Monday, 23 November 2009

Undemocratic Appointments to the EU: No Surprise Given the Approach the UK Favoured

It is bitterly ironic that now that the president of the EU and other 'ministers' or high representatives have been appointed for the EU that Britons are whining about the process.  The British have in fact always favoured a less democratic approach to the EU as Tony Benn has long noted, there has been a 'democratic deficit'.  This goes back to the period 1978-9 when the European Parliament was being created.  It is not like most parliaments in that it is not the place for legislative initiative, this insteads come from the European Commission, effectively the civil service of the EU, and like most civil services members are appointed rather than elected.  Britain was more than happy for the European Parliament to be toothless and by the early 1980s it was clear that the Council of Ministers, made up of the prime ministers of the member states was to be the real driving force of the community.  This is why you tend to see legislation for the EU coming out of those meetings hosted by the prime minister of whichever country was currently holding the presidency of the EU.  The British liked this approach because it made them feel they were yielding no sovereignty to the EU and in fact that they were pulling back some degree of sovereignty lost in simply joining what was then the EEC.  It could be argued that the Council of Ministers is democratic as the members of it were elected in their individual countries, but in fact it meant the electorate did not have a say on how the EU is being run.  In addition, this simple assumption that the prime minister was the natural person to sit on the Council created the kind of atmosphere in which last week's deal to appoint a president seemed quite natural.

Of course,  new president, Herman van Rampuy was elected prime minister by the Belgian people and you could argue that he has gone through a partial democratic process.  I think he should have his position ratified by the European Parliament.  A better process would have been for the parliament to elect the president and the other ministers.  Many countries have an indirect election of presidents, notably the USA where the decision comes through a college system rather than directly electing the president as happens in France.  However, because of the sustained weakness of the European Parliament, encouraged by the British for the past thirty years, such an approach was ruled out for selecting a president.

The British are not a politically sophisticated nation.  Most people have little understanding of the UK political system and a large majority of the potential electorate never votes.  They argue that they 'don't do politics' but then turn round demanding very political changes such as the expelling of immigrants and the return of the death penalty.  To the British the kind of balances which are sort when a coalition government comes to power are an alien concept.  The UK has not had a coalition in 64 years so unlike in neighbouring states we have not come used to how these systems work, so they seem even more improper to us than countries which do truly engage with their political systems.  Of course, the UK is currently the least democratic of all the member states of the EU in having half of its parliament appointed predominantly for life rather than elected.  This is one of the comic things about Lady Ashton becoming high representative for foreign issues.   She was appointed head of a local health authority an unelected position and then was made a life peer and appointed commissioner for trade before being appointed to her new role.  Only in the UK where members of parliament, i.e. members of the House of Lords, can be appointed could such a career path happen.  This is why it is ironic when right-wing commentators like Daniel Hannan whine on about the lack of democracy in the EU process.  The problem begins here in the UK and its undemocratic system, something the Conservatives have always backed.  Our undemocratic tendencies have led us to support rather than challenge when these things are built into the EU structure.

Of course, it is handy for the right-wingers to portray the EU as undemocratic.  By being unwilling to engage with the European Parliament which has representatives directly elected by the British public, they have hampered the one element which could promote democracy.  This is partly because they have a patronising attitude to the British public and as a result the electorate is going towards the demagogues of the UKIP and the BNP who offer politics on the level of the average person with lots of shouting and jumping up and down that Britons love.  We want policy stemming from indignation rather than rational thought.  All of these difficulties are great for those who want the UK to leave the EU.  Some have a fantasy of entering NAFTA others want us to simply float on the edge of Europe trying to get our goods in passed the EU tariff barriers or expect to re-invent trade with former colonies the bulk of whom need development aid and are not in a strong position to buy from the UK certainly not when compared to the millions of well-off EU consumers.  Even independent states Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are in the EEA and Switzerland has numerous bilateral deals with EU, not its member states.

As always the British want to have their cake and eat it.  They insist on democracy in the EU but have always favoured a structure which actually weakens the most democratic part of the union.  They want democracy elsewhere in Europe but also want to retain half their parliament unelected and do not even get me on to having an unelected head of state and the fact that so much legislation is implemented and extended through royal prerogative (I know it is delegated to the prime minister who is elected, but it allows him/her to introduce numerous laws without parliamentary scrutiny which in itself is undemocratic).  The bulk of British people have always been told the EU does them harm, but where would the majority of items in Lidl and Aldi be if we were outside the EU?  If we want to have more of a say in what happens in the EU we need to engage thoroughly with it (the UK always has only half of its quota of European Commission staff because so few people apply and the number has to be made up by English speakers from other European states, even from ones outside the EU); heckling from the sidelines achieves nothing.  Support the European Parliament and ensure it gains the powers it needs to democratically monitor and police the EU otherwise the back-room deals the UK has always favoured before will continue to dominate.

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