The European Commission is more democratic than the British cabinet

The 'democratic deficit' aside, the European parliament does a better job than the British one of scrutinising the executive
David Coombes
3 March 2010

The decline of public confidence in Parliament owes as much to the impression that what happens in the chamber of the House of Commons is remote from people’s real needs and concerns, as it does to the scandal of MPs overcharging for their expenses. Most people are aware that almost all parliamentary debate is boringly predictable, following strict party lines, while legislative measures proposed by the executive are hardly ever rejected, or even substantially amended, by MPs.

In the Commons debate on Monday 22 February, Leader of the House Harriet Harman said that she would accept a new package of modest reforms recently proposed by backbenchers, and went so far as to admit that, to restore the credibility of parliamentary proceedings, it will be necessary to reduce the power of the leaders of the majority party to manage the business of the House, and set the agenda for parliamentary business.

Not all will agree with her, however, that what is now proposed is the most far-reaching set of reforms so far. From past experience, it is very unlikely that the outcome this time will get to the root of the problem any more than previously. How could a government in office, even when facing possible defeat in an imminent general election, be willing to end the entrenched supremacy of the executive in the Westminster model of representative government?

Neither the parliamentary reformers nor the British public probably realise it, but a very refreshing alternative model of parliamentary democracy can now be seen at work in the European Union. There the European Parliament (directly elected by proportional representation) has a quite different relationship with its own executive counterpart, the European Commission.

A good example (though not one likely to be copied in Britain) is how the European Parliament, during the first six weeks of this year, conducted the remarkably inquisitive and transparent process of confirming the appointment of members of the new European Commission. Each “commissioner-designate” (nominated by the member states) had to   undergo three hours of cross-examination by specialised committee corresponding to his or her sector of responsibility, and be assessed for administrative competence, personal integrity and suitability for office at European level.

In fact, many of the questions and answers during the committee hearings amounted to a public discussion of key policy issues in each of the sectors concerned. MEPs from all political groups certainly used the opportunity to voice their disappointment with the recent performance of the EU’s executive, and indicated that they will demand much better from the new team. Indeed, if sufficiently dissatisfied with the new Commission’s performance at any time during its five-year term, Parliament can pass a vote of censure to bring the Commission’s term to a premature end. In 1999 the mere threat of such action was enough to bring down a previous Commission led by Jacques Santer. 

An early demonstration of Parliament’s ability to use muscle was the way the commissioner initially proposed by the Bulgarian government was persuaded to withdraw, in the face of parliamentary pressure behind the scenes, to be replaced by much a better qualified candidate, already identified as available by MEPs themselves. A later one was the way that, before confirming the new members of the Commission for their five-year term, Parliament obtained the agreement of the Commission’s re-appointed president, José Manuel Barroso to introduce new working arrangements which will enhance the MEPs’ capacity to hold the Commission accountable.

Barroso may, nevertheless, be considered lucky to have obtained such a substantial majority for his new team in the final plenary vote in Strasbourg on 10 February (by 488 votes to 137, with 72 abstentions). On the left especially he has been seen as a mere puppet of the neo-liberals who currently wield power in most of the EU’s member states. The most outspoken critic in the final plenary debate was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, spokesman for the greens, and currently the most prominent among a minority of MEPs not dependent on a national party for his election. The greens were joined by French liberals and socialists to vote against Barroso II. Perhaps many of those who voted for simply realised that further delay in appointment of a new executive would be disastrous for the European Union in the midst of an enduring global economic crisis.

On the other hand, both the hearings and the final debate on appointment of a new Commission suggest that, armed with the additional legislative powers granted in the Lisbon Treaty, MEPs are going to make a significant impact on EU policy and administration in future. A cross-party coalition seems to be emerging, including even some members of the centre-right majority European People’s Party, that is willing to go much further than the national governments of the EU to stand up to global corporate power, and to the USA, when necessary to defend the rights of European consumers, citizens and workers. Later in the same week as the new Commission was approved, the Parliament annulled a draft agreement between the EU and USA, originally justified as an “anti-terrorist” measure, which would have allowed the Americans to monitor bank transfers by private citizens in Europe using the SWIFT facility.

Most encouraging for the future of parliamentary democracy is the visible impact of a new multi-national cohort of lively, very engaged, younger MEPs, more often than not women, keen to work across conventional party lines on real, often highly technical, issues of policy. A new style of parliamentary politics thus seems to be emerging at European level which  contrasts with what we have come to expect from adversarial politics on the Westminster model.

Indeed, many current British MEPs do not seem comfortable with this kind of well-informed, constructive and forward-looking public discourse (though ironically it is more often than not conducted in English as the preferred common language). Instead the UKIP and Conservative MEPs, increasingly indistinguishable from each other and their extremist east European allies, seem mainly obsessed, like Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby, with re-staging old wars.

Short of reform, the “Mother of Parliaments” increasingly seems to belong to the past. Meanwhile, a whole new generation of parliamentary democrats operating out of Brussels and Strasbourg, skilfully exploit the strength that comes from their own diversity of national experience to bring people’s real concerns back into politics.

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