Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The EU constitution and democracy

The trouble is that we’ve got, to resort to cliché, a chicken/egg scenario when it comes to the EU.

The principle criticism against the EU is that it lacks democratic accountability. Which it does, and anyone who says not is a fool or a liar. All the other criticisms stem from that to one extent or another - the imposition of directives (in this country actually normally applied far more literally than necessary), the supposedly endemic corruption (which exists, but not much more so than in any other bureaucratic organisation) and, of course, the fact that the Commission has sole right to initiate legislation despite not being elected.

To tackle the democratic deficit - as the constant complaints from both sides run - you need engagement from the people. But the people are unlikely to get engaged until they feel their votes actually count for something, which at the moment they don’t, really.

This was part of what the constitution was trying to tackle (and it’s only right to talk about the thing in the past tense now). Voters are used to a state framework when it comes to elections and participation. But the EU is not a state, nor does it resemble one (if we’re honest) in anything more than a superficial sense. The flag’s there, the anthem, the civil service and the parliament, but they don’t really work as a whole, and there is precisely zero pan-European political dialogue below the level of the political elite (and the occasional blogger).

Add to that the fact that the interrelationships are so damn confusing and complex (like the guys I heard chatting on the tube the other day, both of whom seemed fairly intelligent and politically aware - they got on at Westminster - but one of whom was insisting that the Commission appoints the Council of Ministers…), it’s practically impossible to work out how the thing works. If people can’t understand or easily see how their participation matters, they aren’t going to bother getting involved.

At the moment we hear talk of “the EU says such and such”, but this could refer to almost anything - the EU Parliament, Commission, Council of Ministers, Central Bank, European Court of Justice, and sometimes even non-EU institutions like the Council of Europe or European Court of Human Rights. The constitution’s proposal of a president could have led to a more clear idea of what “the EU says” actually means. (A Commission spokesman - even Margot Wallstrom, the Communications Commissioner - does not, currently, necessarily speak for the whole EU.) Likewise an EU Foreign Minister. Nation states are defined as much as by what they are not than by what they are. Without a coherent EU foreign policy (even if - as would be necessary - only in a few areas), an understanding of what it means to be an EU citizen is well nigh impossible.

Now, although the constitution proposed greater powers for the European Parliament (and about time too), this would not in itself have been enough to create the kind of European demos which critics of the project so often cite the lack of as an example of how the thing can’t possibly work. A President and Foreign Minister could, simply by existing, have helped to shape a sense of EU identity which has been, since the project’s inception, sorely lacking outside of the political classes. They could have acted as a catalyst for the formation of some kind of EU-wide demos merely by being able to act as the voice of the EU, cutting down on the confusion which currently runs riot whenever any kind of statement appears from anyone who could - even vaguely - be mistaken for an EU spokesman.

Without a coherent understanding of what the EU is and does - which there most certainly is not at the moment (even with some otherwise politically-aware people, and I’ll include myself here, as I have been known to muddle up the Council of Europe, European Council and Council of the European Union from time to time) - greater democratisation would merely lead to more confusion.

Add to that the difficulty of the artifical binary split in attitudes towards the EU - pro or anti, with nothing in between - and greater democratisation as the EU stands at the moment would merely lead to further chaos. As can be seen by the reactions to the French “No” vote (likely to be replicated after the Netherlands reject the treaty today), with a binary split no message can really be taken. Some have claimed the French vote was a rejection of a supranational EU, others that it reflected national politics, others that it was against the “Anglo-Saxon model”. In fact it was all, none and much, much more.

But until there is a genuine, proper understanding of what it is that the EU is and does - in the same way that most people in Britain understand more or less how it is that Westminster affects their lives - it will be practically impossible to get away from this simplistic Yes/No divide and the wild claims that ensue from such splits. Democracy cannot work effectively on Yes/No at the kind of early stage at which the EU finds itself. Before the House of Commons votes on a bill there is a period of debate and discussion. In a healthy democracy, that debate extends to the population at large - as it has been with, for example, the ID cards bill. You don’t go straight to the vote unless you want people to make an uninformed choice on an insufficiently discussed issue. And if you want that, you can only expect resentment later on once people twig what’s happened.

In the EU, at the moment, the debate never spreads beyond Brussels/Strasbourg until after the fact. EU legislation is barely ever discussed in national parliaments, let alone among national populations, until it is too late for the people to have a say. The EU constitution would not have solved that fundamental problem. It could, however, have provided some kind of framework by which the actions of the EU became known about before they happened simply by the addition of recognisable twin spokesmen in the shape of the Foreign Minister and President. If, that is, they had approached these roles in the right way.

Of course, the irony of the current situation is that in seeing the constitution rejected, the EU is experiencing its first proper period of internal debate in which the people are actively involved - via letters pages, chats in the pub etc. - in its history. It could well be that this “crisis” (it is actually nothing of the sort, except for the elites who tried to impose this constitution on us) could be the best thing for the EU, simply for its ability to get the people talking about it for a change.

(Originally posted as a comment to this post at The Sharpener)


Blogger CuriousHamster said...

But until there is a genuine, proper understanding of what it is that the EU is and does... it will be practically impossible to get away from this simplistic Yes/No divide and the wild claims that ensue from such splits.

Well said. There is a dire lack of informed debate in the UK about the EU. There's too much rabid talk of straight bananas and the like, especially from certain media outlets intent on promoting their own agenda. The issue is far more complicated than a yes/no divide can accomodate.
And I've never understood why the UK government always seems to adopt the most literal interpretations of EU directives. None of the other member states seem to do it. It's almost as if the govt is looking to fuel all those straight banana stories in the papers.

OK, this is turning into a toadyish "Nosemonkey is very clever comment" and isn't really contributing much else. I'll stop now.

BTW. I'm no expert on the workings of the EU myself but did you really here someone argue that the Council of Ministers is appointed by the Commission?

6/01/2005 04:18:00 pm  
Blogger Victor said...

Nosemonkey, and any others interested, Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post demonstrated today that even some Americans grasp the EU's root problem of its democratic deficit and arrogant political elite. She is more pessimistic on what may come, fearing further and nastier far-right protest/backlash votes at national levels. It's an interesting articles worth a read -

6/01/2005 06:40:00 pm  
Anonymous coneylm said...

Unfortunately, following on from CuriousHamster's post, Nosemonkey doesn't exactly start off in the guise of informed debate in his post.

NM refers to the 'imposition of directives' when they aren't imposed but decided by the Parliament, which is directly elected, and the Council, which is effectively indirectly elected (or at least made up of elected ministers) in the standard EU legislative process. The Commission does *not* impose directives on anybody.

You then refer to the sole right of initiative in legislation. Although, there is an argument for changing that (the original idea was to stop larger countries proposing legislation that was tailored towards them and then pushing it through using their larger vote weighting), again the proposal isn't immediately law - that's for the Council and Parliament to decide, who can both amend it as they see fit or reject it.

The idea that EU legislation is not decided 'until it is too late for the people to have a say' is rubbish. You can lobby your MEP in the same way as your MP - more so in fact as you have several MEPs but only one MP. Plus you could lobby the government as regards their policy for that proposal in the Council (can't really do that with the House of Lords).

When it comes to influence in either of those EU institutions, the UK has joint highest number of votes in the Council (with three other countries) and joint second highest number of seats in the European Parliament (with two other countries), so we have a great deal more say than most other member states. Often the argument then degrades into "I didn't vote for other MEPs or other ministers in the Council" - well, I only voted for *one* out of 600-odd MPs at Westminster but I don't consider that to be undemocratic.

People don't know what proposals are being debated because the media is so crap at covering it. When does the media ever cover *any* debates in the EP? Almost never. When is proposed legislation an item on the news? Again, almost never.

Then again, consider the UK parliament - how often does the media cover debates that aren't considering 'absolutely staggering vital'? Prime Minister's questions is hardly a good example of proper debate and scrutiny but that's what seems to gets on the TV news. Don't you hear the same criticism that Westminster is remote from the people?

Essentially, a lot of the criticism is based on a false premise of laws being 'forced' on Britain as if we had no say and soverignty being 'taken away' as if we never agreed to share it. The positive case for the EU has so much mis-information to rebut it's a thankless task.

(... but this is my contribution to it :) )

6/01/2005 06:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

But until there is a genuine, proper understanding of what it is that the EU is and does - in the same way that most people in Britain understand more or less how it is that Westminster affects their lives...

I tend to be of the opinion that people think they understand how Westminster affects their lives - in particular, as evidenced by turnout at local council elections, people dont really understand how much power councils actually have over their day to day lives. (I think the present administration may have caused a worsening of this position, though it existed before as well.) I think it may be a pipedream to hope that the majority will ever understand how they are governed.

6/01/2005 06:45:00 pm  
Blogger sean said...

Coney whatever your name is, you are a grotesque idiot. The Commission is unelected. UNELECTED. Yet it proposes all legislation. You touch on this like it is a minor matter, yet is is the heart of the fucking issue. I'm not giving any more power to an UNELECTED bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, MEPs represent 600,000 constituents. Impossibly remote. Also, MEPs are grossly overpaid and corrupt. MEPs expenses? Also EU officials are legally immune. Outrageous. Two parliaments, just to please the French? - a disgrace. The CAP is a bloated monster that defrauds the 3rd World. The CFP is a pig's dinner, and appallingly wasteful. The Constitution was decided by UNELECTED conventioneers. Who's fucking idea was that?
Go jump, Coneyface. We have no reason to make up myths about the EU. It satirises itself.

6/01/2005 06:48:00 pm  
Anonymous coneylm said...

sean, I don't think you even seem to understand what the word 'proposes' means? The equivalent term in UK legislature is a 'bill', i.e. the inital draft of a law before the legislature gets their hands on it. Is the fact that the UK Government puts forward bills for the UK Parliament undemocratic?

The rest of your ignorant 'Sun editorial' style rant isn't worth commenting on, apart from the bit about EU officials supposedly having legal immunity (which, not surprisingly was reported in The Sun) - see:

EU workers immune from law - EU workers immune from law?.

6/01/2005 07:16:00 pm  
Blogger sean said...

Yep, that's right, rabbitface, we are all ignorant Sun readers over here on the sceptic side.

Here is the background to the legal immunity thing. From an EU website:

'Recently the highest court in Hamburg, the Oberlandesgericht, ruled that it could not prevent present and former members of OLAF from spreading stories, as a protocol of April 8 1965 grants EU civil servants a life-long immunity from legal proceedings “in respect of acts performed by them in their official capacity, including their words spoken or written”.

And that includes setting the Belgian police at an investigative journalist, as in the Tillack case here.

You guys just don't get it, do you? You underestimate us. Do you really think we're all stupid tabloid readers? Eh? Well, we are also THE PEOPLE. And we are getting angry.

By the way, how does it make you feel, knowing you are despised across Europe? Personally, I couldn't sleep. But maybe you are different...

6/01/2005 07:32:00 pm  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

I wonder if we could keep this civilized and avoid personal insults. It doesn't help the debate much either way.
I agree with NM that there is a democratic deficit. The Commission does propose new legislation. The E.P. still has only limited powers. The Council of Ministers is where the important decisions are still taken. It could be argued that this is democratic as each minister is an elected representative of his nation. But, the Council of Ministers isn't open to the type of democratic scrutiny which would involve EU citizens. Reform is badly needed.

The Constitution was decided by UNELECTED conventioneers. I'm not sure that this is true. Wasn't it agreed in the Coucil of Ministers?

6/01/2005 07:55:00 pm  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

Doh! An addition to my previous comment. Just add this to the end:
The Council of Ministers is elected. It isn't directly accountable, as I've just said, but to call them "unelected conventioneers" is slightly misleading.

6/01/2005 08:01:00 pm  
Blogger sean said...

CuriousH. Yes maybe I am a bit steamed up - but patronising remarks by EU apparatchiks which entirely avoid the issue don't exactly help. They are the problem, these people. Yet they don't get it. Insults are one way of banging it into their arrogant heads. If you know a better one...!

Hey, let's have referendums, see how they respect those?!

I meant that the Constitution was composed by unelected conventioneers. Which is simply astounding, whenya think about it. Even Iraq had an elected Constitutional convention. But then, the Eurocrats aren't known for trusting the people... so why let the people elect conventioneers? Crivens, we might get a majority of sceptics! Imagine!

Now i'm gonna search the blogs for those Dutch exit polls... gulp..

6/01/2005 08:04:00 pm  
Blogger sean said...

63% Nee! 37% Ja! Fanfuckingtastic. Better than anyone expected. Glass of Heineken, mister coneyface? Hah!

6/01/2005 08:07:00 pm  
Blogger Episode said...

YAY! Now we can continue our existance as Americas bitch. Or how about China? They could kick our ass...we should probably suck their cock too.

6/01/2005 11:17:00 pm  
Blogger Episode said...

Ill take it nosey removed my previous comment...

Nonetheless...You are pathetic. Why would you prefer to be a satellite state to america or the rising superpowers of India and China? There are major issues with the Constitution that need to be rectified (apparently), but why the venom?

6/02/2005 12:33:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

CuriousH - no word of a lie. Genuine overheard conversation.

Coneylm - I think you've somewhat misunderstood my point. Which in itself goes to further underline the point. The use of the phrase "imposition of directives" was merely as an example of the criticisms that are made - it is not necessarily my view.

Again with your lobbying of MEPs point - yes, you can do that. But effectively no one does. The question isn't how to enable more democratic engagement - it's how to get more people to take advantage of the opportunities they already have but don't appreciate. The point I was making wasn't so much about allowing people the chance to vote, but getting more people to take up that chance in the first place.

Sean - play nice...

Jono - no doubt about it. But that perception of understanding is all that is needed to make people feel involved.

Episode - I've deleted nothing - what previous comment?

6/02/2005 09:44:00 am  
Blogger Alex said...

Sean has absolutely no credibility at all in my view, in the light of his offensive babble about Zyklon B and such on his own blog. He also claims to be a heroin addict - I'm not sure if this is a sick joke or an admission, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised. The Nazi chic is grotesque, and frankly the heroin is idiotic.

The members of the Convention were, by an overwhelming majority, elected. They were either national or European MPs - the only unelected member was, as far as I remember, the one (count'em!) Commission representative.

And I feel it's necessary to break it to you that British government officials enjoy legal immunity in the exercise of their function ("Crown immunity") - it's the government that is legally liable for the actions of its agents in the exercise of their legitimate authority. This is a pretty ancient principle of international law that I don't believe anyone has seriously questioned since the 19th century.

And, by the way, Iraq hasn't had an elected constitutional convention. It hasn't had an unelected one either. It hasn't happened yet.

6/02/2005 10:35:00 am  
Blogger sean said...

Hey Alex, you're reading my blog again?! Bless you!

On a more serious note, you are that boring pompous twat from Yorkshire, aren't you? If you're not, you certainly sound like him.

Ah, the invective of the blogosphere. you gotta love it.

As for the immunity thing, shove it up yer butt. Crown immunity only protects Crown officials and departments from offences commited by statute or common law. It does not, as far as I know, extend to letting apparatchicks slander and impugne journalists. Crown Immunity was also diminished severely in 1947, and is being whittled away as we speak; not the case in the EU. But the main point is that Crown Immunity is only defensible (and even then barely) as a prerogative of a nation state; this the EU is most definitely not, it is therefore grotesque - and typical - that the EU should take on these national appurtenances, without the people being consulted.

Oh yes, and your blog sucks.

Episode, who are you? You potty mouthed weirdo? I kinda like your style, believe it or not, even if you are a retard. Who and what are you? I know you are upset today, but when you have calmed down, let us know. I especially liked your post as to 'why can't we just sneak EU laws through like we used to do'. Ace!

Nosemonkey. Bless you too. Good blog recently. I find I actually agree with you on the future of the EU, in many ways, something that rather disturbs me.

And now back to writing my memoirs. Cheers!

6/02/2005 11:19:00 am  
Blogger Alex said...

Are you going to expand on your critique of my blog beyond "it sucks"? I always welcome constructive criticism; back in December I canned a new template design after putting it up as a test blog for user feedback.

6/02/2005 01:28:00 pm  
Blogger sean said...

Alex, dude, I was only being mean and nasty cause I'm all hyper after the Dutch and French votes.

Yr blog is fine as far as I can see - I don't necesarily go in for those ultra-serious political blogs, but in its genre it seems pukka.

As you know, I tend to go in for embarrassing revelations of heroin abuse (as was!) and sick jokes about the Holocaust. Happily, the internet is a sea in which a gnat can drink and an elephant bathe...

Keep blogging!

6/02/2005 02:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The term "political elite" is a bit misguided. Was Condoleezza Rice democratically elected, Geoffrey Hoon or de Villepin? Many of the members of the Commission on the other hand are MP:s that have been sent off to Brussels by their equally democratically elected governments. I would say that the Commission is no more "elitist" than any any average cabinet on a nation state level.

I agree that there is a democratic deficiency in the EU, but that comes primarily from the fact that the EP can't introduce legislation. If you look at it closer however, you see it's not Brussels fault - it is the governments of the member states wanting to maintain control. Remember the Buttiglione affair? Remember how outraged the national governments were when the EP threatened to reject the Barroso Commission because of doubts over one or two candidates?

You can't keep both national sovereignty *and* and democratic authority on the EU level - not on overlapping areas of decision. So, the Eurosceptics should make up their mind - either they want more national sovereignty, or they want a more democratic EU.

Anyway, overall a good post. I most certainly agree that what is needed is a pan-European political debate.


6/06/2005 09:12:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Lucas - if you take that view, this might be of interest...

6/06/2005 11:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks :) That's basically what I was thinking. There were some good counter arguments in the comments as well.

The big overall issue is the parliament not being able to introduce legislation. Giving the EP that power would however most likely torpedo the subsidiary principle.


6/07/2005 02:45:00 am  

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