Britain's Labor, Conservatives Clash over Deeper EU Integration

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative leader William Hague will face off in the House of Commons Tuesday in their first clash since the two sides drew new battle lines over Britain's relationship with Europe.

The government has cautiously welcomed a bundle of far-reaching new proposals to consolidate the power of the European Union (EU) as a bloc over individual member states, a process seen as necessary if the EU is to expand its membership to the east.

Conservatives responded by calling the recommendations -- unveiled Monday in Brussels -- "nothing less than a blueprint for a European superstate."

Hague will accuse Blair of supporting integration in a European Union that will rob the country of its independence. Britain's future in Europe has become the biggest single political issue in the country today, and it may define the next general election campaign.

If accepted, the new proposals will considerably expand the powers of European Commission President Romano Prodi, supposedly to streamline the functioning of an enlarged EU - but at the expense of member states' sovereignty.

The 15-page document drawn up by three "wise men" recommends that Prodi be empowered to manage a team of commissioners effectively as a sovereign European government, with the power to promote, demote, or dismiss commissioners.

The make-up of the commission - it now has 20 members, with larger countries like Britain having two each - should be amended, the document said, although it did not make concrete proposals. The most likely adjustment might result in each country, regardless of size, being represented by one commissioner.

The report said the changes were necessary if the EU membership was to expand from the current 15, to 20-30 states over the next several years. Up to a dozen mostly former communist nations hope to join the EU soon.

The president and commission should have exclusive responsibility for drawing up the next draft EU treaty. Currently, all EU bodies are consulted when treaties are drafted, with the country holding the revolving presidency leading the process.

The report was commissioned by Prodi, and drawn up by Lord Simon, an advisor to the British government, former Belgian premier Jean-Luc Deheane, and Richard von Weizsacher, a former German president. It will be discussed next year at a conference of government heads.

The so-called "wise men" recommend extending the number of issues over which individual member states have no power of veto, including areas of justice and foreign affairs. This would prevent countries from holding back legislation they oppose.

Members also would not be allowed to opt out of whatever policies they dislike - a key issue for Britain's Conservatives. The report said, "The EU would not survive if member states were allowed to pick and choose among obligations to the Union."

Also proposed is an expansion of powers for the directly elected European Parliament, and the creation of a security and defense policy inside the EU.

It calls for a EU public prosecutor to oversee cases involving EU fraud, a move that has set off alarms among "euroskeptics" in Britain, who see it as the thin end of a wedge that will lead to a common criminal legal system for the continent.

While larger member countries have expressed reservations about the scope and speed of the proposed reforms, it's generally accepted as inevitable that national sovereignty will be whittled away as EU integration deepens.

EU leaders meeting in Finland over the weekend drew up joint policies on immigration and asylum, as well as proposals for greater cooperation between police services of member states in tackling cross-border crime.

One of the reasons is clear: expanding to the east would open union membership to countries where drug smuggling, money-laundering and illegal immigration schemes are rife.

Britain is deeply divided over the country's place in Europe, with proponents of both main viewpoints seeking to promote their cause as the "patriotic" one.

Blair last week gave his backing to a cross-party lobby set up to promote further integration. Hague is leading "euroskeptic" forces alarmed at the extent to which national sovereignty has already been affected by the country's membership in the union, and opposed to relinquishing the pound in favor of the single currency, the euro.

The Conservative spokesmen of foreign affairs, John Maples, said Monday the new EU proposals would "turn into reality Romano Prodi's dream that the European Commission becomes the unelected government of a European superstate, with Prodi the unelected president of Europe."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow