Once again, I am indebted to Millennium Dome for organising another bloggers’ interview with a senior Lib Dem politician. This time we got to interview Ed Davey, at quite a topical time as it turns out.
Ed arrived about 40 minutes late, unavoidably so because Parliament had over-run due to a series of divisions as part of the Lisbon ratification debate. But he gave us a full hour; it has to be said that in some of the recent interviews we’ve done the interviewees have barely managed 30-40 mins. Given that Ed had promised his wife to get home early was greatly appreciated.
Foreign affairs is not something that Ed Davey has been particularly well known for since entering Parliament in 1997, the Bisher Al-Rawi case notwithstanding. What he is rather better known as is an able populist who has managed to marry an economist background with campaign priorities. Before becoming an MP, as the party’s senior economics adviser he was a key architect behind the party’s penny on income tax policy. More recently he was behind moves within the party to up the ante regarding our longstanding policy on local income tax. Say what you like about either policy, there is no question that both rapidly became core defining issues for the party.
So it is no surprise to find that on foreign affairs he is a) still learning on the job – he’s only been in the job for two months and states that his priorities have been the Lisbon treaty and his 13 week old son – and b) an arch-pragmatist. He had a tendency to talk in generalities rather than specifics. The two exceptions on this were the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka which he has taken an interest on behalf of his Tamil constituents and on international trade, unsurprisingly for an economist.
But on guiding principles he was much clearer. Challenged by Gavin Whenman to choose between justice and peace, he argued that there was always ultimately more justice in peace. He cited the example whereby MPs were asked to vote for amnesty for IRA “murderers” in the late 90s, something he did with a heavy heart.
Asked by Millennium about the implications a new US President will have on foreign policy, he was optimistic and urged people to be open-minded about the US. He cited how all the main presidential candidates had adopted a more multilateral stance compared with the incumbent and welcomed the fact that George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – no doves they – had written a joint article last year calling for nuclear disarmament (pdf).
In response to a question by Linda Jack, he reserved the right to be cautious in his criticism of Israel. He suggested that we should be careful of being too overtly critical for fear of indirectly helping to make the situation worse. He urged a focus on human rights, although Linda was right to suggest that on that basis there was much to criticise Israel on. On a related note, he was critical of Stephen Spielberg’s decision to pull out and boycott the Bejing Olympics over China’s policy on Darfur, citing the position of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that it is better to take part and raise such issues once the regime is in the full glare of the cameras during the games themselves. I agree and look forward to seeing the party produce a campaign pack on the issue for the summer.
So far so good; I was broadly happy with the answers he gave to the questions by the other bloggers. I wish I could say the same about the answers he gave to mine, but I can’t.
Outlining the strategy I spelled out yesterday on this blog, Ed’s response was to dismiss out of hand suggestions that Labour are in a vulnerable position and would therefore listen if we threatened to support the Tory amendment for a referendum on Lisbon. I defer to his better judgment. My response was that we therefore risk nothing by backing their amendment on the grounds that it would protest against their refusal to allow our own amendment to be debated. This was rejected as being too “opportunistic” and he cited the Lib Dems’ refusal to back the Labour and Bill Cash-led attempts to reject Maastricht in 1993.
I don’t see how this example is relevant given that we were very much in favour of Maastricht. Maastricht set a precedent in other ways too though in that we supported a referendum for it (one which we perhaps could have negotiated if we had threatened to back Labour). Davey’s response to that was that the Lisbon Treaty does not have a “constitutional nature” while Maastricht did and represented more significant changes. While I can agree that Maastricht was much more significant, this canard that Lisbon does not have a constitutional nature must be exposed. It directly affects the governance of the EU and thus the UK’s own autonomy; how can it not be constitutional in nature? For that matter both Amsterdam and Nice were constitutional – what were all those rows about voting weights about if they weren’t? If this is the justification, then we should have backed referendums for them too. The other line which Ed repeated was that this is a “minor” treaty alongside Nice and Amsterdam while Maastricht was “major”. I can’t see what criteria you can use to make that distinction objectively.
Most other EU member states of course have a simple way of dealing with this: either they hold referendums automatically as in the case of the Republic of Ireland, or they require super-majorities in their respective parliaments to ratify such treaties. Super-majorities generally require cross-party consensus to get through. France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all require this; why not us? The fact that the Lib Dems in Parliament don’t argue for this either exposes them to the accusation that their position is down entirely to whether they think the treaty could survive such a process. Of course we could argue for the Swedish line that if a super-majority is not achieved the treaty must be passed on two separate occasions with a general election in between. Yet I’m not aware of us even arguing for that. If not these mechanisms, hard to introduce in lieu of a written constitution (although New Zealand has managed), then a referendum is surely the only tool at our disposal.
With all that in mind, and given the party’s reticence to push the issue, it is hard to dismiss the idea that the Lib Dem position is about anything other than expediency. Davey’s alternative to my plan is to push out clear messages on our position on Europe. Sadly though, whatever its intellectual merits (and I genuinely do agree that it has many), I don’t see any evidence that we are managing to get that point across. The bottom line is that we have opposed the best chance we have of holding a referendum on this issue; the argument over which referendum is best is a nuance that few people will care about on the doorstep. This will be used as a brickbat to beat us over the head with in Lib-Con marginal seats. It is ironic, as someone who has opposed Ed’s plans for local income tax in the past for being too populist and lacking in intellectual rigour to be in the reverse position here – begging for a clearer position that leaves us less exposed.
So much for ratification. My second question was on the contents of the Treaty itself. Lisbon grants the European Parliament extra powers, including a more definitive role in appointing the President of the Commission. I asked whether he thought this might in the long term lead to elections for the European Parliament centering on individuals that the various party groups might seek to introduce.
I’m afraid I found Ed’s response to this question extraordinary. He dismissed the suggestion out of hand, arguing that to say that giving the Parliament such powers is a “bizarre interpretation.” More than that, he suggested that if it did say that he would be opposed to it on the basis that it would play into the Euro-sceptics’ hands. And finally he argued that the President of the Commission is not like a “President” in the head of state sense and is merely one of three European Presidents which merely chair meetings.
On the first point, I can only refer him to the actual text of the treaty:
Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after appropriate consultations, the European Council, deciding by qualified majority, shall put to the European Parliament its proposed candidate for the Presidency of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its members. If this candidate does not receive the required majority support, the European Council shall within one month put forward a new candidate, following the same procedure as before.
How is this open to interpretation? To be clear: the appointment of the President remains one of co-decision between the Council and Parliament, but if the elections to the Parliament are to be taken into account surely it is unarguable that this is intended to be an issue on which parties will be expected to have a public position on? The more votes a party gets in the election, the stronger its chances of getting its preferred candidate elected. Fundamentally, given that the Parliament will be making this decision in our name, what is so fundamentally wrong with MEPs actually telling us how they intend to vote? Longer term, what is so fundamentally wrong with making the process of choosing more open?
(I hasten to add that I happily accept that there are many practical problems with this, at least in the short term. It is hard to see how a candidate could enjoy pan-continental support given the cultural and linguistic challenges. But that’s not the same thing as saying that provision is not made for it in the Treaty and that it is wrong in principle.)
In terms of the President of the Commission being just another glorified chair, why is it that this is possibly the only European office that the general public has any awareness. Remember “up yours, Delors?” Power-wise, the President of the Commission has wide-ranging powers of appointment and sets the whole personality of the Commission:
2. Each Member State determined by the system of rotation shall establish a list of three persons, in which both genders shall be represented, whom it considers qualified to be a European Commissioner. By choosing one person from each of the proposed lists, the President elect shall select the thirteen European Commissioners for their competence, European commitment, and guaranteed independence. The President and the persons so nominated for membership of the College, including the future Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as the persons nominated as non-voting Commissioners, shall be submitted collectively to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The Commission’s term of office shall be five years.
3. The President of the Commission shall:
– lay down guidelines within which the Commission is to work;
– decide its internal organisation, ensuring that it acts consistently, efficiently and on a collegiate basis;
– appoint Vice-Presidents from among the members of the College.
A European Commissioner or Commissioner shall resign if the President so requests.
Formally, I would agree: compared to a Presidential head of state, the President of the Commission has very little hard power. But his or her soft power is immense and this is broadly recognised. Also unlike the Presidents of the Parliament and Council, the term of office for it lasts 5 years, not 2.5. The idea that Barroso is little more than an anonymous chairman is absurd. Frankly, there are plenty of examples of heads of state with less power and influence.
Why does all this matter? Because on the basis of his answers I’m not convinced that Ed Davey has read up on the Lisbon Treaty in the depth that I would expect a Shadow Foreign Secretary to. If he doesn’t accept that clauses exist in it that patently do, and furthermore claims that if they did they would be grounds for rejecting the thing, I would suggest that the rest of his argument begins to sound distinctly shaky.
The biggest problem with the Lib Dems’ current position on Lisbon is that it evades making the case for this treaty. Rather than attempting to do that, we insist that the only argument we can make is for EU membership as a whole, arguing for an in/out referendum in the clear expectation that our bluff will never be called. Ed is less aware of the contents of Lisbon than he should be because the official party line is to broadly side-step the whole debate over what it contains.
I’m genuinely torn. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have no love for the Euro-sceptics arguing for a referendum. Iwantareferendum.com is a dead duck; a dismal failure upon which millions of pounds of eccentrics’ money has been lavished. Yesterday they were out in force to lobby Parliament. They claim to have had 2-3 thousand protesters; the eye witness reports I had said it was closer to one thousand. Judge for yourself by looking at their own official photos (it looks like significantly less than a thousand to me). Either way, it was a damp squib.
So I think we will get away with this confused position as far as the general public are concerned, and the opinion polls at the moment back this up. But it is a position that seems singularly lacking in strategy, fails to understand that we get our message across through actions not words (something which Davey himself demonstrated on Tuesday) and most importantly treats the public with disdain. As a party with very few “safe” seats, we should be wary of how much trouble our opponents will make for us amongst swing voters.
Ultimately, we can’t keep dodging the European democratic deficit if we are serious about the UK’s continued membership of the EU. We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and be seen to be doing so. As a pragmatist and a populist I think that in his heart Davey understands this and would not have adopted our current position if he had not inherited it. I’m just disappointed he has not steered us towards a position that has greater resonance.