Europe lost and found

Gisela Stuart
3 June 2009

A Chinese politician once told me that there are two ways of governing, which can be compared to running a restaurant by periodically changing either the party in power (i.e. the cook, as in the west) or the policies (i.e. the menu, as in China). An extension of the analogy might see the European Union as like a restaurant that changes neither. Gisela Stuart is a member of parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, England, representing the Labour Party

Also by Gisela Stuart in openDemocracy:

"The body of democracy" (15 November 2005)

"Referenda: democracy vs elites" (18 June 2008)

The eve of the elections to the European parliament - to be held across the twenty-seven member-states of the European Union on on 4-7 June 2009 - highlights this immobilism, and focuses renewed attention on the flaws in the EU's fundamental democratic structures.

Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform makes a valiant effort to argue for the importance of both the votes and the institution (see "Europe's elections: why they matter", 1 June 2009). No one - certainly no democratic politician - would contest the value of citizens' participation in such a process and their free choice between candidates. But what is missing in his case is awareness of the EU's wider democratic vacuum, something that casts a shadow over the forthcoming electoral process.

This is not the perspective of a "eurosceptic" - a label I certainly don't accept, for I neither question the benefits of collective action at European level nor advocate Britain's withdrawal. But to find fault with the democratic system as it operates at European level is not to be "against democracy" as such, but to want a better one. How to get there?

It starts with recognition that defining "democracy" is not straightforward. The rule of law; freedom from arbitrary powers; absence of corruption; respect for human rights - all these are facets of liberal order, are also necessary if not sufficient conditions for democracy. Elections are important, but responsibility and accountability in all these areas too are also vital.

The mechanisms of European democracy may in this respect look impressive. The organs of the European Union are a directly elected European parliament, a council of ministers composed of (democratically elected) ministers in the member-states, and the European commission (whose members are nominated by member-states to act in the interests of the union). There is also a European Court of Justice to oversee the rule of law. Overall, the union is said to have only those powers which member-states have expressly handed over.

But at heart there is a fatal lack of articulation and clarity between the levels of power. The EU is not a federal state. If it were, the powers of the centre would be more restrained and there would be more checks and balances. But neither is it a supranational institution sharing sovereignty in a modern, progressive and forward-looking way (whatever that means).

This is seen in European elections. Members of the European parliament (MEPs) are elected on closed (national) party-lists. They are accountable primarily to their party hierarchy for the ranking on the list and not their constituents. As there are no true pan-European parties, the elections are fought  not on the basis of what the party does in the European context, but by the political parties' domestic performance.

In national politics, elections tend to produce a definite result. The people know who is in charge, who forms the government. If, after four or five years,  they don't like what has been achieved they can replace their leaders. But in European elections - where the EU's political "families" bear little or no resemblance to the national tickets - no such clarity is possible.

The lack of articulation and clarity continues in the Europe-wide legislative process. This is so long-winded that when something finally is implemented it's virtually impossible to trace or hold to account those who first made the decision.

Three reforms would be needed to redress these problems. First, every legislative proposal should have in its open preamble a statement as to why this measure cannot be achieved in the national arena. This would reverse the presumption of the "subsidiarity test".

Second, every incoming commission and parliament should start with a clean sheet; and any proposal that has not succeeded at the end of the five-year period would fall with the election. 

Third, there should be a mechanism for returning competences to member- states (see "The body of democracy", 15 November 2005). 

All these would involve changes in national politics too - in the case of Britain, ending the practice of implementing EU laws by statutory instruments. Their cumulative effect would be to introduce greater political energy, argument and clarity into European institutions. They would begin to address Europe's responsibility and accountability deficits.

But even they would leave a major problem untouched. The European Union above all lacks something vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy: an essential "demos", a "we the people" element. Until this becomes a reality - if it ever does - elections to the European parliament will not matter as much as they should.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2007)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

Hugo Brady, "Europe's elections: why they matter" (2 June 2009)


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