Can Europe Make It?

Understanding European democracy

Minstrels must demonstrate musical nerve, whether in Brussels or in their national headquarters. If not, they are just sycophant turncoats! 

Lammert de Jong
25 April 2014

One recent Sunday morning on Dutch television, Karel De Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade, impatiently dismissed “all this talk” about a European democratic deficit: “There is nothing wrong with European democracy.” Mr. De Gucht praised the institutional design of the European Union. But, he conceded:  “[…] it may not be transparent enough; maybe people don’t follow it enough. You may not have enough debates on Europe [on Dutch television]; maybe too many on The Netherlands.” [i]

Jonathan Holslag is someone else who maintains that the European Union is one of the most democratic governments in the world, highlighting the role of ‘our’ national parliaments, the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the Citizen Initiative: “There is no question of a European democratic deficit.” Yet he also concludes that we cannot expect European citizens to get excited about the European Union: it does not answer their most immediate concerns, nor does the Union point the way to a better future (Holslag, 2014, 548).[ii] But can the European Union be a truly democratic institution without the engagement of the public?

How do citizens themselves grade the quality of their European citizenship. Do ‘the institutions’ of the Union make sense, especially when it comes to defining and exercising his citizenship? These institutions were generated and constitutionalized in the course of a European integration to which historians, insiders and practitioners are privy. They have become subjects of study in an ever-growing hall of European academe. One member of the European Parliament avers that, however intricate the operation of the European institutions have become, there is always a historical explanation that makes sense of this institutional labyrinth.[iii] But in the process, public comprehension has been grossly neglected.  

This is true above all of The Council -  that ‘complex and chameleon like beast’[iv] -  caught in the complex interrelations of European and national democracy. The Council dumbfounds the public. This body represents the 28 member-states in the process of European legislation. It has to be understood, I would argue as a European Chamber of Wandering Minstrels.

The Council

It consists of national government ministers from each EU member state representing the member-state governments and, as such, indirectly the national publics. The Council negotiates and adopts EU legislation in co-decision with the European Parliament. The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) established equal legislative power between The Council and the European Parliament; they are co-legislators in a bicameral system.

The Council constitutes a hybrid of positions. In their home-countries, the national minister is part of the executive body of government. At European level, these ministers represent their home-countries in The Council. Within the European context the national minister changes from being a member-state government minister to a European co-legislator. In The Council these ministers carry a different number of votes, corresponding to the size of the population they represent. Once any given European legislation has been adopted, these ministers make another switch into being the bearers of the Union’s legislation to their respective governments, national parliaments and public. Subsequently, the government of the national member-state becomes the executor of European Union legislation.

The Council votes either by unanimity or by qualified majority voting (QMV). [v] For a qualified majority vote (QMV) the votes of the members of The Council are weighed in accordance with the size of the population, though adjusted, so that small countries are relatively over-represented in the vote.[vi] Starting in October 2014, the QMV system will be based on the principle of a double majority of states and population. This intricate system brilliantly protects smaller countries against majoritarian rule by a few larger countries (Habermas, 2013, 17) [vii] . Yet its complexity beggars common sense. The simplicity of a one-man-one-vote majority does not hold in a democracy where majoritarian rule is moderated by the rights of a pluralistic constituency. Also in The Council the fine art of political achievement is embedded in compromise. We are forced to find a more imaginative vocabulary to express what’s going on the wheeling and dealing of The Council.

A European chamber of wandering minstrels

Framing The Council as a European Chamber of Minstrels, wandering between the political core of the nation-state and the heart of the European Union, might clarify its democratic format.

A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events; they also carried news around. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. The term minstrel derives from many sources, including an adjectival form of Latin minister or ‘attendant’ from minus, ‘lesser.’ A mobile Chamber of Wandering Minstrels, representing one day the member-state public in Brussels, and carrying another day the Union’s law and directives home, gives you the picture.

A Minstrel can be associated with different national repertoires, 28 for each member-state (for the moment). With a range of thematic subjects, such as education, economic and financial affairs, justice and home affairs, agriculture, transport and many more. And with different audiences, at home, and in Brussels.

Minstrels vary in weight, depending on the relative number of people of the member-state they represent. All Minstrels are equal, but some more than others. Malta counts only 3 while the Big Three (Germany, United Kingdom and France) are blessed with 29 musicians. Leaving home for Brussels, the Minstrels have rehearsed over and again the national repertoire in reaction to a proposal of The Commission in Brussels, fine-tuned with national parliament and media. Some of the minstrels are under heavy pressure to perform old time tearjerkers such as Sweet Sovereignty Forever True. Moreover, national parliaments may furnish these Minstrels with yellow, orange or red cards. These cards express varying degrees of a member-state’s disagreement with proposed European legislation, strengthening the impact of the Minstrel and amplifying the sound of his instruments.

When arriving in Brussels, the 28 Minstrels at first play the national repertoire of the country they represent in a European context, congregating together. At some point the conductor of this thematic orchestra exerts pressure to construe a European harmony. This takes time, often a great deal of time since the conductor of the European orchestra rotates among the member states every six months. The conductor is given a rather limited score, which requires improvisation, and even more practice. He has to cope with so many choir members, so many voices, altogether 345, split over 28 national constituencies.

After several hearings and readings of the original composition, the conductor creates a score of a European harmony that is defined by a qualified majority voice (QMV).  As a matter of course, fine-tuning a qualified majority of voices often results in a weak and subdued harmony when set against the original thematic clarion call of The Commission. Ostentatious big number Minstrels are held back by the conductor to allow Minstrels-lite to be heard, following the golden majoritarian rule that voices of minorities must be integrated into the score.   

Returning home from Brussels with the score of this European harmony in their pockets, each Minstrel now faces a national audience that still remembers the repertoire performed before he left home. The Minstrel must now perform the European harmony that has been fine-tuned in Brussels, of course preluded by “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” to be followed by the national anthem.

A critical test of a Minstrel’s stature is the moment when that European harmony is infiltrated into a national score. Occasionally a homecoming Minstrel jockeys Sweet Sovereignty Forever True with the European harmony, trying to be nice to a nationalist public. This actually is an existential perversion of a Minstrel’s performance, creating national confusion and anti-European sentiment. Clogged up with ‘sovereignty’ tunes, these Minstrels can’t memorize or embellish the work of others. They blame and shame Brussels for a European Diktat over the national domain, when they themselves have been complicit in the composition of the European harmony. Minstrels must demonstrate musical nerve, whether in Brussels or in their national headquarters. If not, they are just sycophant turncoats!

The idea of The Council, sitting and palavering in Brussels, is a misnomer, when set against the continuous journey of its members, back and forth. The Council could be framed as a dynamic institution that is continuously on the move to make European democracy work – a perpetual demonstration that its music will be composed ‘as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen’ - to paraphrase article 10 (3) of the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht, 1992). [viii]

In bygone times, royalty and high society retained Minstrels. But today, they are the attendants of the public: We are the Chamber! National parliaments, media and publics must be on the alert. We must fact-check a Minstrel’s tour and wanderings, at home, en route, in Brussels and back home again. In addition to the European Parliament that represents the popular vote, we should understand from this account of the Chamber, that the democratic character of the European Union hinges on the harmonious participation of the European


[i] Buitenhof, Television, Political Debate On Sunday Morning, 2 March 2014.

[ii] Holslag, Jonathan (2014) De Kracht van het Paradijs. Hoe Europa kan overleven in de Aziatische Eeuw. Antwerpen: De Bezige Bij.

[iii] Bas Eickhout, Interview, annex the European Parliament, Brussels, 20 February 2014.

[iv] Curtin, Deirdre (2014) “Challenging Executive Dominance in European Democracy.” In: The Modern Law Review. Volume 77, January 2014, No. 1.

[v] Source: Council of Minister (Europe) City University of London. Politics.co.uk http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/council-of-ministers-europe

[vi] The votes of the Union’s members are weighted as follows: Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom: 29; Spain and Poland: 27; Romania: 14;
The Netherlands: 13;
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12; Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10; Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4;
Malta: 3

[vii] Habermas, Jürgen (2013) Een toekomst voor Europa. Edited by Paul Schnabel. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom.

[viii] The Treaty on European Union (TEU), Maastricht 7 February 1992.

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