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.

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.


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


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