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Linking National Politics to Europe

By Simon Hix. Source: The Foreign Policy Centre

Simon Hix's policy brief was launched at the Centre with a lively debate.

Linking National Politics to Europe, 22nd April 2002

The Foreign Policy Centre in conjunction with

The British Council and Weber Shandwick | Adamson

This event was held to celebrate two events: first, the launch of Simon Hix's policy brief entitled Linking National Politics to Europe, second, to assess the first two months of the Convention on the Future of Europe. The aim of this event was to reinvigorate debate about the future of Europe – a matter with heightened relevance in the wake of the results of the first round of the French Presidential election, and Jean-Marie Le Pen's anti-Europe platform.

First, Simon Hix introduced his proposal for linking national politics to Europe through a national-level election of the Commission President. The objective of his policy brief is to tackle the problem of democratic accountability and offer solutions. His key points were:

There are currently many checks and balances in the European Union – a hallmark of a system designed with democracy and legitimacy in mind. So, why do we need change? There are 6 main reasons:

1. Once policies have been agreed, they are very hard to change, for example Common Agricultural Policy.

2. With enlargement, it is harder to form working coalitions.

3. Extending qualified majority voting reduces the legitimacy of legislation.

4. The Commission is unaccountable.

5. National parliaments' power is being eroded.

6. Public understanding of EU politics is poor.

These reasons together mean that even though outcomes are close to public wishes, EU policy is not legitimate.

What is needed:

  • Contest and debate, with a mandate for political change when needed.
  • Greater accountability of the Commission.
  • No division of polities along national lines.
  • Checks and balances maintained to constrain the majority.

Four possibilities:

1. Retaining the Nice status quo, with election by qualified majority in the Council.

2. Election by a simple majority in the European Parliament.

3. Direct presidential election.

4. Indirect presidential election by an electoral college comprising members of national parliaments.

Problems with the status quo:

  • Reduced legitimacy of the most powerful office in the EU.
  • Likelihood of the same majority in the legislature and the executive branches.
  • Removes a key check on the majority in the Council.

Problems with a simple majority:

  • The European Parliament majority will be less legitimate than the Council with qualified majority voting.
  • No strong winning majority.
  • Low electoral turnout will not improve.
  • Fusing of executive and legislative majorities.
  • Strength of the European Parliament will be weakened (compare the Commons in the UK to Congress in the US).

Problems with direct election:

  • Europe is not ready. Look at turnout and single issue voting in European Parliament elections.
  • There would be no debate on EU-level issues.
  • Too much power to electorates in large states.
  • Too much power to the Commission President.

Hix's proposal is to establish an electoral college comprised of national parliamentarians. Electoral college votes would be awarded to countries in line with their number of MEPs. Candidates would have to gain broad support in order to stand. Elections would all be held on the same day, with a run-off between the two leading candidates.

In practice, this would mean there would be a limited number of candidates, chosen by Europe-level parties. National parties would 'declare' for a candidate. The press, with its focus on national parliamentary politics, would cover the debate. Manifestos would focus on policy issues such as Common Agriculatural Policy, labour market reform and world trade. With the run-off, the second round would be highly likely to produce a moderate winner, who would be a well-known political figure.

Reasons to support this proposal:

  • There would be debate about EU politics, covered by the media.
  • Checks and balances would be reinforced, preventing majoritarianism.
  • The sovereignty of national parliaments would be strengthened.
  • The winner would have support in each parliament within the EU. This would make governments accountable.
  • There would be a mandate for policy reform.
  • EU politics would be reinvigorated.
  • The system allows for the evolution of direct presidential election, if this is demanded.

Next, David Heathcoat-Amory spoke of democracy in Europe, and refocussing political power at state-level:

The Convention on the Future of Europe sometimes tries to draw comparisons between itself and the 1787 Convention of the Founding Fathers of the USA. However, there are many differences between the two situations. Europe has a much larger population than the new US, and a longer history. While it was essential for the US to establish a constitution, the EU has taken this upon itself. The process took four months in America; in Europe it took four months just to agree the procedure.

Debate is really about the future of the European Union, not the future of Europe. In this debate, there are two main problems to address:

1. The lack of democracy in the EU has reached crisis proportions. At best there is indifference, with an average turnout below 50% Europe-wide in EU elections, and below 25% in Britain.

2. Hostility to the EU is revealed in referenda – for example, the Danish, or the Irish on Nice, which produced unexpected results. The French election is also indicative.

There is a widening gulf between the elite and electors, with a crisis of consent.

Enlargement would ideally bring with it input of a broader range of ideas. What is more likely, though, is that democracy will become even less prominent. More majority voting in the Council is a technocratic response to enlargement, but will further dilute democracy.

We are at the 'de Tocqueville' point in Europe. Now the French model has reached its limit, de Tocqueville would look to the American model to ask, is it possible to have democracy on a continental scale? The answer would have to be 'no', as two of de Tocqueville's central conditions are not met: we have no common language, and no shared moral belief.

Peoples' political alliances are asserted at state-level, so it is here that power should be focussed. The default position must be at national state level.

In response to Simon Hix, the first question that we ask must be why do we have a Commission? What is it for? By going down the route of electing the Commission President as has been suggested, the role of government is emphasised, when in fact we should be questioning it institutionally. Decision-making must be taken back to the stage at which the people are at – that is, of questioning the fundamentals of the EU.

Gisela Stuart then spoke about some of the practicalities of the Convention, and the importance of asking the right questions:

We need a non-partisan debate on Europe. It is possible to be in favour of the European project as a whole, yet find fault with the structure of the EU. There is a certain pretentiousness about the Convention. We are not equivalent to Madison and Jay. The Convention is driven by four power blocks: the Commission, national governments, the European Parliament, and national parliaments. There is no common view amongst national parliaments within the Convention, as compared to other blocks such as the European Parliament. The national parliamentarians do not yet know each other, so it will take a considerable time for them to find a common, collective voice.

The members of the Convention still do not know who one another are, so it is impossible to find a common mind. Contrary to Simon Hix's proposal, EU-level parties do not translate into parties at the national level. National parliaments need to find a collective voice.

The second flaw with Simon Hix's formula is that there is no agreed sense of purpose in the EU. To involve people and the press in a community of 330 million people, the right questions must be asked. The Commission is a bureaucracy. Giscard D'Estaing commented that before 1973 the Commission was the executive, but then became the council. He said the EU needs a new executive, but. would we want to elect the head of the Civil Service? Why not elect a President of the Council of Ministers?

Candidate countries want to defend the powers of their national parliaments. They think the Commission will protect them from dominance by large countries, but this is not the case. The idea of having both strong nation states and protection is contradictory.

The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and the result of the Irish referendum, signify an 'against' position – they do not show voters as being 'for' anything. If the EU lifts national boundaries as people are disengaged, the result may be splits along ethnic lines. It is crucial that we do not forget Turkey, where such a split is quite possible. Any structure the Convention designs has to be able to accommodate the inclusion of Turkey.

Following Gisela Stuart's speech was discussion, in which these four main topics brought out the following points:

The nature of the debate

  • The EU has an ever-growing impact on peoples' lives. Most people see national parliaments as the main locus of politics.
  • We need to step outside the bounds of current debate: institutional bargaining leaves the public absolutely cold. We should be asking, what do we want? Not, what is there? The Convention should not be about power struggles or institutional debate.
  • We must ask what the EU is for. In previous generations, the point of Europe has been to prevent war, and then to create provision for such things as working abroad. Some would argue that in our day it is to provide an answer to globalisation.
  • An election will allow people to examine the question of what Europe is for.
  • The European Court of Justice was a valuable political tool in the 1980s, but does not provide us with a good democratic model. We need two-way valves for democracy.
  • Constitutions should not be written by those who will implement them. We need a clear separation of roles and competencies.

The Presidency

  • Though the Commission is a bureaucracy, it also has a monopoly on the legislative initiative. Its power is increased with more qualified majority voting. It is unimportant to which role we elect a president, they will run on a legislative platform.
  • Direct election of the Commission President is an undesirable end. The Commission may be a supra-national elite, but it is not a constitutional council. Its role as outlined by Simon Hix may be constitutionally true, but is not actually the case. In practice, ideas are raised by member states in the Council.
  • However, the Commission is already a political body. It is essential to maintain a clear separation of the roles of different bodies, and Simon Hix's proposal ensures this is the case.

Elections

  • Under Simon Hix's proposal, heads of government would still discuss behind the scenes in order to prevent the election of an undesirable candidate.
  • This would guarantee a moderate President from the centre-left or centre-right.
  • Simon Hix's proposal would only allow for an election once every five years. This will do nothing to integrate the EU into daily political discourse.
  • With the media interest which would be generated by the method of election proposed by Simon Hix, we can expect the national press to retain an interest in the Presidency throughout its term.
  • Election would sanctify the role of the Commission. However, more strength does not entail better democracy.
  • The Commission would be made more democratic not by virtue of its increased strength, but through a legitimate and transparent Presidential election as proposed by Simon Hix.

Parties

  • If the President were partisan, whether within a Euro-party or a national level party, confrontation would ensue. Hix's proposal, therefore, is undemocratic.
  • Member states have a strong desire to reach consensus rather than vote. Qualified majority voting allows for compromise.
  • Qualified majority voting with an expanding EU will only serve to alienate a larger majority than it does now.
  • Institutions serve to create political identity. Though parties currently operate at national level, we need a valve that will allow for an EU-level mandate.

Boundary fixing and subsidiarity

  • The boundary between the Community and its member states must be drawn, with the principle of subsidiarity in mind.
  • Boundary fixing is hard. There are divided competencies on many issues, and it would be difficult to place new issues within this framework.
  • Subsidiarity does not work. Boundary drawing may be difficult, but is essential to create clarity and certainty
  • The EU should be structured according to peoples' needs. We must ask what should be done, where it should be done, and for whose benefit.