Representative democracy has not passed its sell-by date

The passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, by Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) (picture National Portrait Gallery)

A submission to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, 2 October 2001

1. This paper looks at the unpopularity of political institutions in general, the unpopularity of the European Union institutions in particular, and outlines some principles upon which reform should be based. It looks in particular at an enlarged role for member state parliaments in EU decision-making, and concludes that there is considerable scope for improving the way in which member states’ ministers are held accountable for their decisions.

2. The European Scrutiny Committee is to be commended for initiating this enquiry and for the way it has spelled out the issues to be examined. Whole books and even careers have been devoted to investigating the answers: this paper can only serve as a short summary. More detail and further evidence can be provided, if requested.

3. Why are political institutions unpopular?

4. To consider the question of why the European institutions are unpopular it makes sense to unpack the question into two:

5. why political institutions in general are unpopular;

6. why this might affect the EU institutions in particular.

7. It should not be surprising that political institutions and the practice of democracy are falling into disrepute. The essence of participation in democracy is influence: taking part in the political process, or even something as simple as voting, are means of expressing an opinion about the conduct of political life in a way that will affect that political life. The increasing concentration of political power in a few hands – the growth in NGOs notwithstanding – has reduced the opportunities open to individuals to express their own opinions in a way that matters. This is particularly true of the UK, where power has been concentrated in the hands of central government at the expense of other institutions, including the UK parliament.

8. Some examples are needed of the failure of voting. The London Underground will do. No-one can doubt that the people of London voted against the government’s plans for the tube and in favour of something along the lines advocated by the mayor. However, the decision over the future of London’s transport system was not a decision for the people of London to be settled in a London election but rather a decision taken as part of the general election as a whole. One could be forgiven for wondering what, if not to decide about the transport system, London government is for.

9. For another example, let us look at the protection of labour rights around the world. It is increasingly clear that the low price of many of our imported manufactured goods depends on working practices – and particularly the suppression of trade unions – in a way that would be roundly illegal in this country. These practices are part of our economic life – the goods are on our shelves – but we are unable to act. There is presently no electoral forum in which this can be an issue. Politics risks losing its function as a means to make change and bring progress.

10. At the heart of all these examples is the principle of subsidiarity – that power should be exercised locally if possible, and centrally only if necessary. Instead of subsidiarity, we have at present an accumulation of power at the UK level, whether or not that is the best place for it. Key decisions are out of the hands of our elected representatives. Either these decisions are in the wrong hands, or they are not being taken at all.

11. Federalism argues that powers should be distributed between levels of government according to the principle of subsidiarity. That way, we have a direct connection between those people elected to exercise political power and the issues over which that power may be exercised. In the absence of this connection, democratic politics appears rapidly to be losing its point.

12. The particular case of the European Union

13. Having remarked on a problem with our present political institutions as a whole, we should turn to the European Union institutions in particular. For they command even less loyalty amongst their citizens. Turnout in the last European parliamentary elections was rather lower than the equivalent turnout for national elections.

14. It is important to make clear that the European Union is these days much more like a form of government than it is an international institution. Its powers over important areas of life affect us all, as citizens, consumers and taxpayers. Indeed, in areas such as the single market and environmental policy, it is better considered as an inadequately-formed federal system rather than as an overgrown intergovernmental system.

15. In this light, the first observation is that the detachment between voting and government policy is even greater within the EU than it is at national level. For example, Romano Prodi was nominated as president of the European Commission in the weeks before the election rather than afterwards as normal democratic procedure might imply. It is possible for proposals to become law without the support of the European Parliament. Much decision-making is wrapped up in the obscure and unaccountable system of comitology.

16. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that popular identification with EU decision-making is low.

17. Reform of the European Union

18. So, we should now turn to the question of reform. How to make the EU more popular?

19. If one treats the EU as a federal system that is inadequately democratic and that has not yet arrived at the best distribution of competences, solving these problems is the starting point. We are accustomed to the methods of parliamentary democracy, yet at present we seek to withhold them from the EU itself. This is nonsense.

20. Further, the issues that Brussels cannot handle effectively should be handed back to the member states. The repatriation of powers has hitherto been resisted as it might be taken as undermining the standing of the EU. Surely now, after forty years, it can survive this. Far worse would be to allow the EU to continue to accrete responsibilities that national or regional governments could handle better.

21. For example, the need for such extensive EU social policies, extending also to fields such as culture and public health, should be rethought. There has been a great deal of empire-building that could, and should, be cut back.

22. The role of national parliaments

23. The role of national parliaments within the EU requires a particular comment. It will be apparent from the foregoing that we do think that the governance of the EU suffers from a lack of national influence. The call for a new chamber composed of national parliamentarians misses, we think, the point.

24. For most legislative issues, the EU currently has a two-chamber legislature: the European Parliament; and the Council of Ministers. A new chamber of national parliamentarians would be not a second chamber, as is sometimes mistakenly reported, but a third chamber. This does not fit with the goal of simplifying the system. Indeed, we can find no example of a democratic legislature anywhere in the world that has three chambers.

25. Next, members of the Council of Ministers are largely drawn from and theoretically accountable to national parliaments already. For a third chamber to make a difference to legislation, it can only be to vote down legislation that its members have previously supported on its voyage through the Council.

26. Lastly, a part-time chamber of national parliamentarians has been tried before. Direct elections to a full-time European Parliament were instituted in 1979 precisely because a part-time assembly could not keep up with the workload. And of course, that workload has grown considerably since 1979.

27. It is essential that member states’ parliaments properly scrutinise the work of their representatives in the Council. In order to do so, they should insist that the Council hold its legislative sessions in public and that the Treaty be amended to require this. The Council meets behind closed doors because of its origins as a diplomatic club. The EU should follow democratic rather than diplomatic principles.

28. A recent study found that of some 40,000 questions asked in the House of Commons in the 1999-2000 session, only 79 were about business in the Council of Ministers. Members of the House do not need to look far for one of the reasons why the decisions of the European Union sometimes appear distant.

29. We can also be more creative in the way in which parliamentarians work. We should not be wholly fixated on the member state level. The Committee of the Regions brings together elected representatives from the sub-member state levels of government to provide them with a voice. Perhaps the specialist committees of the European Parliament and member state parliaments can meet together to consider proposals from the European Commission that fall within their scope.

30. Conclusion

31. This paper concludes with the observation with which it opened. Political institutions in general are declining in popularity because power and accountability are increasingly separated. It would be wrong to suggest that the EU’s problems can be solved by giving yet more power to national governments. In the end, there is no substitute for adapting to the changing distribution of power in the world and reallocating elected authority to bring it back under democratic political control.

32. In the EU, we suggest that this means that the ministers in the Council must be more accountable to the citizens’ representatives in the member states’ parliaments. Furthermore, the representatives of the citizen in the European Parliament should have more control over the Union’s legislation and expenditure, extending the co-decision between the Council and the European Parliament to the whole of those as well as around half of each as at present. The system of parliamentary government, which applies in the UK and most other European countries, also makes the executive accountable to the legislature: this points to the election of the Commission by the European Parliament rather than directly by the citizens.

33. These principles of parliamentary representative government, which Britain did so much to establish, are still the basis for a sound relationship between the citizens and the way in which they are governed. The world may be changing – and political institutions must be ready to follow suit – but this does not have to be at the expense of democracy.

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