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Myth of the week

Posted by Richard Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The European Union is democratically controlled

Part II – The European Parliament

In Part I, we looked at the UK Representation of the European Commission’s answer to the charge that "Europe is undemocratic and that power lies with unelected, faceless bureaucrats," and dealt with the claim that the Council of Ministers conferred a democratic element to the European Union.

In this second part, we look at the European parliament, the only directly elected institution in the EU, and assess whether it confers any democratic element to the European Union.

All the Commission claims of the parliament is that “direct elections” have “created a body with a clear mandate from the electorate”. “MEPs”, it continues, “are accountable for their work on legislation and in scrutinising the other EU institutions”.

The use of the word “mandate” in this context is interesting. It is generally held to mean the sanction given by electors to members of parliament to deal with a question before the country. In other words, the candidates for the election set out their stalls, the electors look at the rival offerings and choose between them.

In national elections, this choice has some validity because the winning party – or coalitions – go on to form a government, which then (in theory at least) executes the voters’ mandate. But in the European parliament, this cannot happen.

For a start, the election does not produce a government, so the parliament has no power or authority to execute a mandate. It cannot, for instance, decide to repeal any EU laws – it cannot even initiate any laws. Those powers lie elsewhere. Therefore, the candidates – or the parties they represent – cannot produce manifestos in any meaningful sense of the word, as they have no means by which they can deliver on promises made.

Furthermore, in a parliament of 732 members, Britain elects only 78 MEPs, and then from different parties. But even if all were from one party and were clearly set on one course of action, they do not have the numbers to dictate terms. Even as a united bloc, they are swamped by the members from other member states.

Therein lies one of the central defects of the European parliament. The essence of a parliamentary system is that it is the core of a system of representative democracy, where the members go to parliament to represent their electors’ views (and safeguard their interests). But British MEPs cannot represent the interests of their electors – there are not enough of them to do so.

Furthermore – and this strikes at the heart of the concept of a supranational parliament – there is no commonality of interest in the peoples of the member states that would enable discrete blocs to emerge that could be adequately represented by a multi-national coalition of MEPs. In other words, there is no European demos and, without that, there can be no European democracy.

As for being “accountable for their work on legislation and in scrutinising the other EU institutions”, as the UK Representation of the European Commission claims, the suggestion that the EP is “accountable” begs the question of to whom? Without any meaningful manifestos, the electorates have no yardstick (metrestick?) against which to measure the performance of their supposed representatives, so there can be no way of holding representatives to account.

Further, due to the arcane voting system in the parliament, MEP voting performances in the main (plenary) sessions are most often not recorded. By far the bulk of votes are settled by a show of hands, which means there is no record kept of who voted for what. The average voter has no ready means of determining how their MEPs behaved.

But the ultimate indictment of the system is the way that legislation goes rolling on, even when a new parliament is elected. In the UK system, when parliament is prorogued prior to an election, all outstanding legislation – not yet passed – falls. Not so in the EP. Newly elected members can and do find themselves voting on the second or third readings of laws that were introduced to the previous parliament. The names and faces may have changed – the voters may have completely shifted their allegiances – but that makes absolutely no difference to the nature of the progression of legislation through the parliament.

Then there is the scrutiny of “other EU institutions”. In fact, there is no EP scrutiny of the Council, but the only scrutiny worth a light is, in any case, of the Commission. Here, commissioners do put themselves up for questioning by MEPs but, as recalled in an earlier Blog, anyone who has seen this done knows full well what a charade this is.

The strategy is well established and cynically transparent. First you have a sympathetic "chairperson", who is able to make sure the "right" people are picked to ask questions - and also allow for the token antis (just to prove they are "democratic"). Next you pack the committee with patsies who can be relied upon to "soft-ball" the commissioner. Then, you take questions in blocks of five, so the commissioner can "cherry-pick" the bits of the package he/she wants to answer.

You also impose a time limit on the whole session, and let the commissioner waffle on as long as he/she likes, until time runs out without any of the awkward questions from the token antis being answered. And, of course, supplementaries are either not allowed or severely curtailed. As a result of this, the questioning sheds light only on this issues which the commission wants to reveal, and no serious examination every takes place. Sessions end up as an opportunity for commissioners to propagandise or, as the case may be, evade accountability, while giving the appearance to the outsider of being open to scrutiny.

Some apologists for the EU, however, take a different tack when discussing the democratic legitimacy. They point to national parliaments, like Westminster, where most law is passed in the form of regulation, passed automatically through parliament without even a vote; where the government majority can ensure the passage of Bills without being troubled by the opposition.

But there is a difference. Individual MPs do represent their constituents and, if the nation really gets worked up about something, the House collectively can force a change. Even the mighty Thatcher government was forced to look again at the poll tax. Even at a minor level, with technical regulations that are causing problems, chances can be secured by the intervention of an MP, concerned at the loss of votes, or seeing the opportunity to attract some favourable publicity.

That difference tells the whole story. No matter what individual MEPs might think about an existing piece of EU law – and even if all 732 members wanted it changed (which is highly unlikely) – it cannot force a change. The unelected commission has the absolute right of initiative, and can ignore parliament completely.

This makes the parliament a toothless entity but – more to the point – its existence does not confer democracy on an essentially anti-democratic organisation.