Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is wrong with the European Commission?

The European Commission, a crucial EU institution, is beset with difficulties. It is popular with neither governments nor voters. Twenty years ago, many people looked to the Commission to set the EU’s agenda and take the lead in managing crises. But few people expect the Commission to play that role today.

Ever since the time when Jacques Delors ran the Commission (1985 to 1995), its authority vis-à-vis EU governments has been waning. The member-states – and especially the big ones – have sought to constrain an institution that they consider over-mighty.

The Lisbon treaty, in force since 2009, created two important institutional innovations: the permanent president of the European Council, a post now occupied by Herman Van Rompuy; and the European External Action Service (EEAS), a body now led by Catherine Ashton. Both of these carry out some tasks that the Commission used to do and have contributed to its sense of insecurity.

Paradoxically, the euro crisis has led to the Commission gaining unprecedented formal powers – on the surveillance of national economic policies – but further eroded its standing and credibility. National governments have provided the money for helping countries in trouble, so they set the terms for bail-outs. The Commission has had to leave the high politics to the European Council, and often to a few key governments, while focusing on its subordinate though important technical role.

The eurozone’s travails have accelerated a longstanding shift in the nature of EU governance. The EU used to take few executive decisions that were politically salient. The Commission proposed laws and regulated, while the Council of Ministers and European Parliament passed laws. Both the Commission and the Council acted, from time to time, as an executive – for example the former blocked corporate mergers and the latter imposed sanctions on countries in other parts of the world.

But the euro crisis has drawn the EU into taking increasingly political executive decisions. The EU has forced heavily-indebted counties to cut budget deficits, pass painful reforms and wind up banks. The Commission may propose such measures, but only eurozone prime ministers or finance ministers have the authority to take these decisions.

These are long-term trends, but personalities also matter. The current ‘college’ of commissioners contains few heavyweight politicians. Within the Commission, Barroso is a strong leader who dominates his colleagues; given the number of commissioners – one for each of the 28 member-states – he may have no choice but to rule with a firm hand. But outside the Commission, some governments complain about what they perceive as weak leadership. During Barroso’s second term as president, which started in 2009, Berlin, Paris and London have become more critical of the Commission. Even some of the smaller member-states, traditionally allies of the Commission, complain about it more than they used to.

A number of governments accuse the Commission of failing to prioritise; of implementing new initiatives too slowly; or of focusing insufficiently on fixing the eurozone. Some of this is unfair: the politicians who criticise the Commission for not coming up with relevant solutions to the eurozone’s problems are sometimes the same ones who get annoyed when it does propose a big idea, such as eurobonds. And while the Germans have sometimes whinged about the Commission being too soft on countries under surveillance, many others believe that it has been too Germanic in its enthusiasm for budgetary discipline. Evidently, the Commission cannot please everyone.

Two reasons, in particular, explain the member-states’ diminishing confidence in the Commission. First, they argue that the Commission proposes too many detailed rules, particularly in areas such as the environment, food safety and social policy. In May 2013, for example, Polish ministers complained about Commission attempts to regulate the shale gas industry and to ban menthol cigarettes – both of which are popular in Poland. In the same month the Commission proposed banning olive oil in re-usable bottles, but then climbed down after a storm of protest. Earlier in the year, German politicians sharply criticised a Commission proposal to set quotas for women on company boards.

Some senior Commission officials acknowledge that the institution can be over-active. But they blame the increasing sway of the Parliament over the Commission. And that is the second reason why some national capitals have turned against the Commission.

The Parliament has exerted more influence over the second Barroso Commission than the first, and not only because the Lisbon treaty gave it more power. Lobbyists and NGOs find it quite easy to get MEPs to support their projects for new EU rules. The Parliament then puts pressure on commissioners to come up with new directives. They are loath to annoy the Parliament since it can make trouble. Another reason why commissioners like to propose new rules is to justify their existence. The Commission’s secretariat-general works hard to cull what it regards as superfluous legislative proposals, but does not always win arguments against commissioners.

None of this is to say that that the Commission should ignore the Parliament. That body is better placed than any other to vet the work of commissioners and, working with the Court of Auditors, to criticise their mistakes. Before the appointment of the last two Commissions, the Parliament played an admirable role in questioning sub-standard commissioners-designate and forcing them to withdraw. Given the Parliament’s powers of co-decision over new laws, the Commission cannot and should not ignore it.

The problem is that over the past four years the Commission has become much closer to the Parliament than to the Council on many issues. The Commission should be accountable to both – it is appointed by governments and approved by the Parliament. But it should also be independent of both.

The politicisation of the Commission is a problem. There has always been some ambiguity over its contradictory roles:  it is a political body that initiates legislation and brokers compromises among the member-states, but also a technical body that polices markets and rules, and negotiates on behalf of the member-states. During the euro crisis the Commission’s technical role has grown, which makes the ambiguity more problematic. When it pronounces, say, that France may be given two further years in which to meet the 3 per cent budget rule, is that the result of objective economic analysis or a reflection of the shifting political climate in national capitals? This ambiguity gives governments and others an excuse to criticise the Commission.

Politicisation can mean favouring political parties. Some socialist politicians claim that the Commission has been over-indulgent of Viktor Orban, the prime minister accused of curtailing political pluralism in Hungary, because his European People’s Party is the leading force in the Commission and the Parliament. There is not much evidence for that particular allegation, but if the Commission becomes too party-political, its ability to carry out technical functions effectively – or in this case, to act as a guardian of liberal democracy – may be compromised.

Next year’s European elections could accelerate the Commission’s politicisation. Most of the pan-European political parties say they will each designate a candidate for Commission president. After the elections they want the European Council to propose the candidate of the party with the most MEPs as president – and then the Parliament to invest him or her. Were the European Council to propose any other name, MEPs would reject it.

If this scheme works, there might be a bit more interest in the European elections. But it is far from certain that the political parties and the European Council will, in the end, play this game. If they do allow the Parliament to appoint Barroso’s successor, the Commission is likely to become more beholden to the Parliament – and the leading party within it – than is currently the case.

Such an outcome would be alarming, because the EU needs a strong and independent Commission – to consider the wider European interest, draw governments’ attention to long-term trends, propose solutions to pressing problems (whether in the wider EU or the eurozone), work doggedly to deepen the single market, and perform its monitoring role in eurozone governance. As the eurozone integrates, one key task will be to ensure a smooth relationship between the countries inside the euro and those outside it. Decisions made by the eurozone should not damage or fragment the single market.

So what can be done to strengthen this flagging institution? The most important step requires not a treaty amendment or an institutional reform, but simply an agreement among heads of government. They should decide to reinforce the Commission’s independence by appointing strong figures as commissioners, and above all by ensuring that a heavyweight politician takes on the presidency.

The member-states should mandate the new president and his team to maintain their independence from the European Parliament, and support them in their efforts to do so. After the last European elections the Commission and the Parliament reached an ‘inter-institutional agreement’, covering future legislation and procedures, which gave the Parliament several things that it wanted. The Council of Ministers spurned the opportunity to make this a tripartite arrangement; if it had done, it could have balanced the legislative activism of the Parliament and pulled the Commission closer to it. After the next European elections the three main EU institutions should seek a tripartite accord on the EU’s work programme.

As for reform of the Commission itself, the problem of too many commissioners needs to be tackled. There are not enough important jobs for 28 of them, and with so many people around the table, substantive discussions are almost impossible. The one-commissioner-per-country rule encourages both governments and those they appoint to the Commission to assume – in breach of the treaties – that the job of commissioners is to represent their homeland.

So the next president should divide his or her commissioners into seniors – who could become vice presidents – and juniors. There should be an informal understanding that, though all commissioners are of equal legal status, the senior ones will co-ordinate the work of the juniors in their particular areas of responsibility. The seniors should meet regularly. In the longer run, when the treaties are re-opened, the EU should adopt a system whereby big countries would always have a commissioner (though not necessarily one of the top jobs) and smaller countries would take it in turns.

Another useful treaty change would be to give the European Council the right to sack the Commission. The Parliament has that power and by threatening to use it forced the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999. If the treaties said that either body could sack the Commission, its equidistance between governments and MEPs would be reinforced. And that would help to give the EU the strong and independent Commission that it needs.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Turkey’s Twitter generation is its European future

The protests that started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two weeks ago have spread across Turkey and show little sign of dying down. They signify a clash between a modernising Turkish society and a still rigid and old-fashioned political system. The protests have resulted in the tragic loss of several lives and are endangering Turkey’s hard-won economic stability as investors take fright. But they also have a silver lining. They might force the government to reconsider its rejection of pluralism. And they might even help to revive Turkey's moribund accession process to the EU.

Turkey's government has spent millions of euros over the last decade on European advertising campaigns to update its image and lessen public opposition to its EU membership bid. The Gezi Park protestors have had a more profound impact on Turkey’s international image in just a few weeks. European news bulletins and social media have been showing a new generation of Turks who, in articulate English, explain how much they value democracy, personal freedoms and tolerance between people with different lifestyles. The colourful banners of Taksim Square have replaced the stock images of mosques, Anatolian peasants or monumental Bosphorus bridges. The huge change that has taken place in Turkish society over the past two decades is suddenly evident to European voters, many of whom previously equated Turkey with Islamism, Kurdish terrorists and mass migration. The images from Gezi Park resonate particularly with younger Europeans who see it as Turkey’s version of the Occupy movements, the Spanish ‘Indignados’ and German ‘Wutbürger’. It is these younger Europeans who will vote on Turkish EU accession if and when the accession negotiations are finished.

The Twitter effect is a new element in the Turkey-EU relationship. The laughable failure of Turkey’s mainstream press to cover the protests accurately has driven people to rely on Twitter and Facebook as their main source of news. Twitter could not have asked for a better marketing campaign than Erdogan’s ranting against “lies on social media”. Turkey is also a trending topic in social media conversations within the EU: here, comments are at the same time becoming more in favour of Turkish accession (because of its people) and more sceptical of it (because of its government).

The EU’s dilemma is how to encourage Turkish society without rewarding the government. The conditionality of the accession talks is a blunt weapon. Germany or another member-state might be tempted to block the opening of the next chapter in the negotiations (on regional policy) to express disdain about government’s brutal reaction to the protests. But such sanctions would only feed the paranoia that Erdogan’s party is spreading about alleged international plots against Turkey. They would reduce the EU’s leverage still further.

Instead, the EU should hug Turkey closer at this great moment in Turkey’s democratic journey. The EU is right to criticise police violence and repression of the media in unequivocal terms – and it should also engage in an intense dialogue with the Turkish government about how to increase pluralism and personal freedoms. There are chapters in the negotiations that could help to guide Turkey through this major transition – such as Chapters 23 and 24 on fundamental rights, justice and home affairs – which Cyprus and other EU countries should unblock.

In a way, the Gezi Park protests are a victory of the accession process so far. Erdogan rose to power by reassuring Turkey’s more liberal, secular classes that he was serious about EU accession and the democratic and economic opening this entailed. Especially during his early years in power, Erdogan significantly strengthened the freedoms of assembly, association and expression. Today’s protests are the result of this enormous opening of the Turkish political space.

Walking around Taksim Square before it was cleared by the police, I saw the vast variety of political opinions and causes represented there: pictures of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan were held up next to a banner for the Muslim Anti-Capitalist League; environmentalists sat in their tents alongside self-declared Communists; youngsters played music while headscarved mothers pushed prams round the park. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, a remarkable display of tolerance and mutual respect. Most of the protesters eschewed violence even in the face of police brutality. The dozens of causes gathered there have conflicting ideologies and visions for Turkey. What unites them is a desire for more pluralism and space for dissent. The fact that these small, diverse organisations immediately sprouted when a breath of oxygen came into the public space is testament to the vibrancy of Turkish civil society.

The problem is that Erdogan’s old-fashioned leadership is more and more at odds with this more pluralist and modern society. The battles between police and protestors are part of a much bigger battle between ‘leader knows best’ politics and modern social participation. Many, if not most, Turks still favour strong leadership and the education system promotes a reverence for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the father of the nation.

But Erdogan’s reaction to the protests has made the paternalistic style look like Victorian parenting techniques in a modern family. Erdogan initially refused to enter a dialogue with the rebellious children until they stopped disobeying him. Turkey’s citizens, however, are no longer content to be infantilised. They do not want the prime minister to tell them to drink yoghurt, bear three children and stop drinking alcohol after 10 pm. Erdogan’s ministers, who blamed banks, speculators, a global conspiracy – anyone but themselves – for the protests only showed how out of touch they are with important parts of their own society. Erdogan would have done better to copy Spain’s Mariano Rajoy in his dialogue with the Indignados than Vladimir Putin lambasting Pussy Riot.

Erdogan’s AKP is not alone in having missed or misinterpreted Turkey’s social opening. The other big parties that have dominated Turkish politics for decades fared no better. The secularist centre-left CHP party – which Erdogan has accused of organising the protests – was nowhere to be seen in Gezi Park. Therefore, Gezi Park is also an expression of frustration about the AKP’s (or more precisely Erdogan’s) dominance of Turkish politics, not only over the last 15 years but also for the foreseeable future. It is an outcry of the many social groups who feel disenfranchised by the AKP’s ‘tyranny of the majority’.

The underlying problem is that the AKP fears pluralism. It equates criticism of the government with treachery to the Turkish state that needs to be punished. There is a chance that these protests will help Turkey to start accepting its diversity. If the protests keep spreading, Erdogan and his party will be forced to accept that the expression of opinions and beliefs that they dislike is part of any modern democracy. Europeans should help this process along, not reject Turkey at this critical moment.

Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels. She was senior advisor to Olli Rehn when he was Commissioner for enlargement. She previously wrote on EU-Turkey relations while deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Can national parliaments make the EU more legitimate?

The EU has long had a problem of legitimacy, but the euro crisis has made it worse. According to Eurobarometer, 72 per cent of Spaniards do not trust the EU. The Pew Research Centre finds that 75 per cent of Italians think European economic integration has been bad for their country, as do 77 per cent of the French and 78 per cent of the Greeks.

For more than 60 years, the EU has been built and managed by technocrats, hidden from the public gaze – or so it has seemed. In fact national governments have taken most of the key decisions, but public scrutiny has been insufficient. This model cannot endure, because the EU has started to intrude – particularly in the euro countries – into politically sensitive areas of policy-making.

Political institutions can gain legitimacy from either ‘outputs’ or ‘inputs’. The outputs are the benefits that institutions are seen to deliver. The inputs are the elections through which those exercising power are held to account. The euro crisis has weakened both sorts of legitimacy.

The outputs are hardly impressive. Economies are shrinking in many member-states, credit is in short supply in southern Europe, unemployment in the eurozone is over 12 per cent, and youth unemployment in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain is between 40 and 65 per cent. Neither the EU nor the euro appears to be delivering much in the way of benefits – whether to Greeks who blame Germans for austerity, or to Germans who resent contributing to Greek bail-outs.

Input legitimacy has also suffered. Given the complexity of decision-making, with power shared among many institutions, lines of accountability in the EU have never been easy to follow. But the perception that power is unaccountable is growing, especially in the heavily-indebted eurozone countries.

Power over economic policy has flowed away from national parliaments and governments to financial markets and to unelected institutions. Having mismanaged their economies, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus have had to negotiate programmes of deficit reduction and structural reform with the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Other countries, such as Italy, Spain and Slovenia, have avoided full bail-out programmes but had to follow the Commission’s budgetary prescriptions in order to avoid reprimands and possible disciplinary proceedings. Decisions on bail-outs and the conditionality that applies to them have been taken by eurozone finance ministers and heads of government. It is not at all clear where and how such decisions can be held to account, as became evident during the messy rescue of Cyprus in March.

There is no silver bullet that can suddenly make the EU respected, admired or even popular among many Europeans. Its institutions are geographically distant, hard to understand and often deal with obscure technicalities. However, unless the EU becomes more legitimate and credible in the eyes of voters, parts of it could start to unravel. For example, at some point eurozone governments may seek to strengthen their currency by taking major steps towards a more integrated system of economic policy-making. But then a general election, a referendum or a parliamentary vote could block those steps and so threaten the euro’s future.

The best way to improve the EU’s standing would be to improve its ‘outputs’. If European leaders moved quickly to establish a banking union, to strengthen the EU’s financial system; if Germany did more to stimulate demand, thereby helping southern European economies to grow; if structural reform started to restore the competiveness of those economies; and if unemployment started to fall – then EU leaders would look competent, and support for eurosceptics and populists would wane. For the most part such outcomes require not new institutions, but better policies.

Nevertheless EU governance is in bad need of an overhaul. For many federalists, the answer to perceptions of a democratic deficit is simple: when decisions take place at EU level, the European Parliament should exercise democratic control (alongside the Council of Ministers). And if more decisions are being taken at EU level, the powers of the Parliament over them should grow.

However, these arguments face both practical and theoretical difficulties. The practical problem is that the Parliament has serious shortcomings as an institution. Since its first direct elections in 1979, four major treaties have boosted its powers. MEPs now have considerable sway over the EU’s laws, budget and international agreements. Yet in every European election, the turn-out has declined – from 63 per cent in 1979 to just 43 per cent in 2009.

MEPs do a good job in some areas. In recent years they have, for example, improved the directive on hedge funds and private equity, and helped to reform the Common Fisheries Policy. But few voters are aware of the Parliament’s good work and many of them are sceptical that MEPs represent their interests; a lot of MEPs have little connection to national political systems.

Much of the time, the Parliament’s priority appears to be more power for itself. Since the 2009 European elections, MEPs have increased their hold over the Commission, and not only because of the extra powers the Lisbon treaty gave them. One of their techniques is to block what the Commission wants in one area, in order to extract a concession in another. The Parliament always wants ‘more Europe’ – a bigger budget and a larger role for the EU – but there is little evidence that most voters think the same way.

There are also theoretical objections to the Parliament becoming the main body for democratic oversight of the eurozone. In the EU’s usual law-making procedures – known as the ‘community method’ – the Parliament plays an important role. Thus in the last few years it has amended and approved new laws on eurozone budgetary discipline. And it is probably the best-placed body to question the Commission on its monitoring of member-state economies.

However, the money that rescues heavily-indebted member-states has to be voted by national parliaments. The EU budget is not involved to a significant degree, so the European Parliament plays only a minimal role in bail-outs. Decisions on bail-outs and the conditionality that applies to them are taken at EU level by eurozone finance ministers and heads of government. But these decisions have to be implemented by national parliaments: the German Bundestag had to vote money for Cyprus’s bail-out, while the Cypriot parliament had to approve the winding up of Cypriot banks.

These are reasons to increase the involvement of national parliamentarians in eurozone governance – and in the EU more broadly. Critics of their involvement argue that most of them focus on national issues and have little understanding of the wider European interest. Those are valid points. Any attempt to enhance the role of members of parliament (MPs) therefore needs to encourage them to ‘think European’. The European Council has helped heads of government to do so. The prime ministers who attend wear two hats – as national political leaders and members of the EU’s supreme authority. As Luuk van Middelaar, an adviser to Herman Van Rompuy, demonstrates in his excellent new book ‘The passage to Europe’, when national leaders attend the European Council, they start to consider the European interest – sometimes to their own surprise.

So how can MPs play a bigger role in scrutinising the EU? There are increasing numbers of ‘inter-parliamentary’ bodies that bring together MPs and MEPs. These range from the general Conference of European Scrutiny Committees (COSAC) to more specialised groups for foreign policy and Europol. And the recent fiscal stability treaty set up a ‘conference’ that will gather MPs and MEPs to scrutinise the operation of the treaty and discuss wider economic issues. However, these bodies – though useful – are merely consultative and are often treated disdainfully by MEPs. They do not give MPs a sufficient stake in the EU.

Accountability should start at home. Some parliaments, such as that of Denmark, have good systems for holding ministers to account, before and after they attend the Council of Ministers. Others, including that of Britain, scrutinise draft EU laws but do not follow Council meetings closely. National parliaments could improve their systems by emulating best practice across the Union.

The links between national parliaments should be strengthened. The Lisbon treaty created the ‘yellow-card’ procedure, whereby if a third or more of national parliaments believe that a Commission proposal breaches subsidiarity – the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest level compatible with efficiency – they may ask that it be withdrawn. The Commission must then do so or justify why it intends to proceed. So far this procedure has been used just once, when the Commission withdrew a measure that would have enhanced trade union rights. A small treaty change could turn the yellow-card procedure into a red-card procedure, so that, say, half the national parliaments could force the Commission to withdraw a proposal. A similar system could enable national parliaments to club together to make the Commission propose the withdrawal of a redundant or unnecessary EU law.

A more fundamental reform would be to implement the long-discussed idea of establishing a forum for national parliamentarians in Brussels. The forum’s workload should be modest, so that the best and brightest MPs would want to participate. It should not duplicate the legislative work of the European Parliament. Rather, the forum should ask questions about, and write reports on, those aspects of EU and eurozone governance that involve unanimous decision-making and in which the Parliament plays no significant role.

This forum could become a check on the European Council. It could challenge EU actions and decisions that concern foreign and defence policy, or co-operation on policing and counter-terrorism. On eurozone matters the new body could – meeting in reduced format, without MPs from non-euro countries – question the euro group president or give opinions on bail-out packages. The forum could start work as an informal body and, if it proved useful, be given formal powers – such as the election of the euro group president – through a new treaty.

Hopefully, the forum would encourage MPs to think European. Sceptics and cynics will rightly argue that a new institution cannot on its own make the EU accountable. But in the long run, MPs will have to become more involved in the workings of the EU. Because MPs are usually closer to their constituents than MEPs, and because they are elected on a higher turnout, they stand a better chance of improving the EU’s legitimacy.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The CER commission on the UK and the single market

The case for British membership of the EU has always rested primarily on the country’s participation in the single market. The CER’s commission on the UK and the single market held its first meeting this week. It will examine whether participation in the EU helps or hinders Britain’s economy. If the referendum on EU membership takes place, the commission’s report will provide balanced evidence to help the UK make its decision.

Membership of the EU cannot be weighed solely in pounds and pence. But in a period of economic stagnation, any decision about membership will be shaped by the pecuniary costs and benefits. Unfortunately, the British debate has lacked objective analysis of these, with both eurosceptics and europhiles using evidence selectively to make their case. As the UK is not a member of the eurozone, and is unlikely to join, an appraisal of EU membership should centre on the single market.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, and Brian Bender, former permanent secretary at the UK business department, introduced the discussion at the inaugural meeting of the commission. There was broad agreement that Britain only has two choices: leave the EU and withdraw from formal participation in the single market, or stay in. Commissioners ruled out a third option: that of joining the European Economic Area. Theoretically, Britain could be in the single market, but not in the EU. The EEA provides Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein with free access to the single market, but they have to sign up to its rules, and have no say over what the rules are. As one reason for dissatisfaction with EU membership is the loss of sovereignty over rule-making, it was felt that this would be worse than either staying in or leaving.

Few commissioners thought that leaving would be an economic disaster for Britain. There would be little significant impact on jobs, because the level of employment was largely determined by how well the British labour market matched the demand for and supply of workers, rather than the amount of trade that the UK conducts with Europe.

The impact of exit on national income was more contentious. Many estimates put the economic gains from membership of the single market at around 2 per cent of GDP. But some commissioners argued that the immediate impact of leaving would be closer to zero. Others argued that there would be a small negative impact on UK national income in the short term, but there would be a steady erosion of Britain’s attractiveness as a location for foreign investment.

Commissioners questioned whether leaving the EU would allow Britain to extricate itself completely from EU rules in any case. The EU would remain the UK’s largest trading partner, and companies exporting to the rest of Europe would have to conform to EU product standards.

The second option was stay in the EU on current or renegotiated terms. Some commissioners thought that cherry-picking the single market – repatriating social and employment rules, for example – was not really on the table because it would be unacceptable to the other member-states.

One British interest was deepening the single market. A second was making the EU regulate less. Some participants questioned whether these two interests were compatible. The UK liked the single market, but did not like the transfer of rule-making power to Brussels that further integration would entail. So it faced an uncomfortable choice: it may have to cede more sovereignty in order to get more out of its economic relationship with the rest of Europe. And if it decides to promote integration, it may in any case be difficult to get other member-states to sign up to a deeper single market. Countries like France were cooler on the single market than Britain, and their priority was addressing the eurozone’s problems, rather than furthering trade integration. But a focus of the CER’s commission should be the policies needed to open markets in industries in which the UK has a  comparative advantage.

Commissioners were divided on whether Britain should seek to reform the EU to make it a less active regulator. Participants from the business world said that the European Commission and Parliament had become hyper-active and too keen to regulate, which was costly for Britain. Others disagreed, and said that EU regulation hardly tied up Britain’s economy in red tape: by OECD measures, Britain had among the least regulated labour and product markets in the developed world. The EU’s institutions had failings, they said, but also benefits for the UK: the EU acted as a counterweight to national protectionism; and a common external trade negotiator had more bargaining power than Britain would wield on its own.

The commission meetings that follow will take evidence from experts in particular areas of the single market: the free movement of labour, of goods and services, and of capital, to assess whether the single market works for Britain in these areas. The report, which will be published in the spring of 2014, will provide a cool-headed appraisal of the UK’s two options.  If commissioners find that staying in would be best for Britain, the report will propose reforms to deepen Britain’s trade integration with Europe.

John Springford is secretary to the commission and a CER research fellow. More details about the commission can be found here.