Jack Straw on Britain, Europe and the EU’s “existential crisis”

Jack Straw came to UCL last month and gave an inaugural lecture on Britain and Europe, after having been named Visiting Professor in Public Policy. Throughout his 33 year career the Labour MP has had experience in nearly every senior cabinet position, having served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Commons. Accordingly the lecture theatre was full to the brim with a mix of students, academics, and the media all eager to hear the views of someone with so much firsthand experience in top-level government.

Despite this the speech was surprisingly academic, opening with a drawn-out comparison between the EU and the Congress System, a European alliance formed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th Century which eventually imploded with the outbreak of the First World War. Mr Straw referred to the inevitable “drum beat of European history,” and warned that political elites and institutions needed to “refresh their popular legitimacy” so as to prevent their collapse and maintain peace and stability.

Perhaps reflecting his academic background in law, the veteran MP then discussed his opinion of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. He emphasised that the Court has played a crucial role in upholding freedoms throughout Europe since its establishment in 1959, but argued that in recent years it has widened its scope too far.  He recalled how as Justice Secretary he had to override the Court’s decision to give convicted British prisoners the right to vote, a matter which “should have been left to the UK’s institutions to determine.” He also criticised the fact that Strasbourg’s widening jurisdiction has led to a massive back-log of unresolved cases. Mr Straw’s central point was that in drifting too far away from the core purposes for which it was established, the Court has undermined both its legitimacy and efficiency. His epigrammatic conclusion then was that the European Court should “do less, and do it better.”

Mr Straw then turned to the EU, recounting how he actually worked in the “No” campaign during the 1975 referendum on UK accession. Since then though he said he has come to firmly believe in the merits of membership, which on top of the oft-cited economic gains include important social benefits such as the freedom to travel, cultural exchange and the spread of liberal democracy across the continent.

However, he then went on to argue that the Union now faces “an existential crisis,” and that there is a deepening gulf between Europe’s political elites and the public. Mr Straw said that sometimes it can be a good thing for high level political decisions to be isolated from the pressure of the electorate, pointing for example to the case of capital punishment or abortion, which contrary to in the US have become removed from political discourse and inter-party debates in the UK. However, he argued that the supranational nature of the EU and the absence of real political contestation reduces its legitimacy to take decisions on behalf of the public, adding that too often there is a reluctance to submit decisions to a popular vote “for fear that the electorate will give the ‘wrong answer’.”

In conclusion, Mr Straw made a series of suggestions about what course Britain and the EU should take next. Firstly he said that Britain has a huge vested interest in helping to resolve the Euro-crisis, and needs to become fully engaged with Europe rather than sitting on the sidelines. The former Foreign Secretary then said it was crucial for the EU to engage more with Turkey and speed up the membership process, and said it was absurd that this was being prevented by one tiny member, Cyprus.

Straw’s main and final point though was that European political elites have been guilty of “intellectual arrogance,” and that they must be careful not to instigate a democratic crisis by ignoring the concerns of the general public. He pointed to underlying tensions which are beginning to resurface, such as the nationalist sentiment pervading debates over the Euro-crisis in Greece and Germany. Coming back to his opening statement about the gradual collapse of the Congress System, he pointed to the organisation’s failure “to adapt to the popular will.” To avoid a similar fate, he said, the EU must respond far better to the demands of its citizens.

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