Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Why the EU cannot go on like this


EUOBSERVER / COMMENT – Between 1998 and 2004, according to the German ministry of justice, 23,167 legal acts were adopted in Germany, of which 18,917, some 80% of the total, were of EU origin, meaning that only one-fifth originated domestically.

Referring to this, former president of Germany Roman Herzog wrote in Welt Am Sonntag on 14 January “By far the largest part of the current laws in Germany are agreed by the Council of Ministers and not the German parliament…Therefore the question has to be asked whether Germany can still unreservedly call itself a parliamentary democracy.”

While the proportion of domestic to European laws will differ from country to country, it seems safe to say that in every EU member state at present well over half the laws each year come from Brussels. Only a minority originate domestically. Dr Herzog’s question may therefore also be asked of them: can they unreservedly call themselves parliamentary democracies any longer?

This prompts further questions: why is it that national parliaments have been so willing to divest themselves of so much of their power to make laws? Why have governments and government ministers, and aspiring ministers on opposition benches, gone along so readily for decades with such a shift of power from the national to the EU level, when it has left their national parliaments but shells of their former selves? I suggest that the only plausible explanation is something along these lines:

At national level when a minister wants to get something done, he or she must have the backing of the prime minister, must have the agreement of the minister for finance if it means spending money, and above all must have majority support in the national parliament, and implicitly amongst voters in the country.

Shift the policy area in question to the supranational level of Brussels however, where laws are made primarily by the 27-member Council of Ministers, and the minister in question becomes a member of an oligarchy, a committee of lawmakers, the most powerful in history, making laws for 500 million Europeans, and irremovable as a group regardless of what it does.

National parliaments and citizens lose power with every EU treaty, for they no longer have the final say in the policy areas concerned. Individual ministers on the other hand obtain an intoxicating increase in personal power, as they are transformed from members of the executive arm of government at national level, subordinate to a national legislature, into EU-wide legislators at the supranational.

For national ministers operating on the EU stage, keeping in with their fellow-members of the exclusive council of ministers “club” of EU lawmakers tends gradually to become more personally important to them than being awkward in defence of their own people’s interests.

Dissent from the predominant consensus on the council risks one being branded as a trouble-maker. Ministers tend to identify ever more with the EU state-building project. They see themselves as political architects of a superpower in the making.

Increasingly they come to see one of their key functions vis-a-vis their fellow EU Council members as delivering their national electorates in support of further European integration. It is an especially attractive prospect for government ministers from smaller countries.

At the same time as it turns national ministers into supranational legislators, the shift of policy areas from the national to the EU level frees the national civil servants dealing with them from scrutiny of their actions by elected national parliaments.

It increases their bureaucratic power as they interact with their opposite numbers in the Brussels commission in drafting and often deciding on EU legislation. For the great bulk of European laws are never debated at council of minister level, but are formally rubber-stamped if agreement has been reached further down amongst the civil servants on the 300 council sub-committees or the 3,000 or so committees that are attached to the commission.

EU integration therefore has become not just a process of depriving Europe’s peoples of their national democracy and independence. Within each member state it represents a gradual coup by government executives against legislatures, and by politicians against the citizens who elect them.

It hollows out the nation state, sucking the reality of power from its traditional government institutions, while leaving these still formally intact.

They still keep their old names – parliament, government, supreme court – so that their citizens do not get too alarmed, but their classical functions have been transformed.

Their prime purpose now is to be transmitters of EU laws, executive edicts and legal judgements, as the attempt to subsume the nation states of Europe into a highly centralised supranational EU federation grinds relentlessly on its way.

This is why sensible people everywhere will surely echo the concluding words of the former German president to his article “Most people have a fundamentally positive attitude to European integration. But at the same time, they have an ever increasing feeling that something is going wrong, that an non-transparent, complex, intricate, mammoth institution has evolved, divorced from the factual problems and national traditions, grabbing ever greater competences and areas of power; that the democratic control mechanisms are failing: in brief, that it cannot go on like this.”

By Anthony Coughlan

The author is senior lecturer emeritus in social policy at Trinity College, Dublin, and secretary of the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre, Ireland.

This article first appeared on EU Observer