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Posts tagged with: Democracy

Democratising the EU in post democratic times

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The title of this blog entry is intentionally contradictory. Yet it encompasses the central challenge the European Union in facing.

To start, what are we supposed to do about democracy in the European Union, viewing democracy in the classical post-World War II consensus kind of way, where multi party representative democracy largely works?


Here there are essentially three options as I see it.

One option is to take apart the European Union, or severely restrict its scope, and return to national democracies as far as possible. This is the line defended by the likes of UKIP and FN, and is based upon the notion that democracy beyond the nation is neither possible nor desirable.

The second option is to seek to defend the European Union as a sort of functional übertechnocracy, trying to justify that this is a good thing on the basis of output rather than input legitimacy; this is the Charles Grant line.

The third option is to improve representative democracy at EU level, a process that started with election of the European Parliament in 1979 and has slowly proceeded since then, with the Spitzenkandidat process this year a step in this direction.

Each of those options of course has advantages and disadvantages. Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally favour the third option, and I actually have more sympathy for the first option than I do for the second as I believe in representative democracy and not technocracy, and that the European Union already does so much more than a classic international organisation that the point of possible return to technocracy has already passed. However anyone trying to work out where they stand on questions of the future of the European Union has to judge which of these camps they fall into.

The problem with all of the above then comes when we look at the everyday political situation in which we find ourselves. At the very least representative democracy, nationally, is suffering – turnouts are down, trust is down, party political membership is down (stats here). Colin Crouch’s post democracy thesis seems to fit this rather neatly (PDF here). It is also fair to argue that the very existence of the European Union is such a constraint on national political action that it hastens national post democracy, but conversely taking the example of a non-EU country  like Norway seems to demonstrate that the scope for action as a small independent state in a globalised world is not of much help either.

As Castells argues compellingly in Communication Power, increasing globalisation – especially of capital – is a major constraint on political action, and when this is coupled with post democracy and hollowed out political parties you end up with something approaching oligarchy politics. Add in Fukuyama’s end of history (i.e. the market won) and hence the de-ideologisation of politics, Piketty on the inexorable rise of inequality, and the rise of the internet and the ability of online politics to shine the light on the malevolence of political classes but not really yet build alternatives, and you have a perfect storm.

So then comes the issue: what is to be done?

Efforts to improve representative democracy at EU level must continue to be pursued, even if they deliver flawed results. To bemoan Juncker, or to replace him with someone with even less legitimacy than the little he enjoys from the Spitzenkandidat process, takes us towards option two above rather than option three. Representative politics ends up with parties or groupings within a parliament whether we like it or not, and group dynamics often mean ending up with undesirable individuals, but as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except all others yet invented. We should not judge representative politics at EU level according to standards that the national level cannot achieve.

The plight of parties themselves needs more attention, with the emphasis being on improving openness of decision making and participation in the future. The Greens showed what can be done with an open primary to choose their Commission President candidates – all political parties need to do this in future, and to do this EU-wide. The internet means we can participate in more organisations, but less often and and less intensively; pressure groups have begun to understand this, but few classical political parties have begun the process of opening up. I would also like to see EU-wide election lists for the European Parliament although I remain cautious about a direct election of the Commission President (do we want an EU equivalent of Hollande or Obama?)

What needs doing at what level also needs to be assessed, and this assessment needs to encompass both the EU level, and states, and this question is political as much as it is constitutional. This is the reason I favour independence for Scotland and for Catalonia, and – in principle – I am fine with it for any region where there is a clear rationale and clear advantages. As finance and business are increasingly global, this can in part be balanced by radical decentralisation of the things that politics can still decisively control (education, health, social security), and if that means the end of states as we know them, so be it.

As Angela Merkel so often says, the EU is 8% of the world’s population, 25% of world GDP, and yet has 50% of the world’s social spending. If Europeans are to shape how globalisation works, and to defend the social market economy that is so central to how Europeans live, the choice, as I see it, is stark – make sure that view of the world can be defended. Because there is no hope that individual European countries, without the EU, can possibly manage that.

In short, it is a matter of democratising and legitimising the EU, or face inexorable decline.


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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