Peter Summers/Getty Images

Brexit’s best argument

VDL’s hapless performance must be delighting Brexiteers

The one thing most people know about the cult film V for Vendetta – apart from that annoying Guy Fawkes mask – is this line: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people.” After the rigid state control of the past year, might the people soon be getting the upper hand?

President Macron looked distinctly uneasy last month when he announced that France would be going into a third lockdown.

And so he should. Macron has had a poor crisis. He has been accused of behaving like a monarch – a damning insult in France –  and thinking himself “the best virologist” in the country.

There are presidential elections next year, and the polls suggest that his main rival Marine Le Pen now has a real chance of victory (she is particularly popular with voters in their late twenties and early thirties).

It’s not much better for the government in Germany, where Angela Merkel made a grovelling public apology for the way her government has handled the pandemic. “I ask all citizens to forgive me,” she begged.  Chancellor Merkel is stepping down later this year, but there have been calls for her to go before the federal elections in September.

EU job security is currently the sceptics’ strongest argument against the European Union

Yet there is one prominent European political leader who can carry on regardless, even though it could be easily argued that she has been responsible for at least some of the political difficulties in France and Germany.

Ursula Von Der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has been ridiculed for her handling of the vaccine rollout and her threats of a trade war against the UK. Even her predecessor in the job, Jean-Claude Juncker, never Britain’s greatest admirer, says her approach is “stupid” and is doing “major reputational damage” to the EU.

Away from the troubled vaccine policy, she is best known for managing to turn the seating arrangements at a summit with Turkey into a political crisis. All in all, she is making Theresa May look like Machiavelli.

Yet do we see the fear in her eyes? Does she tremble at the verdict of the electorate? Of course she doesn’t. The President is safe in her comfy billet until 2024.

That job security is currently the sceptics’ strongest argument against the European Union. When David Cameron lost the 2016 referendum, he resigned immediately. When Mrs May failed to deliver Brexit, she went too. Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and Jeremy Corbyn all failed to deliver a Labour victory and paid the price. When you have been found wanting by the voters in this country, you clear your desk and sneak out of the back door. It’s tough, but it’s also the most fundamental principle of democracy: that leaders are accountable to the voters.

Ursula Albrecht with her parents Ernst and Heidi-Adele in 1978

Not in the EU, though. In theory it is possible for the European Parliament to dismiss the entire Commission – although not individual members –  but in practice that never happens.

Jacques Santer’s commission resigned en masse in 1999 rather than face a no confidence vote when some members – not Santer – were accused of corruption. Under normal circumstances EU presidents are virtually superglued to the seat of power.

The EU has many troubles at the moment, but the lack of accountability is an obvious obstacle to efficiency and good government. A 2018 study by the Institute of Government was very clear: “Weak accountability increases the risk of failure of public services – whether through financial mismanagement, chronic underperformance, or the collapse of services.”

That study was talking about the UK government, but the same principle applies even more to the Byzantine structures of the European Union, where clarity about the decision-making process seems almost to have been deliberately obscured.

If there are no consequences for failure and incompetence, and no extra reward for a job well done, what is the incentive for doing a good job?

President Von Der Leyen is just the most high profile example of the problem. She could spend the next three years doing little else but developing a core strategy for getting the best seat at a summit meeting and there is little that voters can do about it.

Even the staunchest supporters of European government recognise that the structure of the Union is a problem. Guy Verhofstadt is a former prime minister of Belgium and Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament. In his 2017 book Europe’s Last Chance, he admitted: “The large majority of Europeans have a hard time understanding who is responsible for what in the union”. For evidence of this, read Yanis Varoufakis’s book Adults In The Room, about the former Greek finance minister’s campaign to persuade the EU to support his country’s beleagured economy. One of the most striking features of the book is that it was impossible to tell who was making decisions in Europe.

Verhofstadt also wrote: “Democratic accountability and the effectiveness of social and political institutions determine the prosperity and well being of a people.” Who could disagree, even though his solution was – obviously – a proper United States of Europe?

Perhaps there will come a day when a European president can be impeached, but until that time we – sorry, they – are stuck with whoever is appointed by the main European nations. And President Von Der Leyen will surely still be in office when ex-Chancellor Merkel and possibly ex-President Macron are bitterly working on their memoirs.

Supporters of Brexit must be rubbing their hands together with glee. As Napoleon, another prominent campaigner for a united Europe, once put it: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Or indeed she.

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