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By Chris Patten

Chris Patten is the commissioner of external affairs for the
European Union.

LONDON -- After the recent Irish vote, the central issue at this point of Europe's evolution has been raised again: How do we secure greater democratic legitimacy for the European Union (EU)?

Paradoxically, the most obvious remedy for lack of democratic
underpinning is also the least likely to appeal to critics of the EU.
British euro-skeptics used to sneer at the pretensions of the "unelected commission" -- but they would not at all want to see it directly elected.

Then we really would have the makings of a European superstate, with a government and a president of Europe. Direct elections would further develop the authority of European institutions at the expense of national parliaments.

Yet the EU has to accept that there is no European "demos" -- in the sense of a population that feels itself to be one. The problem of legitimacy and democracy is therefore difficult. And it is especially acute, because the EU is so powerful.

The current legitimacy of the European commission is achieved in a
number of ways. Members are nominated by elected governments and then approved in confirmation hearings by the directly elected parliament. Our programs and decisions are subject to scrutiny by the parliament and bodies such as the Court of Auditors and the ombudsman.

We have recently introduced far-reaching transparency rules, which open us to direct public scrutiny. These are important mechanisms -- but they have not yet brought real public acceptance.

We can only begin to win that acceptance by explaining more clearly what we are (and what we are not); by focusing more
single-mindedly on efficiency and results; by becoming more responsive to outside opinion, and by exercising greater self-discipline.

Another part of the answer to the legitimacy deficit lies with national parliaments. At present, the EU fails to draw on this source of legitimacy because its initiatives are often seen as an assault on national prerogatives rather than a common endeavor.

If national parliaments had a more prominent role in the European process they would impart greater legitimacy to the supranational effort.

The advent of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1976
severely reduced the role of national parliaments. It is too late now to turn back the clock -- the European Parliament fulfills an important role; it is not a job that could be done by national part-timers.

But another possibility -- proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech President Vaclav Havel and others -- is to create a second chamber of the European Parliament which could help to apply the principle of subsidiarity: determining which decisions really need to be taken at the European level and which should be left to the nations.

Members could be drawn from national parliaments. They would not scrutinize all legislation, but look only at proposals that were opposed on subsidiarity grounds by a given number of member states. Was the legislation needed? Might the same purpose be achieved in a less intrusive way?

A further idea is that elections to the European Parliament should take place on the same day as national general elections. Members would then change on a rolling basis as national elections occurred, rather than all go every five years. There would be a double advantage to this. Not only would turnout be higher, but political majorities would mirror the national pattern.

At present, with European elections taking place in the mid-term
of national parliaments, people often choose to register protest votes against unpopular governments. The consequence is that the overall majority in the European Parliament can be idiosyncratic.

It is more likely that links with national parliaments would develop naturally if political majorities within the European Parliament more closely matched the national ones. National parliaments, Westminster in particular, must engage more wholeheartedly in the European enterprise. Why not make members of the
European Parliament (MEPs) ex officio members of the national upper house so that they can help to bind the national and European policy debates?

National select committees should engage in a more systematic way in the European legislative process -- taking evidence from Eurocrats and MEPs; and meeting sister committees in other member states. The political parties should engage more with their European counterparts, as I tried hard to do, especially with the German CDU (Christian Democratic Union), when Tory chairman.
Finally, we should try to define more clearly, in a political document, where the boundaries lie between national and EU prerogatives. The founding treaty of the EU calls for an "ever closer union between the peoples of Europe."

We should balance that ambition with wording to make clear that
this does not imply a one-way ratchet: that "ever closer union" does not mean "ever dwindling nations."

This might take the form of an explicit assurance that the destiny of the EU is to work in harmony with member states, not to subsume them. If the language was sufficiently precise, such
an assurance might encourage the European Court further along the path it has taken in a number of recent cases in reining back EU institutions.

There is nothing intrinsically virtuous about internationalism over
nationalism. As the social theorist Michael Lind has written, "It is not fair to hold up Hitler as a typical nationalist and Albert Schweitzer as a typical internationalist. It would be just as absurd to treat Gandhi as a typical nationalist and Stalin as a typical internationalist."

The concept of the nation-state is alive and well. Indeed, there are
more nations in Europe than ever before. Yet it is widely accepted that those nations need to pool their sovereignty -- and that the national and the international can fruitfully coexist. The problem is how to control and legitimize the structures created for this purpose.

There may be no European "demos" nor, for reasons of language and culture, is there likely to be one. So if we want to increase democratic control we have to find better ways of connecting the national political institutions with the supranational ones. It is the central task of modern politics.

(c) 2001, Prospect/European Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times
Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/3/01)