Labour Euro-Safeguards Campaign - Bulletin September 2011


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE EUROPEAN UNION

  1. Why is accountability such a problem in the European Union?

    It is a curious paradox that the European Union, although composed of nation states which are all democracies, is itself in no sense of the word a democratic organisation. It is, however, no coincidence that this is the case. The EU was never intended by its founders to be run by politicians who had to be elected. On the contrary, people like Jean Monnet, the moving spirit behind much of the early development of what was originally the Common Market and which is now the EU, deeply distrusted democracy. Instead, he and his associates believed that appointed officials would do a much better job, free from the necessity to get themselves elected. They would not then have to be distracted from doing the "right thing" often by stealth, as was readily admitted - by having to take account of whatever their electorates might want to see happening. Instead, they could pursue their vision for the future of Europe without having to obtain any electoral mandates for the policies which might be entailed. Unfortunately, whatever the failings of democracy - and there certainly were some between the 1914-1918 and the 1939-1945 wars in Europe - history tells us time and again that unelected self perpetuating oligarchies in the long term are worse than politicians who regularly have to face the electorate in fair elections. This is because the saving grace of organisations subject to democratic control is that they have a process available whereby people who do not do what their electorates want can be voted out of office, whether or not those who lose office in consequence think that this is reasonable. Democratically taken decisions may not always be right or sensible, viewed in the light of subsequent history, but they have the huge advantage of allowing people to choose what they think they want. The prospect of having to earn re-election also has a vitally important influence on the behaviour of those who have been elected, curbing corruption and self-seeking behaviour.

  2. What makes the EU's structure so undemocratic?

    It is the power and decision making structure of the EU which was deliberately designed to make it so undemocratic. Far too much power lies with the Commission, the European Central Bank and the Luxembourg Court, all of whom are appointed and none of whom therefore ever have to get elected. The Commission has the sole right to propose legislation, leaving even the European Council, which is made up of representatives from each Member State, powerless to initiate change. It is therefore Commission officials who have all the initiative in their hands. In contrast to what happens in all Member States, where governments are formed from within each country's parliaments or national assemblies, the European Parliament has no such powers over the Commission. It is really a consultative assembly and not a parliament at all, although the fact that it is called the European Parliament is no doubt a deliberate attempt to mislead the public into thinking it has much more of a key democratic role than it actually has. The European Central Bank, in turn, is largely outside any sort of political control and has pursued policies of its own making, primarily designed to keep inflation down, which is not by any means what ordinary people might choose, given a chance to exercise a choice. The Luxembourg Court, for its part, has adopted a role which is largely subservient to the Commission, with its decisions almost invariably supporting the extension of powers in Brussels, at the expense of the EU's constituent nation states. As was the deliberate intention, this structure gives enormous power to appointed officials at the expense of any effective electoral control over the policies which then get pursued.

  3. What are the consequences of lack of democratic control?

    The consequences of this lack of democratic control can be seen in a host of easily predictable ways. Like all organisations without any true accountability, its members have feathered their own nests to an outrageous and completely unjustifiable extent. The salaries that EU functionaries pay themselves are exorbitant. The perks they enjoy - everything from free very high quality schooling to incredibly generous resettlement allowances; from free holidays to enormous inflation proof pensions - are on a breath taking scale. Why not, when someone else is paying the bill and there is nothing to stop these kinds of perks being authorised? Nor does abuse of power over resources involve just personal enrichment. Lack of accountability has affected the whole way in which the EU operates. Its accounts have not been signed off for a staggering 16 years - a record which would put anyone in the commercial world behind bars. The Common Agricultural Policy in particular is a byword for fraud as millions of euros every year go astray on false claims for everything from non-existent olive trees in Greece to phoney accounts for dairies in France. The cost of the European Parliament and all the MEPs who get elected to it is legendary. MEPs can accumulate huge sums as a result of tax and pension privileges combined with claiming for expenses which they have never actually incurred. Even now, when most EU Member States are cutting back on public expenditure, the EU still expects significant budget increases to take place, much of it to be used on continuing to fund much too much wasteful expenditure.

  4. Where is this leading the EU?

    The lack of democracy and accountability has had two major impacts. One is that the unfairness of the way in which EU officials have abused their position combined with the incompetence and maladministration, shading into outright fraud and corruption, which the EU too often exhibits, have sickened the EU electorate, undermining support for everything the EU does. The second is that the fact that EU policy makers are not held to account by any electoral process has allowed the EU political class to impose a vision of how Europe should be run which is less and less in tune with what most people want. It is this poisonous mixture of lack of respect and affection for the EU among the electorate at large combined with lack of support for EU policies which has led to the very dangerous situation in which the EU now finds itself.

  5. What evidence is there for failing support for the EU?

    The most compelling evidence that the EU voters do not agree with the way in which the EU has developed comes from the relatively few referendums which have been held - typically only when there was no constitutional alternative to them taking place. Time after time - in Denmark, Ireland, France and Holland - proposals to push forward the centralising EU agenda were defeated - not that "No" was usually taken as an answer. Instead referendums on several occasions were simply held again, with threats in the background, until the EU got the answer it wanted. More evidence for falling support for the EU comes from the steady decline in those voting in EU elections and also from opinion polls. It is this contempt for democratic processes which has been the EU's major failing and the reason why the whole future of the EU project now looks increasingly precarious.

  6. What role has the Single Currency played in these developments?

    The EU is currently facing a major crisis as the eurozone unravels. It seems highly likely that the defaults which are looming up, as contagion about creditworthiness spreads from small countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal - and now Cyprus - to the much larger economies of Spain and Italy, will cause a major further haemorrhaging of support for EU integration. It is clear that the only way in which the Single Currency could be made to operate would be to vest much larger powers of taxation and expenditure and financial management in Brussels, at the expense of the Member States. It is equally clear that the creation of this kind of federal government structure for the EU - mirroring the one in the USA - could never be achieved without a far greater degree of electoral support than the EU is now capable of mustering. National governments would have to agree to pass responsibility for wide swathes of taxation and spending and fiscal control to Brussels and it is extremely unlikely that either they - or still less their electorates - would agree to any such transfers taking place. This is now the crucial dilemma which the EU faces. The only way of salvaging the vision shared by its hard core supporters for creating a federal European state could be accomplished is by garnering political support for levels of integration which they are now a very long way from being able to achieve. If the alternative is the disintegration of the Single Currency, as now seems highly likely, it now looks as though it may well take the prospect of any kind of United States of Europe down with it.

  7. Where does this leave Britain?

    Britain has never shared the EU integrationist aspirations of most of the continental European political class. With few exceptions, all mainstream British politicians have been dismayed rather than encouraged by the way EU policies towards building a United States of Europe have unfolded. In addition, we are heavy net contributors to EU expenditure - rising to perhaps twelve billion pounds a year by 2013. We already have contingent liabilities of about the same sum which are likely to crystallise in whole or in part if the Single Currency collapses. The UK is also likely to suffer severely along with everyone else if the euro implodes. Few people in Britain have ever supported either the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. Most people in the UK think that the EU produces far too many regulations and would much prefer us to be able to make up our own minds about matters such as social policies rather than having them decided for us in Brussels. There are therefore plenty of reasons why the UK electorate is disillusioned with the European Union. Unfortunately, however, the lack of democracy within the EU has been mirrored by the unwillingness of our political leaders in Britain ever to give the UK electorate any real say in our relations with the EU since the 1975 referendum on whether we should stay in what was then the Common Market. Widespread defaults among eurozone economies, however, may change this situation. If developments along these lines cause a really radical upheaval in the way the EU operates and the aspirations it embraces, which are even less to the taste of the British people than what we have now, the case for putting the UK's future relationships with the EU to a proper democratic test - an "in" or "out" referendum - may become unanswerable.

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