Sunday, March 25, 2012

Democratic Deficit

Charlemagne was clearly out of ideas, so he wrote the same column that people have been writing since De Gaulle was president. This, in turn, inspired Benjamin Fox on EUObserver to write some platitudes of his own, some of which are unfortunately, well, wrong. I suppose this shows the difference between the guy that works for the European Parliament and sometimes writes something for EUObserver and the guy who writes for The Economist full time: only the latter is able to avoid the temptation of thinking that the Westminster model is the only way to do it.

Just to clarify, this is wrong:
The Parliament’s election system hardly helps matters. Most member states elect MEPs through the utterly impersonal closed party list system, where MEPs do not represent a local constituency and people vote for a party rather than a candidate. With closed lists the power of election lies almost exclusively in the hands of party bosses – the voters have very little scope to hire and fire their representatives.
And this is right:
Legitimacy requires reforms at both national and European levels. The European Parliament’s 754 MEPs should be sharply pruned, as should its inflated costs. Its workings involve too many cosy deals among Europe’s big party alliances. That said, countries will remain central to the EU, no matter how far it integrates. The EU’s powers and money are conferred by states. EU laws are enacted through governments. Above all, politics is mainly national. So national parliaments need to be more involved in the EU’s work, starting with closer scrutiny of its policies. The Danish system, in which the Folketing (parliament) agrees to ministers’ negotiating mandates before they go to Brussels, is a good example. For all its flaws, the European Parliament is here to stay. All aboard the next train to Strasbourg.
In fact, many other EU Member States are already experimenting with the Danish system, although I must say that based on my limited experience of watching the Danish negotiate in COREPER, the Council of Ministers would completely break down if all countries worked that way. Then the whole EU would slow down to "tempo thirty-eleven".

Even though Het Genootschap Onze Taal says that the following story is wrong, I'm going to tell it anyway: In the time of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (1581-1795), the provincial parliaments that actually exercised the sovereign power did not work on the basis of representative democracy, as they do now. Instead, each of the representatives had detailed instructions on how to vote on any given issue, and if something came up that was not covered in the instructions, the representative had to return to his city or county for "ruggespraak". Because Friesland had - and still has - 11 cities, as well as 30 rural counties, this took a very long time, hence the Dutch expression of doing something "op z'n elfendertigst", meaning very slowly. (Apparently, the actual source of the expression is something to do with the weaving of textiles, but I fell asleep half-way through the explanation, so I couldn't say for sure.)

Anyway, as I was saying, if all EU Member States are going to use the Danish system, the mandates had better not be too strictly defined, and had better leave some room for on the ground rethinking, lest the European decision making process crawl to a halt even more than it already has. In any event, the last thing I want is a shift towards a more Westminster-oriented system, where my vote suddenly becomes completely meaningless because I happen to live in a Regione dominated by the centre-left.

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