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The elephant in the elephant in the room

Posted by Richard Friday, January 14, 2005

In numerous postings on the Blog we have referred to the "elephant in the room", describing that strange phenomenon whereby the media, politicians and others comment on events, usually the announcement of legislation or some such, without mentioning the provenance – the European Union.

So much of what the EU does, or is responsible for, passes without comment simply because people are unaware of it, and have not been told.

Recently, however, I have enjoyed – if that is the right word – reading a series of correspondence in the Yorkshire Post on the "democratic nature" of the EU, with the egregious Richard Corbett MEP making the running.

More recently, he has been joined by his press officer, who goes under the name Toby Harman, writing on his own Blog, Straight Banana. In two of his more recent posts, here and here, our Toby seeks to rebut the claim that the EU is "fundamentally undemocratic".

As an aside, it is interesting to note that our Toby uses the familiar "straw man" technique, succinctly analysed on the Eurealist Blog, citing no less an authority as Godfrey Bloom as the spokesman for the Eurosceptic argument. He does not attempt, for instance, to tackle the arguments raised in our Blog here and here.

Howsoever, the point at issue is that, in making their claims for the democratic credentials of the EU – servant and master speak with one voice – both exhibit an amazing enthusiasm to discount the role of the EU commission. Both focus on the parliament and the council, with our Toby stating that, "the Commission has no legislative powers". "It can only propose legislation," we are told. It cannot pass it.

The intent here, clearly, is divert attention from the core institution of the EU, its supranational government and guardian of the treaties. Thus, while Corbett & Co are prepared to acknowledge the role of the EU in our lives, they are keen to conceal the dominant role of the commission. Rather like a set of Russian dolls, this is in effect, the elephant in the elephant in the room.

But to deny that the commission has no legislative role is, to say the very least, obtuse. No-one would deny that the US president does have a legislative role, yet the relationship between the president and congress if very similar to that between the EU commission and the other two institutions, the parliament and the council.

As with the commission, the president can only propose legislation. The president requires the assent of congress before his legislation is passed. The commission requires the assent of the council and the parliament (for some legislation).

The major difference is, of course, that the US president is elected while the commission is not. I do not think anyone would assert that the United States woudl qualify as a democracy is its president was appointed, yet the Crobetts of this world seem happy with the prospect of an unelected commission dictating the legislative agenda, and want to beleive that this is democratic.

Some might suggest here that the antidote is to have an elected commission but that would not make it democratic. There is the minor problem of the lack of a European demos. Either way, the commission is a fuindamentally undemocratic institution.

In arguing the case for democracy in the EU, therefore, the Corbett faction have to play down the role of the commission, or the game is lost. But, to do so, they have to conceal the enormous power of any institution which has the right to propose legislation. In the commission’s case, that power is absolute as it has a monopoly bound within the treaties. Only the commission may propose legislation.

Furthermore, in the trade of political science, this power known as "conditional agenda setting", and the theorists have no doubts whatsoever about its strength.

That power can be used in several ways – some obvious and some more subtle. Firstly, it can propose new legislation. That means it can define the subject, scope and content. For sure, that proposal may be blocked but the commission has another weapon – it can withdraw its proposal.

Thus, it can (and does) present the council and parliament with a "take-it-or-leave-it" choice. Where there is pressure for legislation, the other institutions have to accept the commission’s version or none at all.

Thirdly, the commission can use its power to block change. Once a law is in place – however achieved – only the commission can change or repeal it. The reason is obvious. Either to change or repeal requires a new law, and neither the council not the parliament can consider such a law unless the commission first proposes it – and there is no means of compelling to do so.

By this means, the commission is able to protect its body of law – the so-called acquis communautaire – exercising the "ratchet effect". Powers only go one way, from the nation state to the commission, never the other way.

Finally, the commission can use this power of proposal with persistence and stealth. Being unelected, and working to a long-term agenda which extends beyond the span – and memory – of elected governments and parliaments, it can take a step-by-step approach, offering incremental proposals, each relatively inoffensive, their nature only becoming apparent when the full initiative is complete.

If it is blocked, it can always come back a few years later, for as many times as it takes, until it gets what it wants. As long as it sets the agenda, it holds the power.

All this, of course, is deliberate. It makes the legislative process "politician proof". Its creator, Jean Monnet, was fully aware of what he was doing. He wanted a government of Europe that did not depend on elected politicians. That is the commission, the core of the system - the rest is fluff. The result is not so much undemocratic as anti-democratic.

Amendments and corrections added.