March 19, 2012
During the last two years the relationship between the EU and its citizens has undergone deeper changes than ever since the beginning of European integration 60 years ago.
For the first time, citizens realise that the EU has a profound impact on their daily lives.
10 million Greeks had to accept under pressure from “Brussels” painful budget cuts and reforms that their elected government had rejected for years. In order to prevent a Greek bankruptcy “Brussels” had to show its teeth in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
What goes for Greece applies to all member states:
- They can no longer adopt their budgets without agreement from “Brussels”. They have to negotiate deficit and public debt levels, as has been visible during the last few weeks in regard to Belgium, Netherlands, Hungary and Spain.
- Even in times of high unemployment they must allow citizens from other member states to apply for jobs in their labour markets.
- Schengen member countries must offer access to third country nationals. even if these enter via a member state that has failed to properly protect the common external border.
- Nicolas Sarkozy can promise to close the French border or restrict public procurement to French companies, but EU rules will prevent him from implementing such promises, if he were re-elected French president.
- Last not least, member states have to tolerate “cheap” imports from Asia, as long as the EU which is exclusively responsible for trade matters does not intervene.
More than half of new legislation in member states has its origin in legislative acts passed at EU level. This shows how much national sovereignty has been transferred to the EU since the start of the European Economic Community in 1958!
The process has accelerated in the last 10 years, largely pushed by the fast pace of globalisation.
As a consequence, interest groups and rising numbers of individual citizens have woken up. Protests against “intolerable” EU interference in domestic affairs have multiplied, an understandable reaction considering the technical nature of most EU regulations and the insufficient public understanding of EU policy debates.
These protests should be viewed as part of an emerging EU-wide democracy. It would have been unthinkable 10 years ago for ordinary citizens to lobby national or EU deputies on how to vote on crucial EU issues like the € 500+ billion European Safety Mechanism meant to bail out over- indebted member states.
Today, national governments and EU are closely inter-twined. That is one of the reasons for the complexity of the European system of governance.
In those fields for which it is responsible the EU is basically no less legitimate and democratic than national governments. But being much more distant from citizens across the 27 member states it must be extremely sensitive when proposing policies and offer more ample explication than required at national level. It should act only when its action is strictly necessary and produces a visible value- added. Activism is to be avoided. Monitoring of strict subsidiarity introduced by the Lisbon Treaty is vital for ensuring the proper balance between EU and national competences.
Presently, European integration has reached a tipping point. It cannot go much further without conferring enhanced legitimacy and accountability to Commission and Parliament, the two major EU institutions.
Sooner or later, say by 2020, another major Treaty reform will be necessary to re-balance the institutions and make them more democratic and effective.
- The 750 members of the EU Parliament should be elected according to a European electoral law. The over-representation of small member countries should be progressively reduced, allowing the EP to better reflect the basic democratic principle “of one man, one vote”.
- The Commission should become fully accountable to the EP.
This implies the EP designating the Commission president, who after having formed his/her team, composed of elected EP members and outsiders, must obtain a vote of confidence. The number of Commissioners should not exceed two thirds of the number of member states and form a balanced mix from member states.
- The European Council might continue functioning as a super-executive for the Union, but the EP should give its assent to the election of its President to confer more democratic legitimacy.
Author : Eberhard Rhein