|The Courier N° 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)|
Is there a 'democracy deficit'?
There is a growing view that, I despite all the progress that has been made towards closer European Union, democracy has, some. how or other, been left behind. Not surprisingly, the European Parliament is one of the central participants in this contentious debate and The Courier, there. fore, sought the views of its President, Egon Klepsch. As an introduction to this keynote interview, we review briefly the background to the current concerns about the EU's democratic credentials.
When, in 1951, the political leaders of six European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) put their signatures to the European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, they knew they were embarking on an exciting new experiment in interstate relations. Initially, it was one which involved the pooling of sovereignty in only two areas (coal and steel) but it was clear that the founders saw this as just the first step. Indeed, the preamble to the ECSC Treaty spoke of establishing the 'basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts.'
In 1957, the goal of 'deepening' cooperation was given a big boost with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC). This had the immediate task of establishing a customs union, as well as common policies in specified areas (notably agriculture, transport and competition), but in referring to 'an ever closer union' of the peoples of Europe, it also anticipated further developments. Subsequent treat)es have extended the scope of the Communities' activities, culminating most recently in the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty), which added two new 'pillars' to the system in the form of a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and a coordinated approach in the field of justice and internal affairs.
As for 'widening', the original six members have been joined by six more (Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK) with four applicants (Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden) on the threshold and several others knocking at the door.
The countries of western Europe have moved a long way down the path towards 'closer union' but the journey has not always been a smooth one. The 'sovereignty' concept may be becoming outdated in an increasingly interdependent world but it still exerts a powerful influence on some leaders. For them, sovereignty 'shared' equals the loss of capacity for independent action and even if options for acting independently have diminished in practice, it is not always easy for them to acknowledge this.
Evidence of the conflict between the imperative of working together and the desire to maintain one's traditional prerogatives is clear for all to see in the institutional structures of the European Union. One would need to be wearing some very heavily rose-tinted spectacles to describe them as either logical or coherent. All that one can say is that they reflect the innumerable compromises hammered out by the national ministers over the past four decades, and as such, they reveal the baseline (or lowest common denominator?) of what is politically acceptable at the present time.
The basic rule for the enactment of common rules under the Community system is that 'the Commission proposes and the Council disposes'. This is a neat little saying, but nowadays it is unduly simplistic. In fact, the procedures have become ever more complex with each treaty amendment. The Commission's power of initiation, for example, does not extend to the two new Maastricht 'pillars'. These are kept firmly in the hands of the Member States operating on an intergovernmental basis through the Council of Ministers. Most key decisions are still made by the Council whose members are ministers in their national governments. A further complication arises from the fact that this body has a variety of voting systems - unanimity is needed in some areas, a qualified majority (based on weighted votes) in others, while some minor matters are settled by simple majority. And then there is the European Parliament - directly elected since 1979 and anxious to expand its powers. This institution already has considerable authority over the budget and it may dismiss the Commission but until recently, its other functions were mainly consultative. Now it has the right to block some (but not all) measures with its recently acquired right of 'co-decision' and the Maastricht Treaty appears to open up new possibilities in this.
As the Community, and now the Union has expanded into new fields of competence, concern has arisen in many quarters about the democratic credentials of the institutional system that has developed alongside. There are two aspects in particular, which exercise the proponents of greater democracy. These are the exclusive power of the non-elected Commission to take initiatives in the economic sphere and the vesting of legislative competence in a body - the Council - which meets in secret and is largely unaccountable (although individual ministers may have to answer to their national Parliaments). The powers have been transferred to a European level, so the argument goes, but the democratic controls have not and the result is what is popularly (and somewhat ungrammatically) known as a 'democratic deficit'. It is suggested that much of the mistrust of 'Europe' among the Union's own populations is based on the fact that they feel progressively excluded from participation in the system.
From the 'democracy' standpoint, the key European player in the system must obviously be the European Parliament. In the interview which follows, President Egon Klepsch explains where the Parliament stands on the issue of the 'democracy deficit' and outlines the areas where he hopes to see Europe's elected chamber make further progress in the coming years.
President Klepsch: Parliament must make full use of Maastricht Treaty opportunities
· President Klepsch. There is a widely held view that the European Union suffers from a 'democracy deficit'. Do you agree with this?
- This is a statement that has been made over the years although the background has changed. Over the last two decades, the Parliament has worked to increase its responsibilities and to enhance its ability to influence and structure the policy of the Community. But I think it is true to say that the big step forward came with the Treaty of Maastricht. Of course, we are still seeking additional competences and powers, but I think the immediate aim must be to consolidate our position by making use of the opportunities afforded by the Maastricht Treaty to the fullest extent possible.
In my opinion there are a lot of things to be tackled in this area. For example, the Treaty on European Union sets out a new relationship between the Commission and the Parliament. By a majority vote of its membership, the Parliament could, in the past, dismiss the Commission as a whole. Indeed, it was the only body that could do this. But now, it also has a role at the appointment stage. It must confirm the choice both of the Commission President and of the other Commission members. This changes the situation, giving us a structure more like the government in a normal country. For if you are responsible for their inauguration, as well as being able to dismiss them, then the nature of the relationship is much clearer.
This year the Parliament will have to exercise this responsibility for the first time, with the appointment of the new Commission which is due to take office on 7 January 1995. The matter will probably be discussed at the Corfu Summit of Heads of Government in June this year and we will be using the opportunity to set out our position regarding the composition of the Commisson and the programme which we want to see being put forward.
· Regarding the future, you say that you have to consolidate Masstricht, but there will be a further intergovernmental conference in 1996 which is expected to focus on the institutional workings of the European Union. So, looking further ahead, what do you think are likely to be the Par/iament's goals?
- We think we need a further step forward at the 1996 conference. The first point is that the Parliament should participate in its preparation. The current chairman of the Council has promised he will propose that the Parliament be included, both in preparing the work of the conference, and as a participant in the proceedings.
But speaking about using the Maastricht Treaty to the fullest, there are some particular points which I think should be underlined. Take the power of codecision whereby the Parliament's view can prevail in situation where there is no unanimity in the Council of Ministers. Previously, this was limited to internal market questions and certain multi-annual programmes. But there are other decisions which the Council can make by majority vote and following Maastricht, it is now possible to extend the power of codecision without any further treaty changes. We are ready to fight for this.
A second issue involves our position regarding international agreements. We are already responsible for ratifying treaties relating to the enlargement of the Union, and association agreements with third countries. But now we have the task of ratifying all treaties which have financial, economic or political keypoints. We are ready to use our powers in these new fields as well.
Thirdly, we have to inaugurate certain new Community structures: the ombudsman system, for example, which will give people the chance to complain and seek help if they feel that they are being subject to undue pressure from bureaucratic measures. The ombudsman is chosen by, and responsible only to the Parliament. There are also the proposed committees of inquiry which will give us the chance to control the methods and activities of the European bureaucracy - not just in the Commission but in the Council as well. Then there is the question of establishing close links with the new Committee of the Regions, as well deepening cooperation with the Economic and Social Committee. But perhaps the most important thing of all for us is to work more closely with the national parliaments - because this could gives us some genuine opportunities to control the workings of the Council.
There must be no going back
· One of the points which you have just mentioned is the Parliament's role in ratifying treaties. We have a difficult situation at the moment over the proposal to increase the blocking minority in the Council to take account of the en/argement of the European Union. What is your position on this?
- The position of the Parliament in this case is very clear. We are not ready to go back in the institutional structure of the Community. This means that the qualified minority of 23 votes must be changed and a 27 vote minimum must be introduced. If we don't do this, we reduce the cohesion of the Community and we reduce its transparency and democracy. The Parliament will not ratify a development which goes in this direction.
In practice, we will also have to fight to ensure that inter-institutional agreements are observed. The Treaty of Maastricht is quite clear but it has some complicated rules and procedures. To make it work, we are going to have some difficult discussions because the bureaucracy doesn't necessarily like to understand the changes which the Treaty brings in terms of democracy and transparency. We have already reached agreements about budgetary development over the coming years, about the ombudsman, about subsidiarily, and about transparency and democracy and we are negotiating about committees of inquiry. We are also asking for an inter-institutional agreement on procedures relating to the three pillars of the European Union; that is to say the common foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs, and the economic and monetary union. These three areas are obviously of great interest to us. We shall have to work hard on this and, if it is not possible to reach an agreement, it may be necessary for us to ask the European Court of Justice to give an interpretation of some articles of the Treaty.
· Among existing Member States, there appear to be starkly different views about where the European Union should be heading. The UK government, in particular, seems now to be arguing for a 'Europe des patries' while others still support a 'closer union' leading to some kind of federal or confederal arrangement How can the gulf between such apparently irreconcilable positions be bridged?
- I will speak frankly about this question. All governments have to comply with the treaties that we have already made together. Some of the ideas which have been put forward recently involve a backward step away from the 'acquis communautaire' . The Parliament is strictly against such a development. We want to move forward towards better and closer relations, based on the principle of subsidiarily. I should stress that we are not interested in creating a centralised state. The European Union is sui generis - a unique system in which democratic structures are necessary and we have to confront the undemocratic attitudes which are still to be found in some quarters.
And may I say that the European Parliament is much better placed than the Council when it comes to finding common solutions. The Council tries to add together the interests of the 12 Member States. Our aim, on the other hand, is to find the common interest and we have been very successful in this regard. Take, for example, the decision about the composition and structure of the Parliament itself, where the Council accepted what the Parliament had put forward. If the Council itself had tried to come up with a solution, it would have found it very difficult indeed. You see today, in the discussions about the future structure of the Council after enlargement, or about the Common Agricultural Policy, that the Parliament does better than the Ministers, in finding a coherent approach.
· What is the current situation regarding the French threat to block the increase in the Par/iament's membership if you fail to sign a lease for the new accomodation in Strasbourg?
- The problem is not with the French Government but with France's National Assembly. However, I think it is a peripheral question. The issue of where the Parliament should hold its plenary sessions has already been decided and I think that this particular question should be resolved by the end of this month.
· Does the lack of a common system for elections to the European Parliament undermine its democratic legitimacy?
Regarding this issue, we have tried on occasion to find a way of integrating the British system with the continental approach based on proportional representation. I think we have been very creative in this regard but the basic problem is the majority tradition in the United Kingdom. On the continent, we have a lot of experience of working in coalition governments and respecting the results of the proportional system.
What we are trying to do is find a combination between the proportional and majority constituency system such as exists in Germany, or now in Italy. But i must acknowledge that the time is not right for achieving unanimity on this question.