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Why can't we have a NICE'er EU?

Written by jacob matthews · Saturday 3rd May 2014

The book of the week this week has been Chris Patten’s “Not quite the diplomat” – part autobiography, half recent history and a third political philosophy text. It is a fascinating insight into the international community of the last 3 decades. The book has really challenged some of my political beliefs – which I thought were pretty unshakeable – and one above all others, the EU. I read this book to help me decide who I should vote for in the upcoming MEP elections.

I have to make a confession, my political views are on the right of the centre and I have always been quite a strong “Eurosceptic”. Although recently, I have found myself drifting further and further into the camp of “we must pull out of Europe at all costs” but Mr Patten’s arguments and insights have definitely made me question this stance.

With the European Parliamentary elections coming up, I thought it might be an interesting time to put some ideas out there for discussion.

From a young age, I have always been of the opinion that Great Britain is a world leading country, a still great power, one of the best countries in the world - democratic, tolerant, fair, sensible - and that we don’t need anyone else’s “help” or interference in how our country is run. I believe that British voters should have a democratic input on the rules that govern them.

To borrow an American phrase “No taxation without representation!”

I believe that democracy is not perfect but that it is the best system of government that humans have been able to develop. For all of its faults, voters normally swing back to the centre ground eventually and any silly policies can be undone. This system has inherently more checks and balances than any meritocracy, oligarchy or bureaucracy (taking it literally to mean being ruled by unelected officials).

This is one of my major objections to how the European Union currently works. For all intents and purposes, it is not democratic. Institutions of the EU include the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Council, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, the Court of Auditors, and the European Parliament. Only one of these institutions is elected by the European demos (the parliament) and that institution doesn’t really make any changes to any policies – “the rubber stamp brigade”. The European Council is made up of the President of the European Council (Unelected), President of the European commission (Unelected) and the heads of the member states (elected) and is where quite a lot of the "major" policies come from but not all of the read tape (the European Commission and Parliament).

I am happy to be proved wrong but it just seems that the EU, as a whole, is made up of unelected officials who increasing try to make rules that apply to all 28 member states without any consent from the voters in those states – it looks like the rule of “b-euro-crats” (bureaucrats – this version has far too many vowels for a dyslexic person to use).

A beurocratic rule which many of us do not agree with but seemingly have to succumb to, a good example for medics is the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) which means that junior doctors only get paid for working 48h a week when they may spend many, many more hours in work. The EWTD has also made training a lot more difficult for many junior doctors and has many implications for how the health service is now run. Is it right that this law was imposed on us without our consent? If we imposed a treatment on a patient without their consent then we would be in very big trouble indeed!

I cannot deny that the EU has done some good in the world and I cannot deny that Britain has benefited from being a member. I just wish that we could pay to have access to the markets, while retaining control over the laws in our lands. I want us to be in Europe, as a partner but not as a vassal. In short, I would like us to stay within the EU but with major reforms.

I know that any reforms I suggest will not be read by anyone in power and I know they are probably unrealistic but I thought I would put it out there just to see what people think.

I would like to see a NICE’er European Union.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is a Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB), part of the UK Department of Health but a separate organisation (http://www.nice.org.uk/aboutnice/whoweare/who_we_are.jsp). NICE’s role is to advise the UK health service and social services. It does this by assessing the available evidence for treatments/ therapies/ policies etc and then by producing guidelines outlining the evidence and the suggested best course of action.

None of these guidelines are enforced by law, for example, as a doctor you do not have to follow the NICE recommendations but if you ignore them and your patient suffers as a consequence then you are likely to be in big trouble with the General Medical Council.

So, here would be my recommendations for EU reform:

First, we all pay pretty much the same as we do now for access to the European market. We continue with free movement and we keep the European Council but elect the President. This way all the member states can meet up and decide if they want to share any major policies. We all benefit from free movement and we all benefit from a larger free trade area.

Second, we get rid of most of the rest of the EU institutions and replace them with an institute a bit like NICE. The European Institute for Policy Excellence (EIPE) would be (hopefully) quite a small department that looks at the best available evidence and then produces guidance on the policy.

A shorter executive summary would hopefully also be available for everyday people to read and understand what the policy is about - just like how patients can read NICE executive summaries to understand their condition better.

Then any member state could choose to adopt the policy if their parliaments think it worthwhile. This voluntary opt-in system would mean that states retain control of their laws, would probably adopt the policies voluntarily (eventually) and that the European citizens might actually grow to like the EU laws if they can be shown to be evidence based, in the public’s best interests, in the control of the public and not just a law/red tape imposed from above.

The European Union should be a place where our elected officials go to debate and agree policies in the best interests of their electorates. There should therefore be an opt-out of any policy for any member state that does not think it will benefit from a policy.

This looser union that I would like to see will probably not happen and I do worry that one day we will wake up in the undemocratic united federal states of Europe but this worry should not force us to make an irrational choice now. We should not be voting to "leave the EU at all costs" but we should be voting for reform and a better more co-operative international community.

I would not dare suggest who any of you should vote for but I hope you use your vote for change and reform and not more of the same.