Essentially journalists, politicians, bloggers and the general public have two frames of reference when talking about the European Union. Either it’s talked about in terms similar to the descriptions used for international organisations (the UN, NATO) or in terms similar to states.
Take for example the question of whether the EU is adequately democratic. Compare the level of democratic accountability in the EU, where the European Parliament has rather little scope to shape the major issues of the day, and that in a state in the developed world, and the answer is clear – the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. Compare the EU to NATO or the UN and – unique among international organisations – it does have a democratically elected parliament, so it’s far, far ahead of those organisations.
When it comes to discussions about the budget the EU needs we’re stuck again. Compare the EU’s €140 billion annual budget to that of other organisations and it’s huge. Compare it to the budget of European states and its something close the the amount of public spending of a state the size of Portugal. Some UK government departments spend more than the entire EU does. [Note: this doesn’t mean the EU need spend more, or that what it spends today is right]
So – in short – what’s your yardstick?
Argue that the European Union essentially should remain an intergovernmental bargain among states, that it should remain technocratic, limited and shallow, is an intellectually coherent position. But you cannot in the same breath argue the case that the European Union is not adequately democratic. Networks of states imply incremental progress and slow negotiations behind closed doors. There’s not even the debate over whether the UN, G20 or NATO are democratically legitimate.
Further, the notion that the root of EU democracy lies with national elections is, and will always be, rubbish. Yes, the 27 governments are legitimate, but what can any government honestly put forward in terms of an EU policy in an election campaign and stand a chance of delivering? Just look at the knots the Tories are tying themselves in over the referendum lock idea.
This approach guards national sovereignty, but damns the notion of an effective or democratic EU.
The opposite position is to take the yardstick of a federal state, and use that to determine your answer to questions about EU politics. Here you come up with ways to achieve genuine democratic accountability – a European Parliament that would choose the executive, the European Commission, and hence have a role setting the political direction of the European Union. The EU would gain its legitimacy from the people primarily, but also through its states represented in the Council.
This approach, too, is intellectually coherent, but it damns national sovereignty and emphasises EU-wide democratic legitimacy and effectiveness.
Considering the challenges the western world is facing – succinctly outlined today by Timothy Garton Ash – which of those future EUs would do a better job? I’d bet it’s not the first.
Yet the prospects of making any steps towards the federation of Europe have never looked so distant. For so long federalists could at least use the process of treaty reform to advance the cause of EU-wide democracy forward at a snail’s pace, but that route has hit an impasse in an EU of 27, and it was essentially an elite, bureaucratic process anyway.
Where institutional reform offered a partial solution, proper EU-wide leadership would be another option. But as I’ve previously blogged that prospect is a distant hope, especially in the era of 24 hour news and the internet. The intergovernmental vision is as dominant as it has ever been. With an ageing population and a stuttering economy there’s little prospect of improvement.
Elderly and slightly less elderly federalists try to keep the flame alive, and in sentiment I am with them, although their lack of practical plans about how to move forward and an old-fashioned understanding of legitimacy and politics mean their efforts are destined to fail. Yes, blame the UK all you wish, but there’s scant little determination for federalism anywhere – France and Germany very much included! There also seems to be a recent tendency to favour the term ‘United States of Europe’ – not sure that’s good in Lakoff framing terms. Sure;y we don’t just want USA-lite?
So I’m stuck with the rather negative conclusion – the need for federalism in Europe is more valid than ever, but the prospects of advancing in that direction are further away than ever. It’s all understandable, but not desirable.
[UPDATE – 31.1.2011]
Anand Menon and John Peet have penned 9 pages for CER (pdf here) entitled “Beyond the European Parliament: Rethinking the EU’s democratic legitimacy”. I had intended to write a full blog post about it, but once beyond the 3 line summary realised it’s not worth the effort, and this post on federalism is already an adequate riposte. A quote from the paper: “However, the problem with the EP is that it fails to carry out satisfactorily the core task of any parliament – namely, adequately to represent its electorate. There is more to democratic legitimacy than just being elected. […] In the absence of any obvious means to remedy this failing, we consider a strengthening of the role of national parliaments to offer the best way of enhancing democratic legitimacy in the EU.” It’s not as if national parliaments are especially legitimate anyway, and how about giving the EP power to choose the Commission (the federal model) – something that Menon and Peet don’t even consider.