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Myth of the week

Posted by Richard Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The European Union is democratically controlled

Part I – The Council of Ministers

In answer to the charge that "Europe is undemocratic and that power lies with unelected, faceless bureaucrats," the UK Representation of the European Commission is fond of reminding us that

The most powerful decision-making body, the Council of Ministers, is responsible through its members to parliaments and electorates in every EU country.
Furthermore, it states, "Each country decides how to make its ministers accountable." ref UKREC.

Thus, the Commission effectively argues, because Council members are responsible to their electorates, the European Union is democratically controlled. (It goes on then to describe the role of the European Parliament – we will deal with that in Part II of this piece.)

In order to explode this particular myth – that the Council somehow adds democratic legitimacy to the European Union – we simply need to look at what the Council is, and what it does.

Firstly, the Council itself. In fact there are many "Councils" each dealing with specific policy areas – like environment, transport, fisheries, agriculture, etc. Their members are the sectoral ministers from the member states, each council comprising the same number of ministers as there are member states.

So what do they do?

The answer to that is quite simple – they "legislate". That is, they receive proposals from the unelected Commission, asking them to take powers and/or responsibilities from their member state governments (or to impose obligations on their citizens).

They then turn these proposals into laws, giving the Commission the powers it asks for – often acting by qualified majority voting - thereby depriving their own governments (and/or citizens) of power.

That's it.

From then on, the Commission having been given the power, it keeps it, to exercise as it thinks fit. The Council has no further part to play in the process, unless or until the Commission comes back to ask it to amend or extend those powers (or both).

Does the Council maintain an oversight over how those powers are exercised? No.

Has the Council any power to call the Commission to account over the way it uses its powers? No.

Can the Council remove or modify those powers, if it is unsatisfied with the way the Commission is performing? No.

Does the Council even have the power to ask the Commission for information on its performance? Er… No.

So what is the Council?

In effect, it is a transfer station. On the basis of proposals from the Commission, it handles the process of taking powers from member states, packaging them up and shovelling them into the Commission, for them never to be returned.

Does it ask the electorate in advance - through an election manifesto - what powers it should hand over? No.

And is any record kept of which particular ministers vote for what, so that they can be taken to task by their electorates, if they vote the wrong way? No.

That's democratic?