Shrinking the Democratic Deficit


Erik Meijer and René Roovers, two candidates on the European Parliament election list of the Netherlands’ left wing Socialist Party, doubt whether the European Union can be democratised. Yet, they argue, three simple reforms could at least make the system a little more responsive to the wishes of ordinary voters and the people whom they elect.

Last week the EU Council of Ministers voted behind closed doors to accept a system which will require European airlines to gather data on passengers and to make these data available to the authorities of the United States. This decision is one which elected representatives had no involvement, whether at European or national level.

This is a particularly stark example of the so-called “democratic deficit”, of the undemocratic nature of the European Union’s decision-making procedures. The notorious secrecy and arrogance of the Council is not, however, the only problem. The Commission, the EU’s unelected executive, generally behaves as if the people whom it is supposed to serve are nothing more than an irritant whose influence is to be kept at a minimum. Bertholt  Brecht once famously complained that the government of the DDR would like “to dissolve the people and elect a new one”. The European Commission would, one feels, rather prefer to dispense with the second part of this process and do without the people entirely. This was demonstrated recently when the European Parliament rejected the Commission’s proposed Directive on port services. This Directive would have resulted in the loss of thousands of dockworkers’ jobs and the undermining of safety procedures both in port and at sea. Dockers’ unions, through mass demonstrations and lobbying of parliamentarians, succeeded in persuading the Parliament to throw the measure out.

You would think that in a democracy that would be the end of the matter. Unfortunately, this is not how the European Commission sees things.  According to the European Transport Workers’ Federation, a new Directive is already being formulated under the instructions of European Commissioner De Palacio, who is trying to erase the embarrassment caused by the failure of her original proposal.  What she doesn’t realise, the eTF says, is that she can only make both her own and the EU’s image even worse.  This is how things work in “Europe”: if the electorate of a country votes the wrong way in a referendum, as the Irish did over Nice, they are given a second chance to get it right; if the European Parliament rejects a proposal, an almost identical proposal will be brought forward.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – until resistance crumbles.  


As the turnout on the 10th June will no doubt show, this undemocratic system and the anti-democratic attitudes which lie behind it have alienated citizens from the whole European project. This is bad news for everyone, whether for the “pro-Europeans” who would like to see their enthusiasm become more widespread, or for those like the Socialist Party (SP) who believe that only greater involvement of ordinary citizens can bring an end to the high-handedness and corruption that currently characterises the EU.

Whilst almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the democratic deficit, it is another matter to decide precisely what.  Most Dutch political parties argue for a European Parliament with more powers. Yet the SP is not alone in being sceptical of this approach. After five years in the Parliament we have seen how easily it is manipulated by corporate lobbyists and how difficult it is for ordinary citizens to have any real influence on its decisions. We would therefore rather see the powers of national parliaments extended, so that our national parliament is no longer required simply to rubber stamp decisions taken in Brussels. 


Such changes are difficult to achieve. Nice, and the more recent rejection of the proposed Constitution, have shown how problematic and time-consuming would be the kind of thoroughgoing reform which would be needed to democratise the EU.  Yet much could be done now to stop the Council and Commission’s abuse of their power and to amplify the voice of the citizen in the Brussels.


Firstly, the Council should meet in the presence of the media and representatives of the 25 national parliaments as well as the European Parliament. It should vote openly and publish a full official account of its proceedings. This more open method of working could be established informally until an opportunity arises to amend the EU Treaty to make it obligatory.


Secondly, whichever of our ministers is to be present at a meeting of the Council should be obliged beforehand to consult the national parliament and to treat its opinions as binding on his or her vote. This is purely a matter for the Netherlands and would require no constitutional change.


Thirdly, the Commission should be prevented from responding to the rejection of a proposal by immediately introducing a similar text. A minimum period of three years should be required to elapse before this is allowed. This could again be achieved without any amendment to the Treaty, either by agreement with the Commission or, failing that, by the Parliament and Council agreeing not to accept a new proposal until the three years is up.


These simple changes would not make the European Union fully democratic, or even as democratic as most of its member states. However, they would be a step in the right direction. Announcing them before June 10th might even persuade more voters to come to the polls.


Erik Meijer, MEP and René Roovers are the Socialist party’s leading candidates for the European Parliament, which will be elected on June 10-13.