what they are doing has the people’s knowledge and consent.

I have long believed that the euro was fundamentally flawed in its execution. As Jacques Delors made clear in his recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, these flaws flowed largely from the method of doing business that the European elite has developed – of believing that there will always be a form of words that can paper over divisions, that anything “disagreeable” can be avoided. The fact that any single currency needs some of the fiscal institutions of a single state was highlighted well before the die was cast for the euro. Clear warnings of catastrophe were advanced long before the crash of 2008. But the elites would not, or could not, heed the warnings. 

It is a leader’s job to make difficult, and in the short term unpopular, decisions. On the national level, the legitimacy of such decisions is secured by general elections, or occasionally referendums. But with Europe, the issue of legitimacy is much more problematic, especially given voters’ ever-decreasing regard for the European Parliament. There are always good reasons for not submitting political proposals to a plebiscite; I have deployed some of them myself. But what elections and referendums do is subject leaders, and policies, to intensive stress-testing. If the euro had passed such a test, it would have been altogether better designed. If there had been a “no” vote, the disaster through which Europe is now living would have been avoided.

Schadenfreude is not a policy. It is in our interest that the euro should be repaired with as little damage as possible. While we are not members of the single currency – nor will we be – we have a huge direct and indirect interest in how the crisis is resolved.

To that end, we should not hector our European partners. As the Conservative leadership has belatedly worked out, we get the best deals for our nation, and make progress on the things that matter to us, when we are fully engaged rather than on the sidelines. Yet we must still set out our analysis of what has gone right and wrong for the EU; the likely consequences of closer fiscal union; and our own vision of the European co-operation we need for the future.

The evidence is strong that it is the single market, not the euro, that has been the driver of greater growth and interdependence. So while the euro needs repair, policy-makers also need to concentrate on how the single market can operate more effectively. They must focus more on defence, security and foreign policy (including the need to engage with Turkey, the threat from Iran, the Arab Spring, the rise of Asia, terrorism and climate change). There should be less tinkering with matters best left to member states: there is, for example, no reason why the hours of junior doctors should be determined at EU level.

Above all, however, the political elites in Europe need to shed their intellectual arrogance and remember the need to carry the support of their electorates. For the danger is that, in fixing a fiscal and monetary crisis, they instigate a democratic crisis that has the potential to threaten the institutional fabric not just of the EU, but of its member states.

Castlereagh saw democracy as a threat to the established order that he was so anxious to preserve. But it was the Congress System’s failure to adapt to the popular will that led to its decay and then collapse. I am not so apocalyptic about the European Union. It has, however, to recognise the great dangers of pursuing policies that lack popular legitimacy, and respond far better to its people, if it is to avoid a similar ultimate fate.

Jack Straw  has been the MP for Blackburn since 1979. He served under Tony Blair as Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001, Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006 and Leader of the House of Commons from 2006 to 2007. From 2007 to 2010 he was Gordon Brown's Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Straw is one of only three Labour ministers to have served in Cabinet continuously from 1997 to 2010.He became a Visiting Professor at UCL in 2011, with a special interest in foreign affairs, and in constitutional and parliamentary reform.