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Can Brussels Earn the Right to Act?

Source: Global Thinking, The FPC Newsletter

As the convention on the future of Europe holds its first meeting, Mark Leonard argues the case for the principle of subsidiarity.

Abraham Lincoln famously described democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people". The popular perception of the EU is that it fails on all counts.

When the Convention on the Future of Europe starts its work this month, they will be focusing on how to prove that the EU is run "by the people". Many of the measures they are examining are designed to deal with the "democratic deficit" – the fact that the European Commission is not elected and that there is no clear way for citizens to voice their preferences. But one of the unfortunate consequences of the way the debate is framed is that very little attempt has been made to address the other side of the democratic principle: ensuring that the outcomes the EU delivers are genuinely "for the people".

It is almost universally accepted that most citizens worry more about the impact of EU institutions on their lives than about the obscure processes that produce them. The gulf between what people expect from the EU (solutions to cross border problems) and what they think they get (interference in their every day lives and the Common Agricultural Policy) is more damaging to the legitimacy of the EU than any formal democratic deficit. Such attitudes explain why the question of subsidiarity has recently been rising up the EU's agenda.

The problem with the principle of subsidiarity – apart from its total lack of popular resonance - has been its failure to take hold in practice. This is because none of the actors in the EU system have much of an interest in making it work. Subsidiarity has traditionally been seen as a way of separating powers between institutions rather than as a way of allocating power to the most effective level and the debate about the distribution of power in the EU is still going down this route. The French and British Governments have rightly argued that fixing exclusive competences for each level of government is neither possible (they are almost always shared between different levels of government) nor desirable (it makes the task of future reform ever harder and puts sensitive decisions about sovereignty in the hands of lawyers rather than elected politicians). They have therefore favoured a political approach – involving national MPs or MEPs in deciding whether things are done at the right level. This is a useful strategy, but it ignores the most significant issue: on what basis would decisions about the allocation of power be made?

The guiding principle that I will propose in a forthcoming Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet, is the need for EU institutions to 'earn the right to act'. The idea is that the European Council should systematically set objectives in each of the main areas of policy. Once the use of these explicit policy objectives has become widespread, there should then be an ongoing and independent evaluation of performance in all the main areas of EU policy competence. This could be carried out by an independent body such as the European Court of Auditors. Evaluations (presented in report form and then published for public dissemination) could examine the following criteria:

Efficiency – essentially a cost-benefit analysis, examining whether policies are justifying the time and money invested in them.

Effectiveness – are the objectives listed in the preambles being met?

Appropriateness – was this the best way to have approached the problem? In cases where objectives have been set at the Community level and policy-design left to the individual national governments, where are the examples of best practice to be found? Is a transfer of competence to a different institution, or the use of different implementing mechanisms, likely to improve the output?

Sustainability – how is the output likely to evolve in the future?

From an examination of each of these criteria, a series of recommendations could be drawn up. These might include a recommendation that authority over a particular policy-area be redistributed: for example, where existing EU-level action is proving unsuccessful, reintegration into national-level policy-making would be recommended, or where EU-level action is working well, further complementary powers can be extended to the Community level. A radical recommendation might be that a piece of legislation be removed altogether.

The potential value of such reports is clear. Recommendations for improving performance would make it easier to root out bad legislation made for the sake of a package deal. Importantly, the reports would also be published for public scrutiny, generating media coverage of the specifics of policy-making. The reports themselves, of course, would be nothing more than a set of recommendations, often of a fairly technocratic nature. They would not in themselves carry the authority to make changes, since the ECA has not been designed to be democratically accountable. But these reports would be the basis for a political review process in which all final decisions on the allocation of competence would be taken.

These ideas draw on the experience of other countries, such as the US, who introduced the "Government Performance Results Act" to 'improve the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal Government by systematically holding Federal agencies accountable for achieving programme results".

Such an output-based approach can never, of course, be sufficient in its own right, because at some stage people must buy into the idea of Europe, and this idea will embody some kind of ideal as well as a 'list of practical advantages'. But it does seem clear that people are not going to make that leap of faith unless they see the EU delivering tangible benefits. If effectiveness is not improved, no amount of structural tinkering or meetings of the European convention will convert the unbelievers.