Thursday, 7 April 2016

So is it democracy or a chimera of democracy?

The EU's approach to decision-making that is?

As I understand it, the European Commission is the bit of the EU that proposes the legislation. It does this on the instigation of either or both of the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament. And off its own bat.

The Commission doesn't make the decision. That is for the EU's weird bicameral system - a majority in the Parliament plus, usually, a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers is necessary for the Commission's proposals to become law. The Parliament is elected and the Council of Ministers (again usually) consists of elected people although those people are not elected to the Council.

It's a little more complicated than this because, as vapers discovered, the Council of Ministers can (and does) amend the proposed legislation approved by Parliament. This process is call 'trialogue' and is described by Transparency International:

As we pointed out in our EU Integrity Study, the meetings are a major transparency black hole where large concessions are won and lost with very little oversight and without public disclosure. In the vast majority of cases, Parliament’s plenary vote serves only to rubber stamp the deals secured by a handful of negotiators from each institution, side-lining 99% of MEPs in the process. Even the Parliament’s own internal strategy document recognises that transparency has been traded off against efficiency and there is need for reform.

In theory this is about ironing out the process but, as we saw with the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), it can be used to put back into the legislation things that the Parliament has removed. And remember that the parties to these discussions do not automatically include the proposers of amendments approved by Parliament. In practice, what the Council of Ministers and Commission wants gets passed regardless of Parliament's wishes.

The final part of all this is whether 'we the people can kick the bastards out' - does the public voting bit of the system allow any change. It's clear that the Commission and Council of Ministers are only affected by a series of domestic elections in individual member countries as they are entirely - albeit for different reasons - appointed structures. And while the Parliament is directly elected so could be subject to change, it is pretty clear that not only is it a fairly unchanging body but it also has little or no power to affect institutional change since it cannot propose laws, does not have the final decision on those laws, and cannot insist that its democratic mandate takes precedent.

The inability of Parliament to enforce democracy or transparency (even assuming this was something it desired) demonstrates that the EU is not recognisably a democracy. This is compounded by most members of the European Parliament (MEPs) perceiving their role as being European courtiers fluttering round the grandees of the EU. Access to this decision-making process for non-corporates - again as vapers discovered - is extremely difficult since the entire system, typical of a court, is geared towards engaging with organised corporate representation whether that is business, NGO or professional lobbyist.

So in summary we have a system that lacks transparency, where the decisions of democratic (or seemingly democratic) bodies can be overturned in secret, where access to power is restricted by the lobby and by organisational gatekeepers, and where there is no mechanism for removing our rulers or prospect of those rulers introducing such a mechanism.

At university I recall studying the political regimes of The Phillipines, Indonesia, Malaysia and pre-Communist Cambodia. My politics lecturer, Dr Oey Hong Lee, described these polities as 'pseudo-democracies' - places where elections are held, where there are all the trappings of a democracy (parliaments, votes, prime ministers, opposition) but where this is all window dressing for business-as-usual cronyism. The same politicians remain in power either because of a rigid ethno-politics as in Malaysia, because the ruling party is endorsed by monarchy (Thailand, Cambodia), or because the system is designed to look like a democracy without actually being one (Phillipines, Indonesia).

This is, without question, what we see with the European Union. It has all the symbols of a democracy, indeed that word is seldom far from the lips of political and corporate leaders, but the system is geared towards either processing agreement between 28 individual nations - a sort of rolling treaty programme - or else serving the needs of influential groups and especially sectoral lobbies with powerful corporate backing (farming, industry, banking, health). But what the EU is not, is what most folk see as democratic. The Union falls down on the very basics - that people we elect make the decisions, that decisions are transparent and open to challenge, and that the people have the collective power to change our rules.

It is not democracy. It is a chimera of democracy.


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