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Posts tagged with: Democracy

Until we’ve exhausted the opportunities within the current system: no EU institutional reforms please

Here we go again. Today Steven Hill has laid out his institutional vision for the European Union on Social Europe journal. His plan – with a bicameral European Parliament – is not too distant from ideas raised by Denis MacShane in the past. Binding national MPs into EU decision making might sound like an appealing idea but (with the partial exception of the Danish), national MPs don’t do EU scrutiny very well.

But ask yourself: why would national MPs actually care about this stuff?

MPs know that national electorates are going to care more about education, jobs and health, rather than the minutiae of the regulation of safe bathing water or particulates in ambient air. If national parliaments wanted to do EU work properly they should focus on setting national ministers binding negotiation briefs before ministers head off to Council meetings in Brussels.

Conversely, Jack Straw’s idea to abolish the European Parliament is absurd (as I’ve argued here, and Simon Hix has written more here).

The problem is elsewhere.

The European Parliament does vital legislative work, yet the issue is that no voter can see what changes in the EU as a result of voting one way or another in European Parliament elections. The EP does not conform to Schumpeter’s classic definition of a party system:

  • Parties present programmes
  • Voters make an informed choice between competing parties
  • The successful party puts its programme into practice
  • The governing party judged on its successes at the next election

So how are we going to get there?

The answer should be that until we’ve exhausted what we can do with the institutions as they are, we shouldn’t tinker in the Treaties. This is why Duff’s transnational lists are not where I would start. Instead we need to look at the parties, making sure that each of the main party political groups puts forward a candidate for President of the European Commission prior to the 2014 European Parliament elections (Ronny Patz has more on this here). If that fails to inject some life into the elections then I’m open to considering other options, but for now that’s the best way forward – and it requires no institutional reforms to make it happen, only a bit of political will.

Even if the EU became a functioning representative democracy tomorrow it’s not going to solve its ills

What do you do when one of the fundamental things you’ve believed in for years, have spent ages working towards, is actually not anywhere near as desirable as you previously thought?

That’s basically the predicament I find myself in these days, and it’s not a very pleasant place to be.

The old federalist argument, repeated ad infinitum at Ventotene, drawing on Spinelli’s manifesto, is that the nation state is broken and only supranational democratic structures in Europe (a European federation) can fix it.

That’s all very well if your systems of representative democracy work OK, but what if they don’t? What if political parties are tired and hollowed out, and beholden to narrow interests and are in awe of the power of the markets? With election turnouts decreasing? With messy multi-party compromises, and leaders ready to ditch the few principles they once had? Why should we expect leadership to be any more enlightened at EU level than is the case nationally just now?

Make the EU a representative democracy in the classical sense (government contingent on a majority in parliament, executive proposes legislation that the legislature approves and amends, parties run in elections etc.) tomorrow, and we’re just going to replicate all the disfunction on a continent wide scale.

But – conversely – the alternatives are worse. We cannot rely on the illegitimate technocracy of the past that has lacked citizen involvement and democratic control. Equally direct democracy is not the answer, as I am yet to see a fair and partial referendum campaign. And – with the world faced with an economic crisis and the impending damage of runaway climate change – it’s not as if we don’t need political solutions to our many problems, and with so many of these being cross-border in nature, it’s not as if we can do away with the supranational institutions we have.

Where, please, out of any of this, is there any small sliver of optimism?

This hasty referendum debate is no way to settle a vital constitutional question (whichever side you’re on)

Britain’s relationship with the EU is absolutely vital to the economic and political future of the country, and even to the political and economic future of the EU. The structure of British democracy, the way the country is governed, is a matter of first order political importance – Britain’s membership of the EU ranks alongside the electoral system, the powers of regional and local government, or the role of the monarch as central constitutional questions.

So what is happening? For the past few days, British politics has descended into an even more sordid, tactical and short-term ‘debate’ about these vital issues than ever before.

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What would leaving the EU actually mean in practice?

In 2005 I went to France to campaign in the referendum on the European Constitution, making the case for oui. One thing about that campaign has been with me ever since: it was clear what oui would mean (France would ratify) while it was never clear what non would mean. The diverse interpretations of non – from ‘stick with the Treaty of Nice’ via ‘we want a Social Europe instead’ to ‘we want to punish the government’ – meant that non was a responsibility-free shot at the establishment. The EU could have operated with the old treaties, so it’s not as if the non had a particularly high price.

Fast forward 6 years, and calls on left and right of UK politics are growing to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – in or out. I’ve previously argued why Labour should not favour such a referendum and Nosemonkey has taken apart the People’s Pledge arguments.

This post raises a further issue that all ‘we want to leave’ advocates need to answer: what would leaving the EU actually mean? It’s not as simple as it sounds.

It strikes me that the yes answer to a question such as “Should the United Kingdom should remain a Member State of the European Union?” is simple enough – the relationship with the EU remains unchanged, and the UK fights its corner in the EU, winning some fights and losing some, just as it has since 1973.

But what would about no?

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A response to Denis MacShane’s CER essay: national parliaments are not the route to EU legitimacy

Denis MacShane has written an essay entitled “Europe’s parliament: Reform or perish?“, a paper which he says is a contribution to the debate about the future of the European Parliament started by Andrew Duff, Julian Priestley, and Anand Menon and John Peet.

MacShane tries to take a position in which national parliaments should be placed at the centre of the EU’s democratic legitimacy, contrary to the positions of Duff and Priestley. The problem is that his argument is weak and incoherent, and he contradicts himself even within his own essay. Perhaps as he’s a member of parliament he doesn’t have to meet the more exacting intellectual standards of other CER authors?

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What do you do about corrupt MEPs? Openness is vital, but give voters more choice as well

Since news broke on Sunday that three MEPs – Zoran Thaler, Ernst Strasser and Adrian Severin – were prepared to accept money in return for tabling amendments to legislation, I’ve been trying to work out what conclusions to draw from all of this. You can read more on the ongoing investigations and fallout from Parliament Magazine and the FT, and Reuters has an interesting, more detailed piece on lobbying the EP.

It’s clear to me that what the MEPs did was wrong and corrupt, and that they should resign, but as far as I am concerned this is just the start. Alarmingly Severin, as quoted by Parliament Magazine in an earlier article, stated “I didn’t do anything that was, let’s say, illegal or against any normal behaviour we have here” and while he has been kicked out of the S&D Group in the Parliament he still has not resigned.

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Labour politics and community organising – do we want to go there?

It was a Labour Party politics filled evening for me yesterday.

First I heard Arnold Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation from the United States talk at a Labour Values event about how his organisation had built networks of community organisations. Graf works with Maurice Glasman, one of the people Ed Miliband trusts to help build better links between Labour and community groups. Graf explained how his conversations with politicians in the UK showed a disconnect between them and their electorates, how questions he had posed to politicians were often met with no clear answers. Quite how he would change things was rather less clear, be that through organisations like London Citizens, or by up-skilling and changing political parties from within.

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