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How to address the EU’s democratic deficit

Posted by hkarner - 27. März 2017

Good analysis! (hfk)

Date: 23-03-2017
Source: The Economist

The institutions need reform

Voting is the easy part

THE EU’S INSTITUTIONS, built up over six decades, are not ideally suited to responding flexibly to challenges such as the single currency, migration or foreign and security policy. The club remains vulnerable to the charges of operating with a “democratic deficit” that alienates many voters.

Start with what is still the central institution, the European Commission. Headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, a long-time prime minister of Luxembourg, it is much more than a civil service; it is the guardian of the treaties, the originator of almost all legislation and the sole executor of the EU’s budget. By the standards of most governments it is also small, employing only around 33,000 people—about the same as a largish local council in one of the member countries (though commission staff command much more lavish salaries).

The Juncker commission has done some good things; in particular, it has sharply reduced the volume of regulation it proposes. Yet it suffers from having too many commissioners (28, one per member country), a defect that has been only partially dealt with by the creation of senior vice-presidents and junior commissioners. One consequence is that, even more than before, the commission is more or less run by Mr Juncker’s powerful cabinet under Martin Selmayr, a German official. The commission has also allowed itself to be influenced too heavily by the European Parliament, the only institution that can dismiss it, instead of acting as a balance between the Council of Ministers (representing national governments) and the parliament as the two co-legislators in the system.

Commissioners are appointed by their national governments, but are subject to confirmation by the European Parliament. The commission president is now indirectly elected under a process called Spitzenkandidaten (tellingly, a German word), introduced in 2014. Egged on by certain MEPs, the main cross-border political groups designated their preferred candidates for the job ahead of that year’s European elections. Most national governments ignored their suggestions, but when the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) emerged as the biggest political group, the European Council felt obliged to choose the EPP candidate, Mr Juncker, even though EU heads of government, including Angela Merkel and David Cameron, had serious reservations. Leaders dissatisfied with the outcome in 2014 say they are determined to ditch the Spitzenkandidaten process for the next election in 2019, but they may find it hard to put a stop to it.

By contrast, the innovation of appointing a permanent president of the European Council has proved a success. That owes something to the job’s first two incumbents, Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, former prime ministers of Belgium and Poland respectively. True, the EU now suffers from an inflation of presidents: of the European Commission, the European Council, the (rotating) Council of Ministers, the Eurogroup of finance ministers, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament, to name but six. But the increasing prominence of the European Council of heads of state and government reflects the reality that, when important decisions have to be made, it is national governments, not EU institutions, that do most of the hard bargaining. To some extent power has shifted from Brussels to national capitals.

Or rather (and there lies the rub), to one capital. The growing dominance of Berlin is a cause of anxiety not just in Brussels but in other capitals (including Berlin itself). It was perhaps inevitable during the euro crisis since Germany is, in effect, the system’s paymaster. But the habit of letting Germany, and especially Mrs Merkel, decide has increasingly taken hold across the board. Germans occupy many key posts in the commission and parliament. Brexit will make matters worse, because it will break up the trio of Britain, France and Germany that has for many years been at the heart of the European project. That will expose the contrast between French weakness and German strength even more starkly, at an awkward political moment.

Mrs Merkel is widely admired, and careful not to seem too dominant. But neither she nor a putative Chancellor Schulz can compensate for France’s inadequacies. The European project was conceived by French leaders to be headed by their country—one reason they tried hard to keep Britain out. Now their worst fears of dominance by others are being realised, not from across the Channel but from across the Rhine.

As an international bureaucracy, the EU has spawned many other bodies, some of them of dubious value. A number of them have been scattered around national capitals as sweeteners to keep the countries concerned loyal to the project. Perhaps the most preposterous pair are the Economic and Social Committee, which brings together trade union and civil representatives for monthly meetings, and the Committee of the Regions, which does the same for regional authorities. Between them these two Brussels-based bodies cost over €200m a year to run. Hardly anybody, even in Brussels, would notice if they were to disappear tomorrow.

No laughing matter
That is not true of the EU’s main representative institution, the European Parliament. Since direct elections were introduced in 1979, its powers have been increased by every treaty, to the point where it is now largely a co-equal legislator with the Council of Ministers. At French insistence it still moves pointlessly between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, at an annual cost of some €114m. Many MEPs are impressively well-qualified and do an excellent job, often better than their national counterparts, in improving legislation and in questioning commissioners and the European Central Bank. Moreover, unlike other EU institutions, the parliament has room for anti-EU politicians. Nigel Farage, a British MEP and former leader of the UK Independence Party, memorably noted last June that when he arrived he was laughed at, but after the Brexit vote “you’re not laughing now.”

When important decisions have to be made, it is national governments, not EU institutions, that do most of the hard bargaining

Yet as an institution seeking to bring voters closer to the European project, the parliament must still be judged a failure. It may frighten the commission, but it does not exert the sort of control over governments that national parliaments aspire to. Its link to voters is tenuous: turnout in European elections is low and falling, and voters tend to decide largely on national not European issues. Far from acting as a parliament that controls spending and curbs the executive, the European Parliament has often behaved more as a lobby group whose main aim seems to be to spend more and to augment its own powers.

One way of remedying this would be to increase the role of national parliaments. Many experienced EU officials regret the switch from a European Parliament made up of nominated national MPs to a directly elected institution, breaking the link between national and EU-level politics. National politicians in many countries remain shamefully ignorant of the EU and its rules, and too few MEPs see it as part of their role to help educate them. Indeed, many national parliaments have cast doubt on the European Parliament’s democratic credentials, as has the German constitutional court. Yet the parliament is hardly likely to vote for its own demise.

Instead, it might be used to help fill the EU’s famous democratic deficit. Most talk of such a deficit is wrong or exaggerated: EU lawmaking is in many ways more transparent than national lawmaking, and national governments usually have to approve EU laws in the Council of Ministers, although they may pretend otherwise. The place that may be suffering most from a democratic deficit is not the union as a whole but an increasingly integrated euro zone. As it penetrates more deeply into national fiscal and other domestic policies, the case for a democratically elected chamber to keep it in check is becoming stronger.

One idea would be to reconstitute the European Parliament so that it represents only the euro zone. That could become part of a new architecture which would also feature a new euro-zone finance minister as well as a euro-zone budget that would act, as in any federal system, to smooth out differences in economic performance between the constituent parts. MEPs from non-euro countries might revert to being nominated by national parliaments. That would mean much of the wider EU budget could be scrapped; most farm support has been detached from production, so it could be renationalised, and regional spending could continue within the euro zone but not in the rest of the union. Such innovations would confer greater legitimacy on the European Parliament and give it a role, but only in the central core, not the wider EU. For countries thinking of joining or quitting the euro, a euro-zone parliament might also bring home to them how momentous a step that would be.

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