Can the European Parliament address the EU’s democratic deficit?

As I have often remarked on this blog, the European Union plays the tortoise in Aesop’s fable to the United States’ hare. The EU’s forward motion is imperceptible and it is easy to make fun of it, compared to the easy strides made by its American counterpart. And yet when reviewed over the long term, progress is dramatic. At the moment we are witnessing an ugly row in the EU about who should be the President of the European Commission. This follows a rather dramatic election to the European Parliament (EP) in which Eurosceptic and populist parties made big advances, not least here in the United Kingdom. But these apparently discouraging could mask a major advance by the parliament.

At the centre of this drama is the problem referred to as the EU’s democratic deficit. A large proportion of the member states’ laws (to say nothing of most European non-members likes Switzerland and Norway) are now derived from the EU’s federal institutions. These are led by the Commission. These laws, and the Commission itself, do not seem to be subject to the same standard of democratic challenge and accountability that people have come to expect in a democratic polity. EU laws are presented as impositions from outside from an unaccountable bureaucracy. Two EU institutions are meant to provide democratic legitimacy. Firstly there is the European Council, consisting of the heads of government of all member states. This works mainly by a system of qualified majority voting, so that laws can only be approved with substantial inter-state coalitions. Some areas require unanimity. There are two problems. First, its attention span is necessarily short, so there is a limit to the extent of any detailed scrutiny – though this is improved by delegation to more junior  ministerial meetings. A bigger problem is that the public perceive their deliberations to be wheeler-dealing: an unseemly process of stitching voters up. Prime Ministers do not have their voting records at the Council examined in the way that US Senators do, and they easily pass decisions off as not being theirs.

The second institution meant to provide democratic legitimacy is, of course, the EP. European federalists see this institution to be the forerunner of an active federal parliament, like the US House of Representatives. So far it has been a disappointment. Elections have drawn a low turnout; there is little awareness among voters about what it does; voting is dominated by national politics. There is no “European polity” that forms the basis of its legitimacy, where there plainly is an American one for the House of Representatives.

European federalists have sought to address this problem by making the EP matter more. First it was given greater legislative power; its importance has risen to such an extent that its members are now subject to extensive lobbying by commercial and other interest groups – but the public has barely noticed. Who cares about the finer points of intellectual property or bank regulation, after all? Their next idea was to give it a bigger say in the selection of the President of the Commission – the nearest thing the EU has to a Prime Minister. Their idea was that each of the transnational political groups into which MEPs are organised would select a leading candidate, referred to by the German word Spitzenkandidat. The Spitzenkandidat of the largest party would be nominated to be President. This is the way Germany picks its Chancellor, and also the way Britain picks its Prime Minister. The winner of this process turned out to be Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg.

Here in Britain this process has been observed with a mixture of contempt and disdain by the political elite. It is nonsense to suggest that voters were picking one the Spitzenkandidaten when they were voting, they say. Mr Juncker’s nomination has no democratic foundation. And besides we don’t like him. One British journalist claims that this is no better a way of running the Commission, than monetary union was for running Europe’s economy, following the British elite’s view that the Euro has been a disaster (gently skating over their own country’s own troubles outside the Euro zone). David Cameron has led the charge to dismiss this process and pick somebody else, who would be more “reform-minded”. He has at least tacit support from other party leaders here, and in a few other EU countries. But this stand is looking increasingly costly, expending Mr Cameron’s diminishing stock of political capital within the EU. He has been out-manoeuvred, and it is likely that Mr Juncker will get the job.

Much of the criticism emerging from British commentators is true. Mr Juncker does not inspire confidence as the man to take the EU forward to something that will function better. The EP does not represent the will of a European polity. The battle of the Spitzenkandidaten never took off in the election debates. But they have missed two important points.

The first is that this years’ EP elections were a major political event, right across the union. Turnout remained low, but it was actually up on the previous election in 2009. The combination of it being seen as an election whose consequences are relatively weightless, and the use of proportional representation, have made the outcome unpredictable and dramatic. The rise of populist political parties has enlivened the election, and have given electors a voice that they would have been otherwise denied. This invites a crisis of confidence in the EU, but, paradoxically, it gives the EP a greater degree of legitimacy. The election results in the UK were described as a political earthquake. No longer are the elections a sleep-inducing irrelevance, but they have become an important test of the political temperature. Some of the consequences are ugly; mainstream politicians are pandering to the populists, allowing racism to make a comeback. But it puts the EP on the political map.

The second point that British critics miss is that the argument over Spitzenkandidaten is not about the present; it is about the future. The current candidate may have no democratic legitimacy, but in order for future ones acquire that legitimacy it is necessary for us to behave as if they did. This is not about the election in 2014, but the one in 2019. The tortoise beats the hare because he focuses relentlessly on the ultimate goal, while the hare is distracted by the issues of the moment.

Should we applaud this turn of events? The EP has taken a great step forward. There may be no sign of a European polity yet, but each of the national delegations has greater democratic legitimacy with their own national polities. That is a clear step along the path. Does the EP provide the answer to Europe’s democratic deficit? Or should it be abolished? Abolition is not an option for now. And the EP may provide part of the answer.

But we should remember one thing. In order to judge the success of the EU and its institutions we must look over the long term. While currency union has endured almost unbearable stress, it is much too early to write it off as a failure. As the EU stumbles forward into unmapped ground, the same must be said for the European Parliament.



Why you should vote Liberal Democrat on 22 May

Britain, along with the rest of the EU, faces a very interesting set of elections this week, for the European Parliament. Our polling day is Thursday 22 May, when there are also local elections in many parts of the country, including London, where I live. I am not an impartial observer of these elections, but I do try to express my views dispassionately, and set aside the pure propaganda. Here is what I think of the various contenders.

Let’s clear the decks a bit. I am thinking mainly about England; my knowledge of the politics of other parts of the UK is better than that of most English people, but that is a low bar indeed. In Northern Ireland I have a strong inclination towards the Alliance Party, because of its non-sectarian ethos. I dislike the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) mainly because I am a unionist. But I will say for its politicians that they put Scottish politics above Westminster politics; SNP politicians do not aspire to a place in the British cabinet. Still, this is less relevant to the European Parliament than elsewhere. I have rather more sympathy with Welsh Plaid Cymru, who tend to set out a clear social democratic, reformist agenda. But Welsh politics is messy, and I don’t feel confident talking about it.

And neither will I talk about the local elections. These should be determined by local issue and the local politicians’ records – and not the subject of a sweeping blog post like this one.

In England there are five contenders for your vote: the Conservatives, Labour, Ukip, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Voting for any other party is a wasted vote, even under our proportional system – since there is no system of transferable votes outside Northern Ireland. There are many other parties contesting these elections, but they simply don’t have enough traction to get up to the level needed win a seat. This is to be welcomed in the case of the BNP, who did manage to win a couple of seats last time, in 2009.

The party everybody is talking about is Ukip. The main reason offered by people for voting for them is that they are political outsiders, and that supporting them will give Britain’s established political elite a well deserved black eye. This is about the only good reason for voting for the party. They are chaotic and ill-disciplined, and they don’t take the work of the European Parliament seriously, and so their presence will damages the national interest. Inasmuch as you can detect clear views, they tend to be illiberal. If you are a Eurosceptic, there are other parties you can vote for who will do a better job of representing you and the country in this forum, which has significant political power, whether or not you accept that is a good thing.

But do our political elite deserve such a kicking? Many of the voters I have met on the streets think so; they feel let down. This is not just our newspapers stoking things up, with the rest of our media in tow. Politics has become too professional, and not enough politicians genuinely engage with voters. Focus groups and polling might be quite useful for informing politicians about what people are thinking, but they don’t help people feel involved. But will the shock of voters defecting to Ukip, or not voting at all, make them change their behaviour? There is little sign of this. I am not sure the problem is entirely soluble in a modern, developed society. But to make things better we need political reforms, not protests. These reforms need to make politicians more responsive to voters. This means changing our electoral system, and it means devolving more power to local levels where it is much easier to involve people in decisions.

The trouble is that Ukip stands for a sort of conservatism. They want political reforms, but focusing on the European level, not at the national level, where they are most needed. This sort of conservatism tends to reject useful reforms, as we saw in the debate on the Alternative Vote system (which would have been a small step in the right direction), and the soft spot so many people seem to have for our appointed House of Lords. It’s not the right kind of kicking, and it is the wrong election to do the kicking at.

Most Eurosceptics would be better served by the Conservative Party. The Conservatives have a clear view on Europe: renegotiation and a referendum. This is surely the most sensible way forward if you believe that being part if the EU is bad for the country. The European Parliament cannot deliver on this agenda – but Conservative MEPs will be taken much more seriously in Brussels than Ukip ones, and will thus do a better job of representing the country – though they would have had much more influence if they had not left the parliament’s Christian Democrat grouping.

But is a referendum right for the country? Like many supporters of the European project I dither on this. I don’t think it is a good idea for the UK to leave the EU. This is mainly because emotionally I feel a strong European identity (maybe because I have lived a short while outside Europe). But more practically, our obligations within the Union are forced on us by our economic circumstances, and leaving it would make little difference. It would be a colossal waste of political effort that should be devoted to other issues. Meanwhile the uncertainty it would create, as so many things of commercial importance are renegotiated, would blight the country exactly where it can least afford it. Many of the same arguments apply to just having a referendum on the issue – never mind actually leaving. The main argument for a referendum is that it would lance the boil and let the country move forward. I would sooner wait until the EU is forced to undertake more significant structural reform that anything the UK can force on its own.

And so to the Labour Party. Their campaign for the European Parliament is focused on the “cost of living crisis”. Regardless of the merits of this, it is exactly the sort of irrelevant focus-group based politics that has given politicians such a bad name. Their election literature mentions practically nothing about Europe or the European Parliament. This kind of cynical campaigning should be rejected. Politicians should be courageous; currently Labour only want to play safe. I can respect David Cameron for his referendum strategy on Europe, which required quite a bit of courage. Labour are running from the fight.

And the Greens? They deserve respect: their literature (at least here in London) at least talks about what they would do in the European Parliament. They don’t talk about Britain in Europe, but about the sort of Europe they want. That is what these elections should be about. I am just less than convinced about their vision. For me it is too anti-business. Good intent is no substitute for knowhow. We should be pushing Europe towards an environmentally sustainable future – but we have to take the public with us. We have to challenge big business vested interests – but also allow big business to keep people in jobs, and provide that element of economic stability people crave. I don’t think the Greens have a clear idea of how to get that balance right.

Which leaves the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are the most Europhile of the parties (though quite a few Europhiles inhabit the Labour Party and the Greens). This has one particular advantage: it means that they part in the European Parliament’s processes with more enthusiasm, and so are much more influential than they would be otherwise. Liberal Democrats have held some very influential positions (such as Sharon Bowles’s chairing of the Economic & Monetary Affairs Committee). In this work they do a good job of standing up for British interests – and can actually talk about their track record in the Parliament with pride. They have also shown a lot more courage in standing up for a pro EU position – unlike the Labour Party – and unlike the party has done in previous elections to the European Parliament. You may not think all of their pro EU arguments are convincing (though the same can be said of most of the anti EU arguments), but they have done the campaign a service by talking about it.

Right through the country’s history Britain, and England before it, has never been sure about the role it should take in Europe. There have been times when the country has successfully pursued a global agenda while retaining minimal involvement in European affairs, such as in the mid to later 18th and 19th Centuries. At other times the country has been a fully fledged player, such as Waterloo in 1815 and the First and Second World Wars in the 20th Century. Right now the country’s dependence on trade leaves it no option but to be heavily involved in its European connections, whether or not the country stays in the EU. I believe that means that the country’s leaders should try to shape the EU from within. Others feel that by leaving the EU, it will be easier for the country to find the best path in the world. If you share my view, then the Liberal Democrats are the party for you. If you don’t, then you might still consider voting for the party as highly effective operators in the parliament. Otherwise think of voting Conservative or Green. Don’t vote for Labour or Ukip, whose campaigns are taking British politics in entirely opposite but wrong directions.

European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!