As the Eurozone crisis hurls the EU towards greater integration, discussions over fiscal union, political union and banking union (and now repatriation) have provided the main focus for reform. But it is a democratic union that is most dearly needed and most often ignored in the EU. As Eurozone countries sacrifice their economic sovereignty, how can ordinary voters make their voice heard? National elections have proved to be inadequate as government after government has been booted out in countries like Ireland, Portugal and Spain, only to see its successor accept the same bailout terms and continue the same policies.
The only way for voters to make their voices heard is through democratic reform at the EU-level which must form the backbone of any future changes in the treaties. Sacrifices of sovereignty must be balanced by enhancements in democracy.
So, what should change? Here is my programme for reform:
1. Directly elect the Commission President
The European Commission has the sole right to propose legislation in the European Union and yet, its President is appointed behind closed-doors in a stitch-up between national governments. The Commission, therefore, has no direct democratic accountability and no incentive to pursue an agenda for its citizens.
If we are serious about accountability, direct elections are the only solution. In one fell swoop you would give the Commission legitimacy and media attention, and the EU would finally be politicised. Prospective presidents would produce rival manifestos and legislative programmes for governance. This would transform the European Parliament into a political body with pro-Commission MEPs facing off against opposition MEPs, replacing the consensual, technocratic chamber it has become. The Parliament suffers from illegitimacy because voters often don’t know what it does or who it holds to account. By electing a Commission President, this will become clearer and increase the importance for voters of choosing their MEPs.
2. Bring transparency to the Council of Ministers
As Nick Clegg once pointed out, “the Council is one of only three legislatures in the world in which laws are adopted behind closed doors—the others are to be found in Havana and Pyongyang”. Last year’s ACTA debacle, when several EU governments u-turned or denied knowledge of EU-level decisions, demonstrated that national ministers are often ignorant or happy to appear ignorant of EU decisions that they themselves have taken. This vacuum allows national civil servants and ambassadors far too much room when negotiating legislation with their counterparts and the European Parliament. This would be unacceptable in any other political institution and must change. The Council should open up to the public and publish all documents when acting in a legislative capacity, and negotiations should be conducted as much as possible by national ministers rather than diplomats. This would help democratise the EU through an enhanced role of elected ministers and aid media scrutiny of its decisions through the light of transparency.
3. Give national parliaments the right to veto Commission proposals
As advocated today by Schadenfreude in Public Service Europe, the role of national parliaments should be strengthened. This has already partially happened under the Lisbon treaty where national parliaments can give a ‘yellow card’ to force a legislative re-think and an ‘orange card’ to reject proposals. However, the procedure is hopelessly complex which, if push comes to shove, also requires the European Parliament or Council to agree with national parliaments’ objections. Three years after Lisbon, it has only been applied successfully once for the posting of workers directive.
The solution is simple. As part of the consultation procedure for each legislative proposal, national parliaments should vote on whether it should move forward to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. If a simple majority says yes, it proceeds, if a simple majority says no, it’s back to the drawing board.
And two specifically British points:
4. Change the voting system
The UK elections for the European Parliament take place under the flawed closed-list system which denies voters the choice of individual candidates. They vote only for parties and the parties themselves pick the candidates. This has caused a disconnect between politicians and their voters, and, with constituencies of up to 10 million people, gives almost no incentives for MEPs to represent their voters. In its place, the UK government should introduce either an open-list system or the single-transferrable vote, currently used in Ireland, both of which give voters the chance to select individual candidates, thus re-establishing the democratic link.
5. Improve scrutiny in Westminster
The Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee has significant powers called ‘scrutiny reservations’ which prevent UK ministers from taking a decision in the Council. However, this power is not exercised as effectively as it could and should be, mostly due to a lack of expertise. The scrutiny committee only has 16 MPs to oversee the whole range of EU legislation from financial services to the environment to migration to car standards and so on. The Commission produces hundreds of detailed, often very technical, legislative initiatives each year and it simply isn’t possible for the committee to keep a handle on this. Instead, the powers of the scrutiny committee should be diffused to other specialist select committees so that, for example, legislative proposals on development policy are scrutinised by the International Development Committee.
Some of these changes are easier than others. Some require changes in European treaties, others simple administrative reforms. Some add new layers of democracy, others improve the exisiting system. Put together, they could dramatically change how the public, MPs and the media interact with the European Union.