Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 

Is the EU fit for purpose?

Posted by Jason O on Jul 21, 2010 in European Union |

There are presidents. And then there are Presidents!

There are presidents. And then there are Presidents!

Interesting piece by Charlemagne in The Economist here. It raises a point about the EU, a nagging doubt that has been nibbling away with me since the first Lisbon referendum. I’ve met quite a few people who work or have worked either in or with the EU institutions, and whereas many of them are sound, decent and committed individuals, I’ve been alarmed at the amount of people I met who seem to live in a EU-Brussels bubble that is detached from the ordinary lives of Europeans. The old adage does hold true: If you believe in European Unity, stay the hell away from Brussels.

The problem is that most Europeans are no longer sure what the EU is actually for. They say they are against “Brussels” but try and take away the day to day stuff like free travel and trade and you’d actually have a fight on your hands. Even the euro, which gets demonised by eurosceptics, is nowhere near the object of loathing within the eurozone that it is in Britain. It’s true, of course, that it is flawed by not being supported by a proper fiscal union (something many eurosceptics pointed out at the beginning) but it seems to me that most europeans would be quite happy to retain the multinational currency if it could be made work. Of course, many moderate eurosceptics (and there is such a thing) say that many of those rights could be assured without the EU, but you do need some form of central administration to make this stuff work. They poo-poo this, but it’s a fact, and because we are only asking the EU to do things that we expect national governments to do. Does the EU pass directives and regulations on food packaging? Yes it does. But show me the eurosceptic national minister who will stand up and tell his home audience “Good news! From today, we shall no longer be telling you whether there are peanuts in the food you buy! You are now free! Except for those of you who will be killed by them!”

It isn’t helped by the fact that no one speaks for Europe. I’m old enough to remember Jacques Delors eloquently explaining (and getting coverage doing it) what Europe was actually for. He was so effective that a coalition of nervous Brits and egotistical French leaders have conspired to ensure that never again will Europe have a leader who could match them in stature.  

The EU needs a fit-for-purpose litmus test. It needs to approach every initative from the simple proposition “Are we doing something that could be done better by the member states?” The answer has to be, in many instances, yes. Why is poverty, for example, discussed at an EU level? Surely issues of wealth distribution, and what to do, if anything, are an issue of national culture, and something that can be little effected at Brussels level? If the European Court told us that we must raise VAT by 10% to fund housing for the homeless we’d tell them to mind their own business, so let’s call a spade a spade here.

The problem, as pointed out by Charlemagne, is that many of the solutions proposed by the dwellers of the bubble, such as making the European Parliament the centre of the EU, have absolutely no appeal outside of Brussels and Strasbourg, because they do not reflect the reality of life. What is the point voting in elections to an institution which is run by the same three party coalition no matter what the result? 

I have, in the past, advocated that the President of the Commission and Council should be combined and directly elected by the people of Europe. Opponents of such a plan have always said that such a plan cannot work without a European “demos”, in that how can a voter in Galway decide between, say, A Greek Socialist, a German Liberal and and Dutch Christian Democrat? I accept, it won’t be easy, but it is not impossible, and the end objective is having a man or woman in Brussels whose first loyalty is to keeping the voter in Galway happy and informed. Would that really be such a bad thing?

9 Comments

Eurogoblin
Jul 21, 2010 at 10:06 am

Absolutely, 100% agree with every word you’ve just written (even down to the final suggestion of merging the Council and Commission Presidents and having the position directly elected). I wrote about much the same topic this morning – that the EU is at its best when it’s decentralising power, not when it’s trying to create greater “political union.” Grahnlaw takes, perhaps, a different view (which he argues well) – but the fact that the pro-EU crowd isn’t automatically the same as the pro-federalism crowd is, in my mind, a healthy thing.


 
Jason O
Jul 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

Funnily enough, I’d have no problem regarding myself as a federalist. I often find that UK eurosceptics oppose federalism because they believe it to mean how the UK is run, that is, very centralised. The fact is, true European federalists have to be willing to accept that power has to be able to flow sometimes back to the nation states, or even lower as is becoming more the case.


 
Eurocentric
Jul 21, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I agree with a lot of what your saying – the principle of subsidiarity definitely needs to be strengthened.

Perhaps a way of doing this would be to get the relevant national parliamentary committees more involved in shaping Council decisions. That way, national parliaments would be more engaged in the decision-making process so national parliaments would be more likely to scrutinize European proposals better and to use the subsidiarity card better. (Plus networking between committee parliamentarians mean that alliance-building to get the 1/3 of national parliaments necessary for the subsidiarity card is a more workable process).

However, I disagree over merging the Commission and European Council presidencies. I think a parliamentary model is much better, given that most member states are parliamentary democracies and the diveristy of Europe is better reflected in a parliamentary model rather than an election focused on one person. Of course, the Commission nominations would need to be free of national government interference, and the EP should have the power to approve each one individually.


 
Jason O
Jul 21, 2010 at 7:48 pm

The parliamentary tradition has given us the European Parliament, an institution that commands the loyalty of no one who is not either an MEP or would like to be an MEP. An election focussed on one person would give us friction and division, which is what Europe needs: A grand row about its future.


 
Eurocentric
Jul 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

And why couldn’t that be achieved by EP groups putting up rival Commission President candidates? It would raise the profile of both the EP elections and involve people in the selection of a Commission. Surely it’s important to get people more involved in the election of the EP, when it’s practically equal with the Council?


 
Jason O
Jul 22, 2010 at 4:46 am

In a direct election, there will be at least one high profile candidate who will end up being more Eurosceptic than the others because he/she will realise that’s where at least 40% of the votes are, and we need that. European integration needs a punch up between integrationists and sceptics. THe EP will just nominate four integrationists. I’m an integrationist myself, but I want us to win a fair election, not rig the ballot paper beforehand. Don’t forget, no one wins a majority in EP elections, so the winner will always be an EPP/PES compromise candidate. With a direct election, anything can happen.


 
Eurogoblin
Jul 22, 2010 at 8:34 am

Agreed. There would also be somebody directly representing the people of Europe (and elected on European issues, rather than national issues as is the case with MEPs). Parliamentary elections will always be seen as second-order national elections – a way to support (or, more likely, to punish) the ruling party in your own country.


 
Clément
Jul 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm

The idea that the so-called “demos” has to precede any political framework is a puzzling common place. I’m rather inclined to think the contrary: it is only after creating a democracy of European scale that the “demos” will become manifest.


 

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