Interview with Carole Tongue

Carole Tongue was an MEP for 15 years spending time between her constituency, Brussels and Strasbourg. For two of those years she was also deputy leader of the UK Labour Party in the European Parliament. She is an advocate of Charter 88 who campaign for a written constitution for the United Kingdon by 2010, has helped draft much EU legislation (including the Television Without Frontiers Directive which has ensured that certain large sporting events such as the 2006 World Cup will be viewable by most people in the UK on free-to-air channels) and is a recognised authority on the functions and structures of European politics.

There is little Carole doesn’t know about Europe and the sometimes fickle British attitude towards it.

Uncle Pauly spoke with Carole who is currently an Associate Director of political consultants Sovereign Strategy.

UP: Carole, via Charter 88 you are a supporter of bringing in a written constitution for the UK yet at the same time you’re in favour of closer European integration. Was the rejection of the European constitution by France and the Netherlands this year therefore a help to Charter 88’s cause?

I had hoped that the EU constitution would be a spur to the adoption of a written constitution in the UK. Sadly now not the case. It is important that citizens have a constitution in writing describing the values, aims and objectives, limits to powers, bill of rights. This goes for the nation state and EU level. I do not think a link with the absence of a UK constitution has been made. The issue is simply not on the agenda at present. Constitutional reform seems to be proceeding gently on an ad hoc basis.

. . . I seem to recall Tony Blair, prior to his victory in 1997, enthusing a great deal more about constitutional change than ‘gently’ and ‘ad hoc’ would imply. Do you think attaining power has tempered TB and the Labour party’s zeal for what were once shared aims with Charter 88? The Freedom of Information project appears to have been ‘bodged’.

This Labour Government has carried out a programme of impressive constitutional reform…devolution to Scotland, Wales and London was a gigantic leap forward coupled with which those chambers are elected by proportional representation with 50 % women representatives. The government has also tried to take regional government reform forward but local people have been less than enthusiastic. Freedom of Information Act could have been stronger but at least we now have one on the books and many, particularly journliasts are making good use of it in the public interest. My one great disappointment is the government refusal to take up the issue of proportional representative for the House of Commons. Brtain’s political culture would be transformed if we had an electoral system with a degree of proportionality in it…every vote could be of equal value, greater pluralism of political parties and better representation of the mix in our society could be just some of the benefits not to mention a proregressive end to our adversarial pantomime political culture. The government also should describe the big constitutional picture for British citizens and explain why all these measure have been taken and why they are important in making Britain a modern democracy.

UP: In a recent lecture to students at the London College of Communications you were critical of the sheer size of the European Constitution while you praised the brevity of the US Constitution. Did EU politicians try to cram too much in? Was this perhaps a factor in its subsequent rejection by two nation states?

The draft EU constitution was much too long. Constitutions should be brief and in 3 parts…short statement of values and objectives as a society then part 2 defining institutions and limits to their powers and part 3 bill of Rights.

I think the length of the constitution may have put some people off. Also some I spoke to in France felt that it was inpenetrable and so simply voted against. There were many reasons for a NO vote however. The strongest NO vote in france matches the map of unemployment. Economic and social insecurities in an age of globalisation coupled with a feeling that one’s government has no response will have been main factors in NO vote.

. . . Non EU member states like Norway enjoy full and effective trading with the EU via membership of the European Free Trade Area. They save a considerable portion of their nation’s wealth by remaining outside the political and legal structures of the EU. Their voice is no less visible on the world stage for remaining outside the EU. What would the UK lose by reverting to a similar status ?

Why do you even put this question? It presupposes we have an advantage in being outside the EU. We simply do not. As a member we are part of the decision making structure of the EU and have influence on all its decisions. Norway does not and has simply to accept EU rules without having had any input. I do not want to simply be part of a free trade area. The EU is much more than that. I want us to be a full partner in its social, regional, environmental, R & D, transport, education and cultural policies which we benefit from enormously,

. . . I pose the question partly as EU-sceptic devil’s advocate and also because during the recent UK election the SNP offered up on several occasions the prospect of an independent Scotland one day assuming a status somewhat akin to Norway. It got me thinking about the EU without the UK as a full member, and instead becoming a member of the EFTA. What would UK citizens lose most from such an arrangement?

The SNP are in favour of an independent Scotland being a full member of the EU, like other small countries ie Ireland and Denmark*. UK citizens have most to lose because they would not be participants in a whole range of EU programmes: the social fund, the regional fund, the education and cultural programmes to mention but a few. Also legislative decisions would be taken without the views of UK representatives reflecting the situation and concerns of the British people. UK citizens would then be subjet to abiding by rules they have had no input to. The future of the European Union is of enormous importance for the future peace and prosperity of the whole world. Do we wish to play a role in shaping our own affairs and acting for peace and understanding in a difficult and dangerous world alongside other powers like the US, China and India or do we not ? That is the question we have to answer.

UP: Like most people in the UK it’s difficult to find the time to keep up with developments in national politics let alone the EU. Only when something directly affects me (e.g.Regulation 261/2004 which came into effect this February allowing air passengers to claim compensation for delayed or cancelled flights) do I tend to take notice. Do you agree the onus is on the EU to rectify this ? What can the EU collectively do to engage a sceptical UK public more ?

The EU is there to serve its citizens. All its actions have this aim in mind. It is not the fault of the EU that the British public doesn’t know more about the EU….we have a eurosceptic written press in the main and little attention given by national radio and television to important EU matters. Local radio and press are much better at carring EU news. We also do not teach the history/politics of the EU in seconday schools despite the teaching materials being available. It should be part of the curriculum.

UP: Often the EU is seen as an elite body who will ‘railroad’ through legislation despite the opinions of national electorates. In 2001 the Irish voted ‘No’ to the Nice treaty. A year later the referendum was held again and the government-favoured ‘Yes’ vote won. Surely a case of governmental bullying? If UK voters rejected the European Constitution in a future referendum can they have confidence that the government will respect the decision and not simply keep holding referenda until it gets the result it wants?

I do not foresee the referendum being put to a vote in this country…so you ask a hypothetical question which I do not believe we will have to face. Better that the EU revises the constitution and produces a briefer text which is more understandable. Then a referendum should be held in every country on the same day.

. . . Hold the referenda on the same day? I never thought of that – avoids inter-country influencing of results. A neat idea I must say. Sounds to me though that you still entertain the idea of a European constitution in some form _despite_ the fact that two prominent nation states have vetoed it. I am aware that several nations approved the constitution but I would contend that unlike the Irish government, we should respect ‘NO’ nation states’ results and conclude that it can now never happen . . . at least not in our lifetime?

It is important that all EU citizens have a document that clearly explains what the EU is about, why we are members, what is does and what our individual human rights are in an EU context. Otherwise, as in the UK, elites know what is going on in the body politic and citizens do not. That does not make for good democracy. Most of the constitution has already been adopted in other instruments in any case. It is now a question of drafting something short, legible, u nderstandable that goes to the hub of the whole enterprise and enables people to make sense of it.

. . . Just today Angela Merkel has confirmed that her coalition will “stand for the European constitutional treaty” so it looks like at least some EU leaders believe the EU constitution can at some point be introduced. I just don’t see any attempt to rerun referenda as anything other than disrespectful to the French and Dutch voters?

That may be your view. 18 countries have already ratified the Constitution and they have views too. It is unlikely that the existing Constitution will be put to the vote again. Elements from it which are new and are required for the better democratic functioning of the EU may be reintroduced in another form. Sadly one thing we may have lost is the Chart of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Could be that a new Constitution of similar brevity to that of the US constitution could be considered. Hard to see at the moment however.

UP: Carole, on a personal level you are a member of the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, and have close links with the Quaker Council of Europe. Do your Quaker beliefs ever conflict with your campaigning in the European sphere? How do you resolve such conflicts? For example your advocacy of a European Defence Force means you do in theory at least concede that military action must sometimes be taken, yet this would seem to conflict with the Quaker Peace Testimony?

I am a Quaker attender as opposed to a fully fledged Quaker. I wholeheartedly respect the Quaker Peace Testimony. However I am convinced that there are occasions when force has to be used….I would prefer that such multinational force be mandated by the United Nations. A European Defence Force is no problem for me. I want to see the EU playing an important peace keeping role, particularly in the Balkans.

. . . It’s interesting you mention the Balkans. Did the EU miss a chance in the 90’s to show the world that it could deal with European conflict without US military help? There’s no doubt the ‘hardware’ exists but if Europe suffered another ‘local’ war within say, the next few months, do you believe the political will exists to handle it within the EU?

Yes the EU should be able to deal with a local conflict but for that it must have a more developed foreign and security policy and you have people in this country arguing against that. So you can’t have it both ways. You have to empower the EU to act in such matters. Of course the political will exists among the EU Member States on a whole raft of foreign policy issues to act in concert and indeed it does on the vast majority of issues. But then look at the role of the UK in certain areas of the world….we refused to cooperate in a mature way with our EU partners preferring to blindly follow the USA.

. . . An EU Defence force is nice in theory but co-operating on defence matters within Europe means at least normalising some of the defence budgets between certain nation states. The UK for example, spends vastly more on defence than any other EU state. Asking other nation states to stump up more cash for this area often proves unpopular with their respective populations. I just think that until the will is there in countries like Belgium and France to increase defence spending, the EU defence force will remain a pipe dream and reliance on the US a reality. Would you agree?

No I do not agree. There have been huge steps forward in defence cooperation between certain Member States. In my view this can only increase. It does not require greater but wiser, smarter defence spending. More cooperation on defence procurement can reduce costs enormously. Rely on the US for what ? Sycophantic adherence to US Foreign Policy right or wrong has got us into one hell of a mess in Iraq and could do so in other parts of the world. Time we had an open debate on whether the British people agree with the proposition: “America right or wrong..we stand with you.”

UP: Let’s turn to EU enlargement. In many articles I read favouring Turkey’s proposed membership of the EU it is said it’s time for Europe to embrace Islam. I’ve always felt that certain tenets of Islamic government are incompatible with the freedoms we enjoy in Europe. While I’d love to see Turkey in the EU, would you agree that for Turkey to join it’s Islam that must embrace Europe?

I wish to see Turkey a member of the EU. Lets keep religion out of this. It is about future Member States signing up to basic tenets of liberal democracy: belief in the rule of law, universal suffrage and accepting outcome of parliamentary votes, equality between all human beings, separation of church and state (still to be accomplished in UK),separation of powers…independence of judiciary etc. The promised of membership is important in encouraging reforms in Turkey in this direction.

. . . Keeping religion out of it is easy for us to say – we are used to living in a near-secular state. Unfortunately universal suffrage and separation of church and state are a red rag to the fundamentalists. When Turkey finally makes its move, a few elderly Austrian OAPs aside, the push back will come not from Europe but will come from Islamic extremists. I am of course speculating, but this would seem to me to be the biggest barrier to Turkey’s accession . . . ?

Are you saying that we should not do something because of views of religious fundamentalists ? They are not the problem over Turkey’s membership in any case. Problems foreseen by some Member States are political, cultural and economic and can all be overcome over a period of time.

UP: Absolutely not – fundamentalists should not govern foreign policy. I’m suggesting that Turkey’s eventual accession may inflame a small minority of violent people who see any moves towards Western ideals (such as those you mention) as un-Islamic. The point I was getting at was: is the best way of isolating the extremists in the long run to offer the freedom you list to those nations, such as Turkey, which do not enjoy them?

Yes. Offering membership of an EU predicated on democratic freedoms and the rule of law is the best way of guaranteeing that these freedoms will develop in the candidate countries. This will be true in the Balkans.

UP: Thank you for talking to us.

*Carole is correct. The SNP do indeed favour an independent Scotland being part of the EU. However, it didn’t stop them repeatedly and consistently comparing Scotland to Norway during the 2005 election campaigning.

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