Sunday, January 30, 2005

The European Commission - more democratic than the US presidency?

A thought, from a comment to my last post. Not to be taken too seriously, but I reckon it may be an interesting observation:

A constant argument of the anti-EU side is that the European Commission is not democratic.

But in the US, the people do not directly elect their president. Sure, they VOTE for the president, but it is the Electoral College which actually makes the final decision. Hence Al Gore getting the majority of the popular vote in 2000, yet not winning the presidency (and that wasn't a one-off - see also Samuel Tilden getting more than Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Grover Cleveland getting more than Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and even - if you buy the tales of vote fraud - Richard Nixon getting more than John F Kennedy in 1960).

The US president is the top dog of the US executive. The rest of the executive is led by his cabinet. Yet the US cabinet is solely appointed by the president - none of them are elected officials (unlike the UK where, as the executive is part of the legislature, the majority of members of the cabinet are democratically elected MPs). The president's choice of cabinet then has to be ratified by Congress.

How is this different to the EU system? The Commission has a strong case for being the closest the EU has to an executive. Its president is agreed by representatives of the democratically elected governments of the member states. These representatives are, arguably, equivalent to the United States' Electoral College voters. The Commission president-elect is then ratified by the democratically-elected European Parliament.

Then, of course, the president of the Commission appoints the commissioners - just as the US prsident appoints his cabinet. Only the Commission president has no say in who his commissioners are. Instead, the individual (again, democratically-elected) governments of the member states nominate their own commissioners. The Commission president then gives them their various positions. Again, these then have to be ratified by the European Parliament.

In the US, cabinet appointees all have to be ratified by the (democratically elected) Congress, just as European Commissioners have to be ratified by the European Parliament. Yet, arguably, for the US cabinet to have the same legitimacy as the European Commission, each (democratically elected) government of each US state would have to have the right to appoint its own cabinet member. So instead of Condi, Rumsfeld and the like, we'd have a bunch of people appointed by the state governments of Wisconsin, Idaho, South Carolina and the rest all vying for the president's attention. That would, technically, be more democratic than the current system, where the president's mates get all the best positions whether they've ever held elected office or not.

So then, considering that the president of the European Commision is chosen by agreement between the democratically elected representatives of the EU states, the commissioners are appinted by the democratically elected governments of the EU states, and both the president and the commissioners are confirmed in their positions by the democratically elected European Parliament, isn't the European Commission more democratic than the American executive, in which not even the president necessarily has to have a majority of voters behind him?


Blogger AK said...

you make a good point there

but the problem lies in the commisioners often being political hacks eg neil kinnock or just too corrupt eg peter mandleson to be in national assemblies and so are sent to the EU commision as a 'representative' and once there are basically free from checks and corruption sets in

If the president was elected, at least that would create an avenue to reduce this as a problem


1/30/2005 10:30:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

And there's never been any corruption in the US cabinet, I suppose? No high up members of the administration being in the pay of major companies who then win major contracts to supply the US armed forces or reconstruct certain countries which have recently been bombed to shit. That'd never happen...

And you know, the British cabinet - you'd never have any dodgy sorts in there, would you? You'd never, for example, have a Prime Minister appoint first his ex boss to the position of Lord Chancellor, and then follow this up by appointing his ex-flatmate after the ex boss retires, would you? And then you'd never get this ex-flatemate in turn appointing one of his mates to one of the most prominent legal positions in the land, despite having no experience in the area of law concerned, would you?

Being democratically elected is by no means a guarantee of decency. To use the tired old argument, Hitler was elected... And all democracies, once the tedious business of elections is out of the way, work through nepotism and personal relationships. It's the only way to get anything done.

But anyway, I was largely taking the piss.

1/30/2005 11:47:00 pm  
Blogger Steve Lavington said...

Interesting idea, though it's worth pointing out that, with a few exceptions (Defence, Justice Department) the US cabinet is pretty much powerless. While ascendancy in the UK cabinet is the only way to climb the greasy pole, a cabinet appointment in the US is a career dead-end.

It serves more as a political thermometer to indicate the disposition of the government, which is why such importance is placed on senate confirmation hearings. Take the example of the state department. Colin Powell was a conciliatory moderate (relatively speaking), Condoleeza Rice is a unilateralist hawk. Will her arrival mean any change in policy or does it just represent a more honest admission by the Bush adminstration of its foreign policy goals?

The real democratic power lies in Congress, a masterfully intricate system finely balanced against the apparently supreme power of the Presidency (for anyone who might be interested Robert Caro's Master of the Senate gives a brilliant summary of this institution).

When it comes to comparisons between the EU and US it is a little silly to consider which is "more democratic" in two so different bodies (and I know I'm taking this a bit too seriously). However, to go off on a tangent, it is interesting to note that the federal government of the US is based entirely on the principle of checks and balances - as working practice not just abstract theory . What is the underlying principle behind the workings of the main EU political bodies?

1/31/2005 12:14:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Steve - that's part of the problem, its a mish-mash which has evolved over time, hence the desire to start re-organising the whole lot so it's possible to get things done.

By the by, please note that this all is massively over-simplified:

At the moment, the major check remains the veto of the various member states, which means that any country can prevent every other country from doing something it doesn't like. It's sort of as if each member of the cabinet could veto any government policy they disagree with.

Also, to make an especially imperfect comparison, in effect the European Parliament acts like the House of Lords is meant to in the British parliament, reading through and amending legislation and thus (supposedly) preventing anything too mental from getting passed into law.

Then of course, there's also scrutiny by the Council of Ministers (technically known as the Council of the European Union - although this should not be confused with the Council of Europe, which is nothing much to do with the EU, or the European Council, which is made up of the heads of the member states and provides an extra layer of scrutiny).

The Council of Ministers usually divides into nine "formations" to analyse and discuss specific policy areas. It's a vaguely similar idea to parliamentary select committees, only unlike them the council also gets to vote on legislation in its capacity as a supposedly impartial body for scrutinising proposals. The Council as a whole votes, and usually has to do so unanimously (qualified majority voting applies in certain areas, but this has to be a majority both of member states and the EU population, making it tricky to force things through).

On top of that, you have the various legal institutions which could, like in Britain, rule that EU policies are against the law, and thus force another revision.

In other words, there's quite a few of these checks and balances in the EU - arguably more, in fact, than there are in either Britain or the US.

1/31/2005 01:04:00 pm  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

I fear you miss one major difference in the two systems.
In the US the executive does not have the power to propose legislation. That is reserved to Congress.
In the EU, the Parliament does not have the power to propose legislation, that is reserved to the Commission.
Very different balance of power there.

1/31/2005 01:57:00 pm  
Blogger Alex said...

...not that the US executive is ever lacking for someone to propose legislation it likes. In fact, given that in practice the presidency is united with half of Congress by party and patronage, you could argue that the executive has a virtual power to propose legislation.

On the same theme, you could describe the British parliamentary system as a "virtual presidency" - the combination of a strongly decision-producing FPTP system and powerful party whips means that the possessor of a majority might as well be President. It's noticeable that parliaments only function in the way we like to think they do when the government and opposition are within spitting distance of each other electorally.

1/31/2005 03:03:00 pm  
Blogger Steve Lavington said...

Both good points. There is a clear structure to US government lacking in the British set-up that has left a Prime Minister with a strong and loyal majority somewhat overwhelming power. In the context of the EU, the lack of such a structure makes for a somewhat overwhelming mess from the layman's perspective. In other words I still can't work out what's going on, despite Nosemonkey's very kind attempts to break it down.

It doesn't matter how democratic or fair an institution is, if it lacks clarity then people (including myself) will be suspicious. To go back, once more, to the US system, even the dumbest redneck can understand the idea of electing a president (even if this doesn't work out in *cough* 2000 *cough* practice).

2/01/2005 10:15:00 am  
Blogger Harkonnendog said...

I'm no expert on the EU, so maybe I'm missing something here... I apologize if I am. Having said that, I think there's an obvious and important difference between the elections of the presidents.

In the U.S. system Americans do vote directly for the president. And, while the electoral college of each state hypothetically CAN ignore the will of the people, they don't. They vote for whoever the people of the state they represent chose. The fact that a majority of Americans voted for Gore and he wasn't elected is a non-sequitir.

The equivalent, in the EU, would be if the people of Britian, France, etc, voted directly on who the EU president would be, and THEN the heads of those various countries voted for the EU president based on the will of the people of the countries they represented.

My understanding of the EU is that this does NOT happen. There is a massive buffer between the EU commission and the people of the countries of the individual states. This creates a ruling class inured, to an unacceptable degree, to the will of the people.

2/01/2005 08:14:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Harkonnendog (Frank Herbert fan, eh?), don't worry - as mentioned in one of the comments above, I was largely taking the piss. But the major point is that, as you acknowledge, hypothetically the Electoral College can ignore the will of the voters.

Technically - and only technically - this means that the people don't directly elect the president, they elect other people to do so on their behalf. It's certainly stretching the point - a lot - but as the Electoral College voters don't have to vote for the candidate the majority of the people of their state have voted for, this is vaguely - but only vaguely - comparable to the British people electing a government which then chooses a commission representative on their behalf.

But again, as I say, I was largely taking the piss. And at least Americans get a say in choosing the head of their executive - in Britain we have no say whatsoever in who becomes Prime Minister unless we are members of the party to which he/she belongs at the time they are bidding for the leadership. But that's another argument altogether...

2/01/2005 08:48:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We do know the leaders of each party and can choose to vote for them or not. The leader of the winning party then becomes Prime Minister; unfortunately at the next election the choice is not great.

On the point of a states commissioner, are not the rules changing for the next commision each state suggests three people it feels would make good commissioners, and the president chooses the one he wants?

2/02/2005 12:20:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Ken - as I've pointed out before, you can only vote for Blair if you live in Sedgefield, Howard if you live in Folkestone etc. Part of the reason why our democracy is so buggered at the moment is that people are looking at the leadership, not their local MPs. The electorate is treating General Elections as if they were US presidential elections, and voting for who they want as the government / Prime Minister when they should be voting for their local MP. If they did that, the Tories would be much better off - their individual candidates can be halfway decent, they're just let down by the leadership - and we'd have a healthy opposition to prevent Blair and his cronies from buggering about all the time.

And yes, the plan is currently to remove the "one member one commissioner" system with the next Commission. But even if only 2/3rds of member states get to choose a commissioner, it's still more democratic than the US cabinet, where not one single state gets to choose a representative.

(And please, let's also not forget I'm being deliberately facile...)

2/02/2005 12:37:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not think we disagree with the state of the British system, I would say however that we do not vote for the leader, but the party policy as set out in their manifesto, or simply because we have always voted that way or to keep some other party out. The reason we vote for the party and not the candidate, is simply because the party controls the MP when elected, it is the party that is to blame by demanding party discipline. I note for instance that Blair is using a three line whip in the EU Referendum debate next week, in fact a very small number of people can use the party system to get through just about anything they want. I do not defend that position and agree that we should vote for our representative but no matter what their policies, they do not have much of a voice in what happens.

I think you misunderstood my point re; the commision, the point you mention is entirely different, I believe that from 2009 each state instead of sending their chosen commissioner will have to nominate three people, the commission president will then choose his preferred candidate.

2/02/2005 06:16:00 pm  
Blogger Harkonnendog said...

There's a great post over at NewSisyphus about how the U.S. system and European sytems resulted in the difference between America and Europe and Canada today. Basically it says that all the West had the same generation in '68, but that in America that generation couldn't take and hold power as well as it did elsewhere because the U.S. sytem has more checks. I always thought it was a single man, Ronald Reagan, who took the U.S. on a divergent path, but according to the Newsysphus it was partly a result of the sytem. And, if anything, it argues that the parliamentary system is more responsive to the will of the people.

that post is here.
great read. great site, too, though it may not be this board's PBR's cup of tea.

2/02/2005 07:39:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Ken - considering how split the country is over the constitution, it's impossible to say what the system will be in four years' time. But even if the member states get to nominate a range of candidates, it's more input than the US states have in the makeup of the cabinet...

Harkonnendog - interesting link, ta. Makes some good points - although I think they're rather over-estimating the impact of the Muslim vote in Europe.

And for the record, most of us at Europhobia may not be fans of Bush (and would all probably be labelled "leftists" by the standards of the US), but we're all fans of America in the broader sense.

2/03/2005 10:44:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not think we can proceed on that basis; the present system is as I have described and is set to happen in 2009. By the way I am not attempting to argue against you hypothesis that the EU is more democratic than the USA, I feel it is not really pertinent to my basic disagreement with the EU.

2/03/2005 03:40:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Frans - welcome etc. I can't remember who said it (probably Churchill, knowing him), but the whole "democracy isn't a perfect political system, but it's the best one we've got" thing springs to mind.

Unfortunately, if you suggest democracy doesn't always work, there are always going to be accusations that you're arguing for totalitarianism. Not true, of course - we just want something that works better... What that is I have no idea, but this much is sure - whoever comes up with a better system than democracy will instantly become the single most influential person in the planet's history. It's not exactly easy...

2/06/2005 03:02:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Frans - I did have a flick through, but sorry - didn't see that page. I totally agree that direct elections are flawed - especially first past the post direct elections. Proportional representation is slightly better, but then we have the problem of missing out on the benefits of a specific local representative. (Not that many people take advantage of having one - it seems most people think that if their MP is not the candidate they voted for that they won't receive any help from them, which is yet another example of how people don't understand how the political system works).

The trouble still remains that if you push for indirect elections there will be accusations that you are removing the franchise from people, or that you are acting all paternalistic and saying that the people are too stupid to use their votes wisely.

Personally, I'd say that you wouldn't take someone to a football match or a card game and ask them to start playing before they know the rules.

If people don't know how their political system works, they don't know the issues involved, or they don't know what the candidate they are voting for actually stands for, I'd say that they aren't really in a position to vote wisely. Considering how vital the use of votes is in a democracy, this is a constant source of frustration and worry.

Indirect elections - if you could work out a precise system and explain it to the electorate well enough so that they don't think they are being cheated out of their democratic voice - could well be a handy solution. After all, everyone surely wants a government which is best able to fulfill its duties towards the people. If the people elect someone incapable of doing the job, this may be democratic, but they will end up worse off.

My ideal solution - as you mention on your blog - is to scrap the party system altogether. It only confuses matters. Coalitions of representatives with similar views is obviously important for the smooth running of government, but the party system seems far too rigid - especially when the whips get involved. For Britain, I'd prefer a return to the briefly-extant early 18th century system where the equivalent of a Prime Minister could pick his cabinet out of the whole range of MPs - based on their abilities, not their party allegiance.

Sadly, however, these days party loyalty seems more important than ability - which is why the likes of Robin Cook, Glenda Jackson, Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo have been lounging around on the backbenches in the House of Commons for the last few years, rather than actually helping their respective parties to do their best for the country as a whole.

2/12/2005 12:16:00 pm  

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