Brussels: the facade of democratic accountability

Ian Silvera

January 3, 2019

EU enthusiasts have, over the years, successfully championed a cunning cliché for the project’s lack of accountability: a democratic deficit. Otherwise serious people, such as academics and journalists, often use the same slogan. The reality is that Brussels has only a facade of democratic accountability.

The so-called EU parliament, for instance, cannot initiate legislation. MEPs and their committees are left to approve, amend, or reject draft laws sent down by the executive body of the EU, the commission – the institution currently led by the $37,000-a-month Jean-Claude Juncker. In this sense, it is unlike any other traditional parliament – where laws are effectively made through the direct and indirect consent of the electorate – and is unworthy of the name.

Moreover, the blocks of constituents that MEPs are supposed to represent are too large. In England, Scotland, and Wales, under what’s known as the D’Hondt list system of proportional representation (you vote for the party, not the candidate), MEPs represent 11 regions. This leads to a perverse form of representation, where one large region, say the West Midlands, can have up to seven MEPs belonging to five different political parties and four EU parliamentary groups.

On top of that, how can one MEP effectively represent and advocate for such a large mass of land and peoples? If Birmingham and Wolverhampton lobbied for the same EU project to be hosted in their city, which campaign should the seven MEPs for the West Midlands back?

This arrangement, which is allegedly designed to help represent the more than 500 million citizens of the EU, is unnecessarily complex, cumbersome and effectively illegitimate – people are surrendering a slice of liberty for, at best, half-cooked representation in the legislature. It is a raw deal and it is no wonder, with apathy taking hold, that voter turnout has steadily declined since the first set of EU parliamentary elections in 1979. And while more than 163 million people voted in the 2014 EU parliamentary elections, that was just over 42 per cent of the bloc’s electorate.

The power really lies in the commission, its aforementioned president and commissioners, of which there are currently 28, apparently representing each EU member. These high-ranking officials are indirectly elected. The commission president nominee (last selected via the controversial Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” system) must be backed by a qualified majority of the EU council, followed by a majority in the parliament.

The same is to be said of the commissioners, who are put forward by their respective governments and have to face a US Senate-style committee hearing before being appointed. Likewise, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, currently Italy’s Federica Mogherini, is elected by the council followed by a vote of consent in the parliament. The 500 million or so citizens don’t get a say in the matter. That being said, the directly-elected body of – the parliament – can vote the commission out with a censure motion. The bar is high – two-thirds of MEPs must back it – and it has never actually happened.

The commission under Luxembourger Jacques Santer quit en masse in 1999, before the parliament could kick them out, following the leak of a damning independent report into allegations of mismanagement and fraud in the institution. The most notable allegations were against then research commissioner Edith Cresson, the first woman to become prime minister of France. Madame Cresson had apparently given a top highly-paid job to her friend and dentist René Berthelot.

Cresson said that she had abided by the EU’s rules, but the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found otherwise in 2006: “In appointing a close acquaintance, Mr Berthelot, as a visiting scientist, when he was not going to be engaged in the activities associated with that position, in order to allow him to undertake the role of personal adviser within her Cabinet, even though the latter was fully-staffed and, moreover, Mr Berthelot had passed the permitted age-limit for performing that role, Mrs Cresson became liable for a breach of her obligations of a certain degree of gravity.” Cresson, however, was able to keep her $48,097-a-year pension.

The issue of favouritism at the top of the EU re-emerged recently, with the controversial appointment of Martin Selmayr as the commission’s secretary-general in February 2017. The European Ombudsman even said that the commission had “stretched and possibly even overstretched the limits of the law” by fast-tracking Selmayr, a longtime right-hand man of Juncker, into the post.

The watchdog’s scathing 39-page report – a product of a five-month-long investigation – also claimed that the commission had committed four acts of “maladministration” and, as for how the top institution dealt with critical questions from the press, the report found “the [EU commission] Spokesperson’s Service became defensive, evasive and even somewhat combative”.

Juncker and Selmayr both got off with a slap on the wrist. But an enraged EU parliament has since backed a resolution by a landslide of 71 per cent calling on the Selmayr to quit the top job. The ball is very much in the commission’s court as it heads into its final months, though the issue may be left to Juncker’s successor to deal with.

Moving away from the inner workings of the EU and its political class, its outer workings – when tens of millions of EU citizens are actually given a direct say on where the projects goes – have also been questionable. The constitutional treaty, drafted in 2004, failed to pass referendums in France and the Netherlands the following year.

The plan to “streamline” EU decision-making and ratify a 485-word constitution was thwarted until, just two years later, the Lisbon treaty was signed in December 2007, coming into effect in 2009. The House of Commons’ cross-party European scrutiny committee found that the new treaty was “substantially equivalent” to the constitutional one rejected by the French and Dutch.

But despite pledging to hold a referendum on the original constitution, Gordon Brown’s New Labour government decided not to ask the British people. In a similar move, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy only went as far as putting the repackaged treaty to his country’s parliament, not to the people. “That’s a political choice. It’s perfectly democratic,” he reportedly declared.

The Irish, however, were having none of it. In a result reminiscent of the Brexit vote (52 per cent leave to 48 per cent remain), the electorate of the Republic of Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty by 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent. The bloodied European commission, under then president José Manuel Barroso, effectively ignored the Irish, calling for the ratification process to continue. Just 16 months later, Ireland held another referendum and this time the Irish voted the “right” way, with more than 67 per cent of the electorate backing the treaty.

Second referendums, when the vote goes the wrong way, have become par for the course for members – reluctant or otherwise – of the EU project. When the Danes said no – by a slim majority of 50.7 per cent on a turnout of 83.1 per cent – to the Maastricht treaty in 1992, they were asked to vote again in 1993 following a number of amendments, including keeping the northern European country out of the euro. This time, the electorate of Denmark voted 56.7 per cent in favour of the treaty on a larger turnout of 86.5 per cent.

What a rotten record. In their haste, Eurocrats always plough on – no pause for thought, no plan B. The integration project must continue even if it means disenfranchising the very people it is meant to represent. No wonder David Cameron, cap in hand, failed to get any substantial concessions when he bartered with Brussels for a new relationship ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. And it is no surprise, then, that calls for a second referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU have grown louder and louder as the Brexit day of 29 March 2019 approaches.

The so-called “people’s vote” is backed by, among others, Open Britain, the offshoot campaign of the official and unsuccessful Britain Stronger in Europe group. We are told new facts have come to light and therefore another plebiscite must be held, while both major political parties – Labour and the Conservatives – promised to honour the Brexit vote in their 2017 general election manifestos. The people’s vote is really a sore losers’ club, which wants the UK to remain in the EU, an institution that does not even follow its own rules.

For when French president Emmanuel Macron appeased the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) activists, who marched on Paris and further afield in mass anti-government protests, and increased his spending consequently, pushing France above the EU’s 3 per cent deficit ceiling, Brussels let the super Europhile off as a “one-time exception”, according to budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger in an interview with German newspaper group Funke Media.

No such one-off luck for the Italians, however, who saw their proposed budget deficit of 2.4 per cent of GDP be rejected by the commission for the second time in November. Such arbitrary and “chumocratic” behaviour only fuels left and right-wing populism across the continent.

As the EU elections planned for May draw nearer and with the super-protectionist Donald Trump in the White House, Europhiles, including Macron and the outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel, continue the calls for “more Europe”. But who, they should be both be asked, is going to hold the new leaders of the project to account?


Written by Ian Silvera

Ian Silvera is a member of 1828's advisory board and a former journalist.


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