The EU isn't too big to fail, but it is too important to

Contrary to Nigel Lawson, the EU is not a monstrous bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is failing.

I spoke at the Annual European University Institute "State of the Union" conference yesterday. It takes place in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, adorned with 500 year old frescoes commemorating the first Florentine Republic after the expulsion of the Medicis – a good reminder that the process of European integration has deep roots.

There was a lot of realism – about the continuing challenge of the euro crisis, about the long-term nature of structural reform, about the gulf between too many citizens and European governance. But there was also a deep determination to preserve the gains of the past – for example in President Barroso’s speech – and wherever I went, a desire to see Britain as part of the European future. In my contribution, in the session on governance and institutions, I made five points.

First, that the debate about legitimacy and efficiency/delivery is happening all over the world. The Chinese are thinking about it; the Americans are debating it in the discussion of 'gridlock'; it is part of the debate in the Arab world as governments elected after the revolutions of 2011 are faced with real economic and social choice. In Europe, legitimacy has two elements – the 'one nation one vote' principle embodied in the European Council, and the 'one person one vote' principle in the European Parliament. The danger for the EU – as elsewhere – is whether legitimacy AND efficiency is missing.

Second, the protest politics in Britain, Italy and elsewhere, is not just (or primarily) about frustration with the EU; it speaks fundamentally to frustration with the traditional politics of centre-right and centre-left, and the desire for a new political alternative. For me, that is about rejuvenating social democracy, but there is no point in hiding that a traditional social democratic offer of social justice through state redistribution is not going to work or sell.

Third, the EU’s biggest problem is its delivery deficit, not its democratic deficit. This is not a new tune of mine, but while some of the EU’s work is very good indeed – I have just spent two days in Brussels preparing for my International Rescue Committee role and learning about some outstanding European development work in crisis-hit places – the policy mix in response to the economic crisis is still some way from bringing closer the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t buy the Nigel Lawson argument that the EU is a monstrous and marauding bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is out of kilter with the economic needs in a balance sheet recession.

Fourth, there is a pressing and outstanding agenda for Europe’s soon to be 28 members, beyond the euro crisis. I won’t rehearse again what this covers, but the sense that there is traction on youth unemployment and migration is encouraging.

Finally, the twin narratives of Europe’s development so far – peace on the continent, and reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall - need to be supplemented by a clarion call that Europe’s purpose is to help its citizens achieve prosperity and security in a 21st century marked by shifts in global power. This cannot be done at national level alone, nor by ad-hoc alliances around the globe to take forward trade promotion or security cooperation.

I don’t buy the argument that Europe is 'too big to fail'. But I do buy the case that it is too important to fail.

David Miliband is the incoming President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

This piece originally appeared on his blog

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.