An answer to the democratic deficit as Ireland votes

Labour Party

With Ireland  going to the polls today in a referendum on the European fiscal pact, the debate on the future of the Euro continues to rage.

On the one side is a considerable body of opinion that believes there will have to be some form of political integration between those countries who have signed up to the fiscal pact in order to make the Euro zone work. On the other side we have assorted, mainly right-wing, doom-sayers predominantly from the UK.

It is only a short step from finance to politics, and once the governance of the European Union is put in the frame, the dreaded democratic deficit raises its ugly head. This week’s Economist makes its view that the EU has such a deficit abundantly clear. That magazine and those many other voices sceptical about the EU’s democratic credentials, do, indeed, have a point. If you were to ask the simple question “who elects those who lead the EU?” you would get a less than straightforward answer.

In point of fact, the European Union law-making bodies do have clearly defined boundaries. The European Commission comprising one Commissioner appointed by the governments of each member state for a five-year period proposes legislation. The increasingly important Commission President emerges at the beginning of each Commission term from among the Commissioners by some impenetrable form of osmosis. The second institution, the Council of Ministers, is made up of member state governments, who are at least elected. The Council is joint legislator with the European Parliament, directly elected by the people of the EU every five years.

The system was, of course, designed to prevent any one group getting too powerful. This may have been a laudable aim and a necessary condition when the EU was first founded. Now, however, when Europe should be providing financial leadership with the consent of the people, the largest and most prosperous member state is taking power unto itself in what appears to be a profoundly undemocratic way.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has never in its history been given anything that may be described as a democratic mandate. True, member states go to the polls at the same time in June every five years to elect me and my fellow MEPs. Yet there has not been a European Parliament election in the UK fought on a meaningful manifesto for the European Parliament which gave those elected genuine legitimacy.

The current demands for a referendum on EU membership have, I believe, come directly out of the woeful failure to have proper elections to the European Parliament.  European Parliament elections should be fought on strong manifestos put forward by the political groups in the European Parliament and adapted for use in individual member states. The hard issues should be there as the European Parliament now has legislative power on environmental matters, transport, employment and social issues and the EU single market, amongst other things. Voters should have a proper chance to evaluate what the political parties intend to do on issues where the EU has competence.

This has certainly never happened in the UK. I have now fought three European elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009. On each occasion the election was fought almost exclusively on domestic issues and appeared to be more a test of opinion on the Westminster government than an election to the European Parliament. I have, of course, been provided with a mandate as a Labour Party representative. I have, however, never felt I have been elected on any kind of platform for the European Parliament.

This has to change if the EU is to be democratic rather than be the tragic bearer of a “democratic deficit”. While talk of directly electing the Commission President is useful, the first and easiest change would be to allow the European Parliament to act like a real parliament. This would be a relatively easy reform to put into place but one which would also be very effective.