Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Apathy of the discontented

Almost 500 million people were entitled to vote in this year's European elections. Yet between the lobbyists and the bureaucrats, it's hard to claim the EU is a continental-scale democracy. Leigh Phillips asks who pulls the strings in Europe, and what we can do about it

May 30, 2009
8 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


  share     tweet  

If the surveys and polls published in recent months in each of the EU’s 27 member states, as well as those of the European Commission, are accurate, then the results of the June European parliamentary elections will show that the chamber is once again the unloved object of record-low voter participation.

In the new member states in eastern Europe, which so embraced Brussels at the time of EU accession, voter turn-out has declined even faster than in the already substantially abstentionist west. Five years on from joining, the voters of ‘new’ Europe know that the promises made then were only ever kept with the urban and the elite; and now the economic crisis comes to snuff out whatever little prosperity did trickle their way, with the western states deaf to their requests for help.

East and west, this is clearly not the apathy of the contented. Rather, it is the rational decision of those who may have little knowledge of the snakes-and-ladders hierarchy of the European institutions – but sense that however they vote, it will make little difference.

As a Brussels journalist, I can confirm that their hunch is mostly correct. The real power in the EU lies not with elected MEPs, but with a clatch of committeemen, civil servants and diplomats. Even the representatives of national governments who sit in the council of ministers are elected as domestic MPs, not as the co-legislature of the bloc’s electorate of 490 million citizens. Yet the common dismissal that the European Parliament has no real powers has not been true for a long time, however simultaneously true it may be that it is the weakest of the EU’s institutions. So the lack of citizen attention towards the EU only makes the corporate capture of Brussels decision-making that much more certain.

A powerless parliament?

Since the 1970s, the parliament has exerted genuine powers over EU budgets, apart from agriculture. The commission drafts a budget that the council of ministers (representing the member states) and the parliament can amend. In second reading, the parliament can then adopt or reject the document. The parliament is also the institution that considers how budgets have been spent, basing its assessment on the European court of auditors – Europe’s external audit agency. In 1998, it rejected the budget after the commission refused to answer any questions regarding the accusations of extensive fraud that had been made by a whistleblower working in the commission, Paul van Buitenen.

The parliament has the power to censure the commission if it can muster a two-thirds majority in the chamber, which results in the sacking of the EU executive. Though this ‘nuclear option’ has never been used, the threat of its use resulted in the voluntary resignation of the Santer commission (but only, it must be said, after the commission realised that resigning allowed the commissioners to hold onto their pensions, while being fired did not).

Moreover, since the late 1980s, the parliament’s power of ‘co-decision’ – making it a co-legislator with the council of ministers – has steadily been expanded. Its powers are increased with each new treaty (as they will be again with the Lisbon Treaty, should the Irish obey Brussels and ‘vote the right way’ this autumn), with the policy areas covered by co-decision expanded to almost all subjects, notably agriculture, justice and home affairs, though not foreign and security policy.

Closed-door decision-making

Nevertheless, the parliamentary chamber very much plays second fiddle to the council, and indeed to the entire tryptich of EU bodies that manage the 27-country bloc behind closed doors and with no direct democratic link to citizens: the council of ministers, the European Commission, and the real villain of the piece – the collection of chiaroscuro viziers that is the committee of permanent representatives, or ‘Coreper’, to use its French acronym.

The European Commission, the EU’s unelected executive that is the sole institutional body with the right to propose legislation and that polices adherence by member states to the bloc’s treaties and regulations, is regularly pilloried by the UK tabloid press for its unaccountable powers. In reality, the balance of power has firmly shifted to the council – made up of government ministers. These meet without any minuted record of their proceedings, although a handful of such meetings are now televised (and made all the more banal as a result).

The council maintains its own secretariat general and has begat some 250 committees that supervise the commission’s implementation of laws and ‘working groups’ that examine legislative proposals. These two groupings are both composed of national civil servants – the spawn of a sinister experiment combining the DNA of Lex Luthor and Sir Humphrey Appleby – and also work in secret.

This network of committees is in turn controlled by Coreper. This brings together national officials with the status of ambassadors – the heads of the permanent representations (essentially the embassies to the EU from each of the member states) or their deputies – to meet multiple times a week to prepare the agendas of council meetings and carry out its orders. Examinations of commission proposals are usually first performed by Coreper, for example. This clatch of diplomats is the highly secretive power behind the throne.

Around 70 per cent of EU legislation is decided, in effect, in the secret working groups, according to Jens Peter Bonde, a Danish former MEP and long-time thorn in the side of the Brussels nomenklatura. He reckons that another 15 per cent is set in Coreper and just 15 per cent gets beyond a rubber stamp discussion by ministers within the council.

Parliamentary standards

Perhaps because it is the sole genuinely accountable EU institution, the parliament has shown itself to be the most progressive by some margin across a range of legislation, although this is not always the case.

At the same time, the deputies in the chamber are accused of being a collection of has-beens or never-weres, socially awkward or outright moonbat party loyalists who have to be given some sort of political retirement home and who are forever getting caught hiring their mother-in-laws as assistants or channelling expenses to businesses owned by their husbands.

But this sometimes very real corruption and incompetence is also a product of the parliament’s low standing on the EU institutional totem pole. Lack of media and popular oversight is the perfect breeding ground for embezzlement and nepotism.

For genuine transformation, the parliament needs to assume for itself the right to initiate legislative proposals, instead of the unelected commission. Another relatively simple change would be for the parliament to be able to vote down commission proposals by a simple majority instead of an absolute majority. Because the two largest groupings in the parliament – the centre-left Party of European Socialists and the centre-right European Peoples’ Party – hardly ever have the numbers to win such absolute majorities, this forces cozy, unbreakable centrist compromises between the two.

And yet these relatively simple demands have yet to be taken up by the left in a pan-European way. The danger is that rightist populists tap into voters’ righteous anger while the left remains focused on national politics, leaving the field open to such characters.

Left opposition

The far-left Dutch Socialistische Partij, which could soon eclipse the centre-left Labour Party, is probably the best example of genuinely progressive politics that manages to combine a focus on both the domestic and European scenes, but even here sometimes the language on the intrusion of Brussels upon ‘national sovereignty’ too much echoes the EU’s nationalist critics on the other side of the fence. Likewise, in the UK, the sovereigntist rhetoric of Bob Crow’s No2EU.

In an era of capital flight so mercurial and so comprehensive that it can break economies like a child’s boot smashing brittle puddle ice, it is very difficult for a single country to defend (let alone extend) the welfare state. It is much more difficult, however, to shift capital from an entire continent.

Moreover, so many policy areas cannot be solved except on the international level – not least climate change – that we have to begin developing international governance structures. The blinkered defence of national sovereignty or even just the lack of engagement at the Brussels level is simply oblivious to the league in which the game is being played these days.

At the same time, embracing the EU without recognising its undemocratic core only endorses the steadily advancing tendency to move statecraft away from institutions with at least a minimum of democratic oversight, toward technocratic, unaccountable and unrepresentative bodies such as the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN security council and the G20. Progressives must pose instead of both these options another version of European politics, one that is internationalist and democratic, not intergovernmental and technocratic.

The struggle, then, is threefold: working to place the European Parliament at the centre of EU decision-making, campaigning for better progressive representation in that parliament, and building a truly pan-European extra-parliamentary movement for social and environmental justice.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee