« L'Europe se fera dans les crises et elle sera la somme des solutions apportées à ces crises »—Jean Monnet
In Today’s speech at Chatam House, David Cameron highlighted a series of priorities to reform the EU, if the UK is to remain in the Union.
Interestingly, one of them touched upon the issue of “democratic deficit”. One could note, at this regard, that progress has actually been achieved independently from the process of treaty revision, with the (in)-direct and political election of the President of the Commission; a progress that Cameron himself attempted to sabotage. His own solution is not nearly as interesting: instead of having a legitimated, elected European Government, he envisages veto-powers for coalitions of national parliaments.
While, at a first glance, this may sound reasonable, little further investigation would show that actually the governments of the EU already dispose of such a power: in fact, the ministries in the Council can veto almost any legislation provided that a sufficiently (small) minority block is achieved.
So countries already have such a power: why should it be duplicated?
One could say that, on one thing, Cameron is right: it is the government of a country, and not its parliament, that detains such a power. So how to heal the Democratic Deficit of the European Union and get the citizens closer to the Institutions? After all, we cannot accept to live in an un-democratic Europe. So on this Cameron is right: National Parliaments should play a greater role to solve the democratic deficit. However, we should equally be careful in not over-represting the interest of (coalitions of) member states against the interest of the Union: Member-states interests are represented in the composition of the Commission, in the European Council, and in the Council. If there is one (democratic) interest which is under-represented, is the will of the European people expressed through the European Parliament elections.
However, we are willing to give a hand to Mr. the Prime Minister in is quest for empowering the national parliaments, and we even have a proposal in hand which does not require treaty change. In fact, many opportunities are in the hands of each individual member state and its political class. National politicians can do a lot to address the Democratic Deficit of the EU if only they were willing to.
So here we go: the best way to achieve Cameron’s own goals without adding up to the EU bureaucracy and slowness is to actually sobstitute the government’s “permanent ambassadors” in the Council meetings with the heads of the relevant Committees in the national parliaments. This does not require Treaty change and actually each national government can do this decision of its own will, because it is a matter of national sovreignity to decide who shall represent the country in the Council.
With that I stand along Cameron: Parliaments and not Governments shall be empowered not only to veto, but to co-legislate, on EU-related issue. Details of the proposal follow below.
The Council, all over again?- Few people in the public at large are aware that the second, powerful Chamber of the EU, the Council of the European Union, besides being one of the less transparent and less democratic bodies of the Union actually is also an institution with “variable geometry”. This is true in both directions: there’s horizontal variable geometry, when the Council brings together Ministers from different member countries to discuss and vote on sectorial issues. And there’s vertical variable geometry, as the overwhelming great part of the negotiations (and votes) do not happen at Ministerial level (ministers do not have time to spend weeks in Brussels to define details of legislation).
The core of the power of the Council stays in hand of the Permanent Representatives, who are chosen by national governments as their “ambassadors” in Brussels and hold negotiations in the Coreper, the Committee of Permanent Representatives. They negotiate the national positions over all the normal legislative acts, they manage to find an agreement with the lower chamber, the European Parliament. They are the true upper chamber of the Union, as national ministries, most of the time, ratify with minor changes the agreements resulted within the Coreper meetings.
Differently from the members of the European Parliament, however, most of the Permanent Representatives (or ambassador) never faced any popular vote. They are selected by national government as pure expression of the national interest, and they cannot be held in front of the electorate for their decisions. In other words, the Coreper is an essential institution of the current setting of the EU, but is also one of the main sources of democratic deficit. How to address this essential issue without harming the working machine of the EU?
It’s easy as it seems to be- The solution to that is elegantly simple and does not require any stressful European Summit to agree upon. Moreover, it will make happy thousands on national MPs in all the Union, if it is true that National Parliaments are desperately seeking a role in the decision making process of the European Union that none of the current procedures would ever provide.
The idea is simple: at each new national election, lets the National Parliaments elect, within the ranks of the government majority, the Permanent Representatives. There is no need of coordination here: Single national government could act independently in initiating this new procedure for democratizing the Council when they consider it more appropriate. Some would maybe never do that, and they will be accountable for that in front of their citizens. But others will, increasing the role of the Parliaments and of the citizens in the daily management of the European affairs. The position could be simply renewed at each national election: with the time, citizens will learn that voting for national parliament does matter for Europe. and, again, one should point out that no-treaty change nor comprehensive agreement is needed: national governments will independently decide over the issue as easy as it seems to be.
In the long run, the Council would become, progressively, a real Chamber of Nations, rightfully and counter-balancing the Chamber of the Union. Democracy has its subtle ways to proceed when great constitutional agreements are missing, and the Parliamentarization of the Council would surely be one of them, a small step forward in European Integration that would give a deadly strike to the (true) foundations of the resurgent neo-nationalist rhetoric. The Union, the Member states with their parliaments, and most of all, their citizens, will greatly benefit of a similar change.
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