European Union


Sham democracy

2 December 04

As the furore over the new European Commission's make-up dies down, Steve McGiffen tackles "Europe's" undemocratic core.

NOW that the dust has settled following the exercise in sham democracy which led to a month's delay in the appointment of a new European Commission, it seems reasonable to ask what all of this has meant to us, the "citizens" of the alleged "family of democratic nations" over which the commission exercises its wholly undemocratic powers.

There was a great deal of talk about democracy during the row that surrounded commission president Jose Barroso's original choice of Rocco Buttigione, a religious extremist with medieval views on gender and sexuality, to be in charge of defending our civil rights.

We were told that all of Europe was watching, that "Europeans" expected the parliament to stand firm, that the parliament was "asserting its power" and so on.

When Barroso's ousting of two nominees, including the offending Buttiglione, and his reshuffle of some of the others led to an overwhelming vote of approval for the new team, European Parliament president Josep Borrell described it as a "significant milestone" for European democracy.

The reality, that hardly anyone cares two euro cents what goes on in Brussels or Strasbourg, is too painful for self-important politicians and eurocrats to bear.

Many of them are, in truth, blissfully unaware of the massive indifference which greets their utterances, never leaving the international elite circles in which, from taxpayer-funded cocktail party to corporate-sponsored dinner, they move.

There is, moreover, widespread understanding that the European Union is not some kind of road to democracy marked by milestones.

If it is any kind of road, it is a bypass, enabling the powerful to avoid the irritating traffic snarl-ups which can block or delay the onward rush towards a neoliberal utopia in which all that will matter is whether you can pay for what you need, whether it be a hip operation or a politician's "co-operation."

While it was entirely predictable that the reshuffle would be approved, it was also inevitable that the parliament would pass, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution which, if accepted by the commission, will oblige its president to either ask a commissioner to resign if parliament demands that he or she goes or to explain his failure to do so.

In addition, if the team is reshuffled or a member replaced, hearings of the reassigned or newly appointed commissioner would have to be held before he or she could start work.

Barroso promised to "examine closely" the proposal and even went so far as to call it "a good basis for negotiations."

Left, green, anti-EU and a few other MEPs voted against approval. Francis Wurtz, president of the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) of 41 MEPs, described the changes as mere "sleight of hand" and as an example of an elite agreement which actually "fuels a crisis while pretending to resolve it."

Wurtz pointed out that, "only five months ago, an absolute majority of European voters demonstrated a clear disaffection in regard to the European institutions" and wondered "what message they can have received from (Barroso's) nominations."

The new nominees, just as much as the original line-up, reflected "the cult of the market above all."

And that is, of course, underneath all of the hullabaloo, the point. A group of people with no electoral mandate whatsoever has been selected to further the so-called Lisbon process which, under the guise of stimulating economic growth, guides EU policy.

It involves the deregulation of labour markets, throwing even the most essential services into the lions' den of the corporate-dominated market economy, and the undermining of welfare states.

The last European Commission, despite its domination by people from centre-left parties, proposed measure after measure to pursue this goal of Americanising Europe's economies.

The new commission, dominated by Christian democrats and right-wing liberals, will continue this work.

The last European Commission, which took office in the wake of the fall of its corrupt predecessor, took no real action to uproot the causes of persistent criminality, wastefulness and incompetence, satisfying itself with cosmetic changes.

The new commission, with one member who has actually been convicted of embezzlement, another whose favouring of her friends and cavalier attitude to taxpayers' money were exposed in a public inquiry and still another who has been accused of benefiting financially from her own decisions as a government minister, does not inspire much confidence in this department either.

The most important lesson to be learned from these shenanigans is that no outcome was available that would have reversed the mania for deregulation and liberalisation which now dominates the thoughts of politicians and bureaucrats in EU decision-making bodies.

In a democracy, the people and their elected representatives are supposed to decide just what mixture of social ownership and private enterprise they favour.

The fact that such a statement now seems naive and utopian shows how far we have come from any understanding of what "democracy" means.

The stop-go commission approval process also demonstrates that we are now in danger of seeing democracy confined to the museum of 20th century political experiments, of haplessly accepting a definition which robs the term of all meaning.

The European Parliament was asked a question. Do you approve our choice of members of the commission, and its president's allocation of portfolios? There are a number of possible answers to this, including the "not unless..." for which the parliament originally opted.

Yet, as with the series of referendums in various countries on accession to the EU or acceptance of the Maastricht or Nice treaties or on adopting the euro, only one answer was deemed correct.

Unless the people or, in this case, their elected representatives, get the right answer - an enthusiastic Yes - the EU is apparently plunged into crisis.

Leaving aside for a moment the inherent impossibility of genuine democracy in a "union" with 25 member states with huge differences of language, history and culture, what sort of democracy is it which asks the people or their representatives to vote, then says that if they vote one way instead of the other the result is an "unprecedented crisis?"

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine. This article first appeared in the Morning Star (UK) on 27 November 2004.