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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On the source of the EU’s democratic deficit and the need for action

A telling paragraph in Der Spiegel which fits in neatly with my onging “blame the European Council” approach when it comes to pretty much everything that’s wrong with the way the EU works. (Emphasis mine):

“European Central Bank head Mario Draghi provided what was perhaps the most urgent appeal to euro-zone political leaders on Thursday in comments delivered to the European Parliament in Brussels. He said the structure of the euro as it stands now is ‘unsustainable unless further steps are taken’ and also criticized European heads of state and government for not being clear about their common currency strategy. Leaders, he said, ‘must clarify what is the vision … what is the euro going to look like a certain number of years from now?’ Draghi also said that the ECB was unable to save the euro on its own and could not ‘fill the vacuum of the lack of action by national governments.’

And then on to Project Syndicate, where former IMF man Daniel Gros, now Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, adds to the case in a piece perhaps tellingly entitled Democracy versus the eurozone:

“all of those grandiose plans to create a political union to support the euro with a common fiscal policy cannot work as long as EU member countries remain both democratic and sovereign. Governments may sign treaties and make solemn commitments to subordinate their fiscal policy to EU rules (or to be more precise, to the wishes of Germany and the European Central Bank). But, in the end, the ‘people’ remain the real sovereign, and they can choose to ignore their governments’ promises and reject any adjustment program from ‘Brussels.’

“…As long as member states remain fully sovereign, no one can fully reassure investors that in the event of a eurozone breakup, some states will not simply refuse to pay, or at least refuse to pay for the others. It is not surprising that bonds issued by the European Financial Stability Facility (the eurozone’s rescue fund) are trading at a substantial premium over German debt.”

And then to Business Insider for a bit of potential contradiction to the above, with a solid case that Independent Central Banking has been a failure and (my interpretation/paraphrase) we should stop pretending that Economics is a science where the “best” option can be determined by dispassionate, objective, technocrats (aside: this quantitative analysis of economists’ views of what the eurozone should do next is a perfect illustration of how little economic consensus there is – your take on the best move will be as much ideological as based on “facts”):

“the choice between inflation and unemployment is a political, not a technical choice. What’s ‘better’? To screw debtors or creditors? To make millions unemployed or to ‘debase the currency’? Those are very important questions. More important, they’re questions that cannot be solved by economics. They can be informed by them, but at the end of the day what you prefer is going to come down to your own moral value system. In other words, it’s a political choice. And the way we make political choices in modern countries is through the democratic process, not through unelected, unaccountable technocrats…

“It’s a political choice, which means that the authorities that make that choice for the whole society need to be appointed, and held accountable, by a political, democratic process.”

But, of course, the powers that be at the head of the EU and eurozone – the members of the European Council – are *not* elected. Not to that position, at least. The European Council is made up of the governments of the European Union’s member states – it is only to *national* positions that they have been elected, not to EU-wide responsibilities. And they are answerable to electorates only at a national, member-state level, not an EU-wide one. They have nothing to fear from anyone except their own, national electorates – and so no need to worry or care about what any European voter thinks about them outside their national boundaries.

This is why consensus and agreement is so hard to reach at European Council level. The focus on member state-level concerns leads to parochial posturing, with one eye firmly focused on the opinion polls back home, not the will of the people continent-wide.

Think of the various heads of state at the European Council as being representatives of their countries’ electorates, then they become little more than grandiose versions of Members of Parliament, sent to represent and act on behalf of their constituents’ best interest.

Yet the way the European Council works is as if Members of Parliament were elected all as independents, rather than members of parties with clear manifesto pledges, and then head to parliament to work in total isolation from each other. It’s representative democracy from the very early days, where loose, easily-broken factions rather than more solidly formalised parties ruled the day.

Now I hate party politics for many reasons, but party political systems do have one key advantage that would become immensely handy at a pan-European level. They tend to oversimplify complex issues into binary choices, and can impose a certain uniformity of opinion on diversely-minded elected representatives by helping to highlight their similarities of opinion over their differences. They can provide focus.

And focus is something we sorely need right now. Enough of the dithering – we need action. At this stage, it almost doesn’t matter what that action is, we’ve been prevaricating for so long that anything is better than nothing.

The reason we have governments at national level – be they one majority party in charge or a coalition – is that decisions need to be taken and implemented for the whole that parts may disagree with, or nothing ever happens. No majority, no coalition consensus? That leads to stagnation. Which may be fine for a while (witness Belgium, happily surviving without a government for a record 541 days without many people even really noticing) – but is a serious danger in times of crisis.

This is why most political systems end up with one person at the top to provide direction – to herd the party/coalition that forms the government towards some kind of decision. Because some decision is better than none at all.

Someone needs to take a decision on what to do sooner or later. The problem we have in the EU is that there is no one to take these vital decisions. Why? Because the governments of the member states don’t want anyone to boss them around.

Think of the European Council as a Cabinet – who is the figurehead? Who’s the Prime Minister or President? Van Rompuy? Don’t make me laugh… He was appointed precisely *because* he would have no power to push the heads of state into a decision, and has zero mandate from the people. Instead, it’s the person who shouts the loudest – which has, until recently, been Angela Merkel. This is no way to conduct business.

And this is where the people come in. If the people of the European Union were to elect a president to head the European Council, that president would be the only person in the room with a pan-European democratic legitimacy. They would be able to provide direction, to push the various national governments into a single agreed course in exactly the way prime ministers and presidents do on a national level. And the heads of state would be obliged to listen to them significantly more than they are obliged to listen to the unelected, anonymous Van Rompuy.

Which is precisely why the EU’s member state governments have so consistently rejected increasing pan-EU democratic involvement. If we had an EU president directly elected by the people of the EU, they would have greater legitimacy to speak at EU level than any of the current members of the European Council. The member state governments would lose their pretence of independence and power – even if that power is illusory and that independence only, as we can see from the current crisis, gives them the ability to *not* act, rather than to take decisions for themselves…

(Update: An alternate take on the same theme from UK MEP Mary Honeyball, arguing for greater emphasis on the European Parliament. This hasn’t been allowed for the self-same reason that an elected EU president hasn’t – increased democratic legitimacy for the European Parliament would seriously undermine the power of the member state governments to set the agenda at EU level.)

(Update 2: Conor responds to this post with a strong, considered argument against an EU presidency. Well worth a read. I tend to agree that a strong European Parliament would be a more effective solution for conferring longer-term democratic legitimacy on the EU. But I also think that the implication of a strong European Parliament would be the start of an *actual* European state – and as such, it’s highly unlikely to be allowed to happen. An elected EU president, meanwhile, could work precisely *because* such a concept would be weak both culturally and institutionally (as Conor convincingly argues) – conning the member states into going for it as they’d think it couldn’t hurt them, and then acting as a stepping stone to more effective EU-level decision-making and a strengthened role for the parliament down the line. President as stepping stone to EU democracy, as it were.)

3 Comments

  1. It’s all well and good saying we should have more democratic input into decision making, but isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Just as we should have had some form of fiscal union before having a common currency, shouldn’t there be some critical number of informed voters before we give their vote much weight?

    For instance, how many referendums are decided on the actual issue at hand, and how many on how popular the EU is that week? How else do you explain the popularity of UKIP at EU elections? People aren’t voting for EU policies, they’re voting for local, national, reasons. Until that ends, giving EU institutions more of a democratic mandate is like giving a three year old nuclear launch codes.

    It’s all well and good saying that, at this point, any decision is better than no decision, but how often is that true? Isn’t there a saying in law to the effect that big dramas make for bad laws (something like that, anyway)?

    It’s also a little unfair to say that economists are divided on solutions to the eurozone crises; they’re (pretty much) all in agreement that there needs to be some form of systemic support of the periphery countries by the core (effectively, Germany); the debate is what form that support should take. Or even more so, if that sort of long-term federal support is even possible – and if it isn’t, then an orderly break-up of the Euro is much better than a disorderly one.

    You say “If the people of the European Union were to elect a president to head the European Council”… but that’s dangerously close to saying that if we had a different electorate, it would all work great. Which is what people have been saying about the EU for as long as I can remember.

  2. I’m not so sure a weak president would lead to a desire to strengthen the EP and other aspects of EU democracy to counter this rather than simply becoming disillusioned with even the elected parts of the EU, but nobody can really predict it…

  3. Pingback: The pledge for direct democracy, ‘nutty’ NGOs, a European President and the guiding hand for Burma | Leiden European Union Studies Alumni Association