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The EU has been suffering a long, drawn-out economic disaster, but its economic woes hide a deeper rot: a lack of democratic accountability. My wife and I lived in Lisbon this past year while I studied international law, and most of the Portuguese people we spoke with no longer have illusions of true self-government. They assume that at the end of the day their national leaders follow the call of higher powers in Brussels, over which the people have no control. Political apathy reigns.

Democratic reform is needed especially now, when economic reality is forcing a moment of reflection and change. Political power should be somehow practically responsive to the control of the people it governs, because such popular accountability generally ensures that the political system works for the common good rather than merely private gain. Democracy does not guarantee political legitimacy (see Karzai’s Afghanistan, or Chavez’s Venezuela), but provides as good a gauge as any of whether a political institution today is basically respectful of the rights and dignity of free men and women. The EU fails this test, and needs reform.

As you might expect, the EU certainly believes it is democratic. Responding on its webpage to the apparently Frequently Asked Question “Is the budget really decided by Eurocrats without any democratic procedures?” the EU responds “This is a widespread idea “ but it’s not true! Decision making in the EU budgetary procedure follows strict democratic procedures , which are similar to those of most national governments .” (Emphasis in the original.)

The EU law-making process can seem straightforward. One EU body (the Commission) proposes laws and budgets, which must then be examined and agreed upon by two other bodies (the Council and the Parliament). Simple! But in reality, these procedures are part of a confusing institutional maze, where nothing is as it seems and none of the EU’s law-making institutions can claim both power and democratic accountability. Let’s take a closer look at these “strict democratic procedures.”

The European Parliament is directly elected by EU citizens from each country. Population roughly determines each country’s number of Members of the European Parliament, though no country can have fewer than six or more than 96 (out of a total of 754). But for all this accountability, the Parliament is weak and passive. It cannot propose bills or budgets, nor can the Parliament pass them without the consent of the Council.

The Council of the European Union, known simply as the Council, works with the Parliament to pass laws and budgets. Parliament and the Council are similar to a bi-cameral legislative body, where neither can pass legislation without the other body’s consent. The Council is not elected but appointed: each member-state sends one representative to each meeting. The rules governing voting in the Council are singularly complicated, where bigger nations are generally (but not always) given more weight, except when the vote must be unanimous (as for taxation- and security-related bills).

The executive branch of the EU is the 27-member Commission. Its most significant power is that of legislative initiation: it alone proposes bills and EU budgets, and may rescind them at any time if the resulting legislation becomes unattractive. The President of the Commission is very powerful. He controls the internal organization of the Commission itself, and can dismiss any other Commissioner without the consent of the rest of the Commission.

European citizens’ votes affect the Commission only obliquely. The Council proposes a President of the Commission, who then must be “elected” by the European Parliament. Then the Council and President of the Commission together appoint the 26 other Commissioners, so there is one from each EU nation. Finally, all 27 Commissioners as a body must be approved by a vote of the Parliament. This system effectively insulates the Commission from true popular accountability. In the EU institutional structure, then, there is an inverse relationship between popular responsiveness and power. True authority resides in the body most removed from the votes of the people: the Commission.

Perhaps it would be better if the whole EU integration project fell apart , as some have predicted it will. Yet predictions of the financial and political break-up of EU institutions are more wishful than realistic. With the possible exception of the UK, the commitment of the rest of the EU to an “ever closer union” is fundamental. At every juncture in this crisis, national leaders and their voters have chosen more, not less integration. Instead of waiting, hopefully, for the collapse of the unification project, those who value self-government can instead make a strong case for achievable democratic reform within EU institutions.

Some have proposed giving Parliament more power by allowing it to propose laws rather than merely affirm or deny a bill offered by the Commission. But this is probably not feasible. It would seriously upset the balance of power among EU institutions and require significant changes not only to Parliament but also to the Commission, which would lose exclusive legislative initiative. Besides, the Parliament will always be too large and diverse to provide true European leadership.

Others have proposed allowing Parliament to directly put forward (rather than merely vote upon) the President of the Commission. But this plan would maintain the troubling gap between the vote of the citizen (electing Parliament) and the leadership of the EU (the President of the Commission). The people would not really gain control.

The best idea would be to directly elect the President of the Commission. This would give the citizens of the EU a clear choice to set the basic policy course of its most powerful institution. A direct election would give no new institutional powers to the President or the Commission to pass laws or enforce them. But this officeholder, who directs the most potent EU institution, would then depend for his job not on elites but on the citizens. Moreover, just as U.S. presidential elections always draw more voters than any other federal election, a higher voter turnout for the President of the Commission’s election could be expected. This would lend the subsequent policies of the Union greater legitimacy than ever before, without giving it any dangerous new powers.

The peoples of Europe, demoralized by the slow creep of an EU government they generally support but do not understand and cannot control, would be energized by the prospect of directly choosing a single leader with real power. With the election of a President of Europe, people’s sense of political responsibility would grow, even in small nations like Portugal. With true political responsibility comes self-respect, and only with self-respect can a free society flourish.

Thomas Haine is a lawyer who recently completed an LLM in international law in Lisbon.

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