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Is EU democracy possible?

J Clive Matthews
24 September 2007
Jose Manuel Barroso

At last week's Lib Dem conference, European Commission president Jose Mauel Barroso again made noises that have now become familiar to all EU-watchers - he talked about the desperate need for reform of the EU.

"Europe," says the unelected head of the unelected Commission, the vast, unaccountable, bureaucracy with offices in 27 countries and sole power to initiate EU legislation, "is still seen as remote, bureaucratic and undemocratic."

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, 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.

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. Add to that the fact that the interrelationships are so damn confusing and complex, 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.

Plus, of course, there is precisely zero pan-European political dialogue below the level of the political elite (and the occasional blogger).

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.

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 Pro-/Anti- divide and the wild claims that ensue from such binary splits.

Speaking to the Lib Dem conference, Barroso acknowledges this to an extent: "we need a Reform Treaty. We need to modernise our institutions so that they are more democratic and have more coherence externally."

After all, "the EU" can be used in the press as shorthand for the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, individual commissioners, the European Central Bank, the European Court of Justice, the European Council - and sometimes even for non-EU institutions like the Council of Europe or European Court of Human Rights.

If the media get confused about precisely what it is the EU is and does - which is hardly surprising with so many similar-sounding institutions acting in parallel - how can ordinary members of the public possibly be expected to be able to form an informed opinion? Can a democracy be founded on such a base of ignorance and confusion?

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