Memorandum submitted by the Federal Union
REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY HAS NOT PASSED ITS
1. This paper looks at the unpopularity
of political institutions in general, the unpopularity of the
European Union institutions in particular, and outlines some principles
upon which reform should be based. It looks in particular at an
enlarged role for member state parliaments in EU decision-making,
and concludes that there is considerable scope for improving the
way in which member states' ministers are held accountable for
2. The European Scrutiny Committee is to
be commended for initiating this enquiry and for the way it has
spelled out the issues to be examined. Whole books and even careers
have been devoted to investigating the answers: this paper can
only serve as a short summary. More detail and further evidence
can be provided, if requested.
Why are political institutions unpopular?
3. To consider the question of why the European
institutions are unpopular it makes sense to unpack the question
4. why political institutions in general
5. why this might affect the EU institutions
6. It should not be surprising that political
institutions and the practice of democracy are falling into disrepute.
The essence of participation in democracy is influence: taking
part in the political process, or even something as simple as
voting, are means of expressing an opinion about the conduct of
political life in a way that will affect that political life.
The increasing concentration of political power in a few handsthe
growth in NGOs notwithstandinghas reduced the opportunities
open to individuals to express their own opinions in a way that
matters. This is particularly true of the UK, where power has
been concentrated in the hands of central government at the expense
of other institutions, including the UK parliament.
7. Some examples are needed of the failure
of voting. The London Underground will do. No-one can doubt that
the people of London voted against the government's plans for
the tube and in favour of something along the lines advocated
by the mayor. However, the decision over the future of London's
transport system was not a decision for the people of London to
be settled in a London election but rather a decision taken as
part of the general election as a whole. One could be forgiven
for wondering what, if not to decide about the transport system,
London government is for.
8. For another example, let us look at the
protection of labour rights around the world. It is increasingly
clear that the low price of many of our imported manufactured
goods depends on working practicesand particularly the
suppression of trade unionsin a way that would be roundly
illegal in this country. These practices are part of our economic
lifethe goods are on our shelvesbut we are unable
to act. There is presently no electoral forum in which this can
be an issue. Politics risks losing its function as a means to
make change and bring progress.
9. At the heart of all these examples is
the principle of subsidiaritythat power should be exercised
locally if possible, and centrally only if necessary. Instead
of subsidiarity, we have at present an accumulation of power at
the UK level, whether or not that is the best place for it. Key
decisions are out of the hands of our elected representatives.
Either these decisions are in the wrong hands, or they are not
being taken at all.
10. Federalism argues that powers should
be distributed between levels of government according to the principle
of subsidiarity. That way, we have a direct connection between
those people elected to exercise political power and the issues
over which that power may be exercised. In the absence of this
connection, democratic politics appears rapidly to be losing its
11. Having remarked on a problem with our
present political institutions as a whole, we should turn to the
European Union institutions in particular. For they command even
less loyalty amongst their citizens. Turnout in the last European
parliamentary elections was rather lower than the equivalent turnout
for national elections.
12. It is important to make clear that the
European Union is these days much more like a form of government
than it is an international institution. Its powers over important
areas of life affect us all, as citizens, consumers and taxpayers.
Indeed, in areas such as the single market and environmental policy,
it is better considered as an inadequately-formed federal system
rather than as an overgrown intergovernmental system.
13. In this light, the first observation
is that the detachment between voting and government policy is
even greater within the EU than it is at national level. For example,
Romano Prodi was nominated as president of the European Commission
in the weeks before the election rather than afterwards as normal
democratic procedure might imply. It is possible for proposals
to become law without the support of the European Parliament.
Much decision-making is wrapped up in the obscure and unaccountable
system of comitology.
14. Against this background, it is hardly
surprising that popular identification with EU decision-making
15. So, we should now turn to the question
of reform. How to make the EU more popular?
16. If one treats the EU as a federal system
that is inadequately democratic and that has not yet arrived at
the best distribution of competences, solving these problems is
the starting point. We are accustomed to the methods of parliamentary
democracy, yet at present we seek to withhold them from the EU
itself. This is nonsense.
17. Further, the issues that Brussels cannot
handle effectively should be handed back to the member states.
The repatriation of powers has hitherto been resisted as it might
be taken as undermining the standing of the EU. Surely now, after
forty years, it can survive this. Far worse would be to allow
the EU to continue to accrete responsibilities that national or
regional governments could handle better.
18. For example, the need for such extensive
EU social policies, extending also to fields such as culture and
public health, should be rethought. There has been a great deal
of empire-building that could, and should, be cut back.
19. The role of national parliaments within
the EU requires a particular comment. It will be apparent from
the foregoing that we do not think that the governance of the
EU suffers from a lack of specifically national influence. The
call for a new chamber composed of national parliamentarians misses,
we think, the point.
20. For most legislative issues, the EU
currently has a two-chamber legislature: the European Parliament;
and the Council of Ministers. A new chamber of national parliamentarians
would be not a second chamber, as is sometimes mistakenly reported,
but a third chamber. This does not fit with the goal of simplifying
the system. Indeed, we can find no example of a democratic legislature
anywhere in the world that has three chambers.
21. Next, members of the Council of Ministers
are largely drawn from and theoretically accountable to national
parliaments already. For a third chamber to make a difference
to legislation, it can only be to vote down legislation that its
members have previously supported on its voyage through the Council.
22. Lastly, a part-time chamber of national
parliamentarians has been tried before. Direct elections to a
full-time European Parliament were instituted in 1979 precisely
because a part-time assembly could not keep up with the workload.
And of course, that workload has grown considerably since 1979.
23. It is essential that member states'
parliaments properly scrutinise the work of their representatives
in the Council. In order to do so, they should insist that the
Council hold its legislative sessions in public and that the Treaty
be amended to require this. The Council meets behind closed doors
because of its origins as a diplomatic club. The EU should follow
democratic rather than diplomatic principles.
24. A recent study found that of some 40,000
questions asked in the House of Commons in the 1999-2000 session,
only 79 were about business in the Council of Ministers. Members
of the House do not need to look far for one of the reasons why
the decisions of the European Union sometimes appear distant.
25. We can also be more creative in the
way in which parliamentarians work. We should not be wholly fixated
on the member state level. The Committee of the Regions brings
together elected representatives from the sub-member state levels
of government to provide them with a voice. Perhaps the specialist
committees of the European Parliament and member state parliaments
can meet together to consider proposals from the European Commission
that fall within their scope.
26. This paper concludes with the observation
with which it opened. Political institutions in general are declining
in popularity because power and accountability are increasingly
separated. It would be wrong to suggest that the EU's problems
can be solved by giving yet more power to national governments.
In the end, there is no substitute for adapting to the changing
distribution of power in the world and reallocating elected authority
to bring it back under democratic political control.
27. In the EU, we suggest that this means
that the ministers in the Council must be more accountable to
the citizens' representatives in the member states' parliaments.
Furthermore, the representatives of the citizen in the European
Parliament should have more control over the Union's legislation
and expenditure, extending the co-decision between the Council
and the European Parliament to the whole of those rather than
only around half of each as at present. The system of parliamentary
government, which applies in the UK and most other European countries,
also makes the executive accountable to the legislature: this
points to the election of the Commission by the European Parliament
rather than directly by the citizens.
28. These principles of parliamentary representative
government, which Britain did so much to establish, are still
the basis for a sound relationship between the citizens and the
way in which they are governed. The world may be changingand
political institutions must be ready to follow suitbut
this does not have to be at the expense of democracy.
2 October 2001