LABOUR EURO-SAFEGUARDS CAMPAIGN

BULLETIN MARCH 1998

 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON DEMOCRACY AND THE EUROPEAN UNION

 

 

  1. Is the European Union a Democracy?
  2. The European Union is undoubtedly composed of democratic states, but this does not mean that the EU as a whole has the same democratic attributes as its parts. The key characteristic of a democracy is the ability of its people to vote out those in power through the ballot box, as happened when the Labour government was elected in Britain last year. All Member States have this type of democratic control, but the EU as a whole does not. Much of the power lies with the Commission which is not elected by anyone. The European Parliament has few of the legislative or executive powers enjoyed by its national equivalents. The Council of Ministers, meeting in secret, is only indirectly elected, and is therefore not truly accountable. There is an inherent vacuum of democratic control in the European Union, which is a major reason why its activities often seem to ordinary people to be so distant, so out of touch with their real concerns, and so difficult to control.

     

  3. Why has this been allowed to happen?

The lack of genuine democracy in the EU stems partly from its history and partly from its structure. It has always been an élitist organisation, reflected in the contempt for popular views often expressed by leading EU figures. History and structure have therefore combined to produce organisational forms which allow those who run the EU to pursue policies largely untrammelled by the democratic pressures to which all governments of Member States are subject. The European Parliament, the only directly elected component, has little effective authority, while it provides a visible but largely spurious democratic veneer to the EU. This means that the people of the European Union appear to have the right to vote, but only in a way which is a travesty of true democracy. They cannot get rid of the Commission, where the real power lies, and therefore their ability to influence what it does is strictly limited. The reality is that the voters have very little control over the people who are in practice responsible for running the EU, initiating new policies, and then arranging how to implement them.

3. Why is this so important?

For centuries in Europe, at national level, often with Britain in the forefront, there has been a steady advance in the ability of the people to determine who shall form the government, which policies governments, once elected, will pursue, and what attention they will pay to different interests in the community. History tells us that all governments, however well intentioned, have a tendency sooner or later to lose touch with those who elected them, to become self-serving and corrupted, to run out of ideas, and to need to be removed so that alternatives can be tried. The essence of democracy is to allow this process to take place. It is the confidence among the voters that, come election time, their opinions count, and that they can change the way they are governed, that holds free civic societies together. This is how to keep extremism at bay, to encourage respect for the law, and to allow new ideas, policies, parties and priorities to develop, in line with public opinion.

 

4. What dangers does the European Union face as a result of its lack of democracy at the European rather than national level?

The dangers are obvious and manifest. All governments everywhere, which are not subject to democratic control - in the EU’s case largely the Commission - tend to set their own agendas, and to run the organisations for which they are responsible in their own interests rather than those of the people whom nominally they serve. The Commission has an overwhelming interest in seeing power centralised in Brussels, at the expense of the Member States, which is precisely what is happening. It has a major concern in widening its power of competence, in taking over more and more functions, in promulgating more and more regulations, and in standardising activities throughout the area where its writ runs. It has a major interest in seeing the size of the budget for which it is responsible increasing, while those of competing centres of power, such as national Parliaments, are constrained or reduced. Again, these tendencies are plain for all to see. The real problem with the European Union is that much too many of its affairs are run by an unaccountable and secretive self-perpetuating bureaucracy, subject to no effective democratic checks.

 

5. Why cannot the administration of the European Union be made more responsive?

Bemoaning the "democratic deficit" in the European Union is a common complaint, but doing something about it is extremely difficult. Consideration of the power structure within the EU shows why this is the case. Reforming the European Parliament, to make it perform the same function as national assemblies, does not look remotely on the cards. Those in power in Brussels would fight tooth and nail to stop this happening. But there is a deeper reason why the European Parliament cannot make up the "democratic deficit". The European Union is an embryonic state – but it is a state without a nation and without a people. Unless and until the different people’s of Europe feel that they are European more than they are French, German, British etc., no European Parliament whatever its powers, could obtain legitimacy and authority for its decisions.

6. Why does this matter so much?

The reason why the lack of accountability is so important is clear to see. Entirely predictably, because of the lack of effective democratic control, the power now concentrated in Brussels is not being used to deal with the most pressing concerns of the voters in Member States. By far the major concerns of ordinary people are their stagnant living standards, the spectre or reality of unemployment, job insecurity, crime and civil disorder, and constrained public expenditure, as the EU’s faltering economic policies directly affect the quality of the public services on which more and more people depend. This is ever more critical as the population grows older, and incomes become more polarised. The European Union has no effective policies in place to deal with these pressing problems. On the contrary, its response to the EU’s dismal economic record over the last quarter of a century has been the most important centralising measure yet, the creation of the Single Currency – a policy hugely in the interests of the centralising Brussels bureaucracy – but which is all too likely to exacerbate the very problems about which ordinary people are most concerned.

 

7. What is wrong with the Single Currency?

Almost everything. The Single Currency project has always been driven by politics – the ambition to create a European State. There have never been convincing economic arguments for Economic and Monetary Union in Europe. The savings on transaction costs are likely to be small in relation to the transitional costs to the euro. There is no evidence that creating a Single Currency will produce any significant increase in trade or competition, or that real interest rates will be lower, or investment higher once the euro is in place. On the downside, however, as the history of previous attempts to lock EU currencies together - with the Snake and the ERM - has shown, the risks are very high that the Single Currency will produce more deflation, slow growth and unemployment. The EU lacks every key requirement for a Single Currency area. It does not have reasonably homogenous standards of living and competitiveness between its regions. It lacks redistributive budgets to enable advantaged areas to compensate those not doing so well. Language, custom and market rigidities make it impossible for labour to react to unemployment by moving elsewhere to find jobs. It has a heavy deflationary bias, capped by the European Central Bank, whose unelected governing membership, appointed for a minimum term of eight years, is deprived by the very instruments setting it up from being subject to democratic control or even influence. This is another telling example of the lack of democracy in the EU where it is so badly needed.

 

8. What is likely to be the future of the Single Currency?

All historical evidence indicates that Single Currencies lacking the backing of a unified state tend to collapse, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Most enjoy a honeymoon period before disruptive pressures materialise, but economic life is too unstable for such conditions to last. Sooner or later events occur which put Single Currencies under great strain. Should this happen in the EU, one of two results is almost certain to occur. Either the Single Currency will break up, or there will be further formidable pressures to centralise power, and in particular financial power, in Brussels, to shore up the Single Currency’s existence. This would have to be achieved by transferring responsibility for taxation and expenditure on programmes, such as Defence, Education, Health or Social Security, from the Member States to the EU. This would be the only practical way of creating sufficient taxation and spending power at the EU centre to hold the Single Currency together.

 

9. What would be the democratic implications of these developments?

Creating the Single Currency, and then having it disintegrate, would be a disaster for everyone. Transferring vast additional powers to Brussels, however, is very likely to be an even worse outcome. The democratic structures to enable such financial power to be exercised accountably do not exist, and there is no prospect of them being created in the foreseeable future. The people of neither Britain nor other countries in the EU show any sign of wanting this kind of centralised, bureaucratic Europe. Thus the daunting prospect facing the EU in future is that the price to be paid for keeping the Single Currency in place, as the inevitable strains on it begin to materialise, may be the sacrifice and suppression of the very democratic structures and processes which it was the primary intention of the founders of the Common Market to preserve.

 

10. Why is democracy so important?

The major reason for founding the Common Market, which has developed into the European Union, was to build a political framework which would make it impossible to repeat the devastating wars which had torn Europe apart during the first half of the twentieth century. The irony is that it is not political structures which stop wars breaking out. It is democracy which fulfils that role. Functioning democracy allows tensions and conflicts of interest to be solved by compromise, in a civilised and generally acceptable way. It allows new ideas, new trends, and new people to come to the fore peacefully, without the use of force and coercion. The major failure of the EU is that it has tried to centralise power, without corresponding democratic control. This is why it is responding so inappropriately to the biggest dangers facing Europe. These are not nowadays the prospects of wars between Member States, although Yugoslavia, in Europe’s hinterland, is an awful reminder of how easy it is to slip backwards. The great threats to Europe are civic disorder and crime, racism and extremism, corruption and cronyism. Their causes – always - are a combination of economic failure on the one hand and on the other a breakdown in civic trust and confidence in the ability of the democratic process to respond. These are the dangers which the EU now faces as the safety valve provided by democracy is eroded away, and the EU’s self serving élites foist on the EU a combination of economic prescriptions, social policies and political structures which do not work, and which are not what the people want.

 

Published by the Labour Euro-Safeguards Campaign

72 Albert Street, London, NW1 7NR

Tel: 0171-388 2259 * Fax: 0171-388 3454

e-mail: lesc@johnmills.co.uk