A democratic nightmare

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Seeking to confront the rise of Eurosceptics and fill the democratic deficit

TO ITS critics the European Union was born in sin: a project devised by and for the elites, lacking democratic legitimacy. All attempts to make good the “democratic deficit”, a term coined in the 1970s, have failed. Direct elections to the European Parliament (EP)? Turnout has fallen ever since they were instituted in 1979. Give the assembly real power? The parliament has never had more clout, yet trust in the EU is at an all-time low.

Europe’s economic crisis is making this chronic problem acute. One reason is that, particularly in the euro zone, Brussels is intruding ever deeper into national life, meddling in everything from budgets to pensions and wage-setting. Another reason is the expected backlash from voters in next May’s election to the EP. There will be big gains for anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties of all colours—from the sharp-tongued nativists of the UK Independence Party to the thuggish neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in Greece. Eurosceptic parties could top the polls in France, Britain and the Netherlands; they will do well in Finland and Italy; and in milder guise they could win seats for the first time in Germany.

The sense of alarm is palpable. François Hollande, the French president, says the rise of nationalists and Eurosceptics would bring “regression and paralysis”. Enrico Letta, Italy’s prime minister, reckons Eurosceptics could win up to a third of the seats. Radicals and populists are a disparate bunch, preferring to give speeches than influence policy, so centrists should still be able to get parliamentary business done. Perhaps the bigger influence will be the poisoning of domestic politics, which would hamper decision-making by governments.

How to respond? Mr Letta is among those who want to galvanise pro-European forces by turning the European election into a contest for the next president of the European Commission. The main European political “families”, the broad coalitions of national parties that dominate parliament, say they will each campaign behind a “presidential” candidate. The Socialists seem likely to choose Martin Schulz, the feisty German president of the EP. The greens plan an open primary. The conservatives, likely to remain the biggest grouping, still seem to be in a quandary.

Advocates hope to inject excitement, strengthen the commission’s democratic mandate, focus the contest on European issues, and raise the stakes to avoid the ballot turning into a protest against unpopular national governments. Unless there is some blood-and-guts politics, they say, citizens will turn to populists.

And yet the EU is not a country, and the commission is not a government. It has the near-exclusive right to propose new legislation, to be approved by both the Council of Ministers (representing governments) and the EP. But it is also a civil service, policeman of the single market and competition watchdog. In a new publication, the Centre for European Reform (CER), a British think-tank, argues that the commission “needs to act as referee in the political game, not as captain of one of the teams”.

National leaders have always appointed the president and the 27 other commissioners, and will not want to be dictated to by the EP, which most regard as a nuisance. The Lisbon treaty mischievously muddied the process: it says leaders should propose a president “taking into account” the election result; then the candidate “shall be elected” by the EP. The dispute over who chooses, and controls, the commission president may cause more gridlock in Brussels than rowdy Eurosceptics ever could.

A more partisan commission risks losing credibility in its semi-judicial functions such as ruling on state-aid cases (eg, bank bail-outs) and enforcing antitrust rules. The commission has acquired greater powers to scrutinise national budgets and economic policies, and recommend sanctions. It is proposing to be the ultimate authority in winding up banks. Do prime ministers and presidents want to hand loaded guns to an avowedly party-political commission president?

The EU needs better commissioners, but an election of the president would narrow the field. Sitting prime ministers would not risk their national jobs for a European contest; the choice would come down to jobless politicos or Brussels insiders. And voters are bound to be disappointed. The commission president does not decide issues they most care about. Voting against austerity in the EP would not change the fact that creditors set the conditions for bail-outs.

The unresolvable conundrum

The EU is a hybrid, part international organisation and part federation. There are no neat solutions to the democratic conundrum. A semi-elected president could offer the worst combination: too partisan to retain the trust of national leaders; too powerless to win the loyalty of citizens who may think they are electing the president of Europe but would get only a weak secretary-general.

A direct election makes sense should the commission ever be granted federal authority, including tax-raising powers. Even so, it may need to give up some of its regulatory and technocratic functions. For now treasuries remain strictly national. Yet the problem of legitimacy is pressing. One response is for national parliaments to do a better job of holding ministers to account for decisions they make in Brussels. The CER proposes a “forum” of national parliamentarians to scrutinise EU actions where the EP has no say, for instance in devising bail-out packages.

European politicians can never trump national ones in terms of legitimacy and public interest. So it is for national leaders to lead the fight against Eurosceptics: stop blaming the EU for all ills, defend the benefits of integration, fix its flaws and, in the euro zone, explain the reforms needed to stay in the single currency. It would be a great mistake to let Eurosceptics claim the national flags for themselves; the EU’s circle of gold stars is no substitute.

Source: The Economist

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