The problem of public participation in decision-making in the EU is now engaging the energies of many pro- Europeans who judge rightly that elections to the European Parliament have not so far succeeded in creating a democratic connection between the public and Europe’s institutions. There is a welter of proposals which is positive; some are muddled and wrong-headed which is not.
Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP and Europe Minister, criticises two very different proposals made by Andrew Duff and myself. Mr Duff can speak for himself, and usually does. My proposal was simple; reform the European political parties by making them democratically accountable to individual members, by getting them to campaign actively in European election campaigns on the basis of different visions for the future of Europe, and by providing a personality focus to the election campaign through the parties nominating candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission selected after primaries in the member states.
MacShane judges these proposals to be ‘top-down’; they would ‘cut some links with the EU’s member states’. This is his first error; giving party members the right to elect delegates to party congresses, to decide party programmes and to nominate the party candidate for the presidency of the Commission is the opposite of ‘top down’. It would at a stroke involve the many members of national parties in the member states with European issues.
MacShane makes a second mistake in believing this will not happen. In fact, all the main European parties are now involving members more in European decision-making. And at least the EPP and the PES will field party candidates for the Commission presidency in 2014, will focus campaigns around them, and will involve party members in the selection.
The changes I advocate, unlike the proposals made by MacShane, require no Treaty change, nor even any amendment to the European political parties Regulation. They are the straightforward application of the Treaties which envisaged European political parties playing a major role in European integration and which foresee the Commission president being proposed ‘taking account the election results for the European Parliament’.
His different ‘approaches’, involving a greater formal role for national parliamentarians in the work of the EU would each require Treaty amendment. In other words, they won’t happen- or at least not within any reasonable time frame.
Involving national MPs in European questions would be a good thing. The Danish, Finnish and Swedish experience with a specialised parliamentary committee meeting regularly to give a mandate to national ministers attending Council meetings works well. If after nearly forty years of UK membership of the Union Westminster has still not devised an effective system of oversight for the actions of the UK government in Council, then it is unlikely that further institutional tinkering would create serious engagement in EU affairs.
As to the idea of staged elections to the European Parliament so that some MEPs would be elected at or nearer the date for national elections, this would cut the link between the Parliamentary mandate and the Commission’s term of office which is essential to ensuring democratic accountability in the system. And if it is difficult to get voters to turn out for EP elections once every five years, it is not immediately apparent that having partial elections every two or three years would generate widespread enthusiasm.
Finally MacShane falls back on that old favourite- much beloved by Giscard D’Estaing- a Congress of national parliamentarians. The last thing Europe needs now is new political institutions. Some of us can remember the pre-1979 Parliament when it was made up of national parliamentarians; a part-time parliament, doing a part-time job: unthreatening doubtless for EU diplomats and civil servants but an inadequate answer to the overriding need to involve citizens in EU decisions.
The European Parliament already affords an important democratic element in EU decision-making. It shapes EU laws, sets and controls the budget and holds the Commission to public account. To have another parliamentary chamber with a separate but indirect legitimacy doing some of the same things would not enhance democratic controls; it would simply muddy the waters.
The problem with the current system is not that the role of the Parliament is limited or that it may take the ‘wrong’ decisions (which Parliament doesn’t?). The weakness lies in the poor turnout in the elections to the Parliament, and the absence of effective Europe-wide campaigns on Europe-wide issues. In all our democratic systems parties play a key role; they offer a distinct prospectus to voters, they campaign on issues, they fight elections. To date this has not happened in the EU. Until the current translational groupings become real political parties the lack of competition between parties will continue to stunt democratic vitality in the Union.
MacShane’s main concern is to involve EU’s 9000+ national MPs in Europe’s decision-making. Some of us view the real challenge as stimulating the participation of Europe’s 500 million citizens in the big decisions about Europe’s future. Looking to 1970s for answers to today’s challenges does not take us any further forward.
Waterloo, July 24th 2011