COPING WITH EUROPE'S LEGITIMACY CRISIS
By Chris Patten
Chris Patten is the commissioner of external affairs for the
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
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
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
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
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
(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)