Constitution |

Excuse Me, Where Is the Campfire, Please?
A Critical View on the Institutional Labyrinth of EU

Lack of democracy

A campfire is a place where people meet. In former times they met to talk about the topics of common interest. Think of Red Indian or Germanic tribes (the famous Althing in Iceland f.e.). The modern public campfire is Parliament. In public debate the deputies dispute the pros and cons of a topic and decide by simple majority. But where is the campfire on European level?

The campfire as an image for a transparent, socially accepted and therefore socially pacifying political decision-making process has a hard time nowadays. Particularly in the larger nation states, real political power is distributed among many small, more informal mini-power centres, where the various interests in society are balanced relatively silently in the run-up to parliamentary decisions. Committees, specialist groups in the ministries, lobby talks, faction meetings, coalition meetings, round tables, expert commissions: all this leads to the fact that at the end of the day there is not so much left to decide in the parliaments. The decisive promise of parliamentary democracy is that citizens will be able to influence political decision-making processes through the electoral act. If, however, these are outsourced to various rounds of experts, this campfire feeling will be lost.

At national level, we can partly compensate for this by being familiar with the political system. We know the structures, we know the actors, we have found out how to deal with the media and whom to address and how in order to express one's own goals as an NGO. We as Mehr Demokratie also demand the introduction of citizen participation and direct democracy, so that citizens can take the initiative in a socially relevant form and can put issues on the political agenda, bypassing the political system with all its constraints. Referendum campaigns are sort of the modern campfire and can set important impulses in the whole political system.

The institutional structure at European level

The institutional structure at European level, on the other hand, is proving to be cumbersome. There is much talk about the democratic deficit in the EU. But what exactly is it? Parliament is directly elected, governments are democratically legitimised, and both together determine the Commission. So we cannot deny that there is a chain of legitimacy that starts with the electorate and ends with the EU institutions.

Such a view is often found among the convinced supporters of the current EU. Whereas for me this view is too formal. The legitimacy here is passed on "upwards" over several stages and is "diluted" on its way up by various effects caused by the institutional structure of the EU.

Mixing of legislative and executive power

It is too little known that there is hardly an EU directive that does not have the approval of all (or at least the large) EU states. In the regular legislative procedure of the EU, the Council and Parliament decide together. I.e. every government (at least of the big states) has in fact a kind of veto right. An EU directive, which is also adopted by the governments, must then be transposed into the applicable law at national level. Since in parliamentary democracy the government is always supported by a government coalition in parliament, which will never refuse to follow "its" government, this is often handled as a formality. The decisions taken in Brussels then have to be "followed" at the national level.

In essence, however, this leads to a serious erosion of the separation of powers if this procedure loses its exceptional character and becomes the rule. Through this mechanism, it is ultimately the governments of the EU states that adopt laws at the national level. The dominance of the executive branch in parliamentary democracy, which is caused by the formation of a power bloc of government coalition and government and is enforced by coalition discipline, is clearly reinforced by this. (At least in Germany this is the structural mechanism behind. Maybe in other countries it's different. I think especially at Denmark or Sweden, where they have no problems with minority governments which is in Germany inconceivable. We will clarify this in following articles. SP) The resulting legal acts in the German Bundestag now amount to an impressive 70 to 80 percent (depending on the counting methodology). Here there is a loss of sovereignty at the national level, which is not compensated by a corresponding gain in sovereignty at the European level.

The Commission is appointed by the national governments

Further aspects are added. The EU Commission is appointed by the governments. The EU Parliament has to agree, but has no right of proposal. At the national level, this process would be comparable to the head of government being appointed by the prime ministers of the Bundesländer, regional states, regions, cantons etc. In its current form, the EU Commission cannot be compared with a government in a parliamentary democracy, but rather with an executive intergovernmental Committee on Europe of national governments.

Lack of transparency

The negotiations in the Council of Ministers, which are part of the legislative process in the EU, are completely non-public. It is simply inconceivable in a democracy that crucial parts of the process are intransparent and secret. The fact that some actors meet from time to time for informal talks in corridors, parking lots or pizzerias in order to sound out compromise lines is fine as long as the essential parts of the process are public.

Commission has sole right of initiative

One of the strangest phenomena in the Brussels labyrinth is the EU Commission's sole right of initiative. The institutional structure is strongly influenced by the intergovernmental character of the EU treaties. In every intergovernmental treaty there is usually an assembly of governments, which are the actual contracting parties. This then appoints a secretariat, which becomes active between the assemblies within the framework of the respective treaty. This was also the case with the European Coal and Steel Community (Montanunion). The governments were present as the "Council of Ministers", while the "High Authority" acted as secretariat. These two bodies were then supplemented by a "Parliamentary Assembly", which was made up of national parliaments and had an advisory character. Of course, every intergovernmental treaty also has a court of arbitration, which in the case of the ECSC was simply called the "Court of Justice". The Triassic Council - Commission - Parliament therefore has a clearly recognisable root in the intergovernmental history of the EU.

In addition, the national governments were not trusted at that time to come up with genuine European initiatives. During the war, many politicians were convinced that some form of European cooperation was needed after the war. One of the most outstanding minds of his time was Jean Monnet. He was the one who ultimately gave birth to the idea of the European Coal and Steel Community, and he then became the first President of its High Authority. It was certainly also the formative influence of his charismatic personality that led to the situation that the governments and certainly not the parliaments, whose composition was completely uncontrollable, were not granted the right of initiative. Rather, it was the High Authority that, with ever new proposals, promoted integration and thus became a think tank for European integration. From the very beginning, the work of the High Authority was based on a special "European spirit", which can still be felt today.

At the end of the day, the EU Commission is not simply a government committed to the parliamentary majority, but, according to the EU Treaty, it is always and first committed to European integration. It is the only institution allowed to propose regulations or directives. It is not transparent why it makes proposals or not and why they are as they. No Member of the European Parliament can initiate any legislative project on his own initiative, as it is possible in any national parliament. In the meantime, MEPs have found ways and means of calling on the Commission to take certain initiatives. And with the European Citizens' Initiative as an instrument, the citizens also have the opportunity to suggest initiatives to the Commission. But the binding final decision lies solely with the Commission. Anything that wishes to enter into the political process at European level must pass through this bottleneck.

Governments have too strong a position

Also related to the intergovernmental nature of the European Treaties is the fact that governments have a disproportionately strong position. Government representatives sit on the Council of Ministers and are - unanimously or by qualified majority, depending on the topic - directly involved in the legislative process. In addition, there are many important policy areas where Parliament is not involved (e.g. police cooperation) and where governments can decide together with the Commission - and in many areas even without the Commission (e.g. defence policy). Governments have a disproportionately strong position and usually use it to block unpopular initiatives or to enforce initiatives that they cannot enforce at national level. Recently, it has often been observed that environmental initiatives approved by the Commission and Parliament did not find a majority in the Council. Often enough, they have failed due to the lack of approval from a single government, usually the German government.

The Trialogue procedure is not public

If Parliament and the Council of Ministers cannot reach agreement, there is a so-called trialogue procedure in which representatives of the Commission, Parliament and Council meet and negotiate the form in which the initiative in question can be adopted. The negotiations are, of course, non-public and the result is binding for all bodies in accordance with established practice. This trialogue is not contained in the Treaties and must be viewed very critically from a democratic perspective, as it is opaque and encourages the further dissolution of the separation of powers.

The composition of the EU Parliament has too little influence on the policy of the Commission

If the contents of the political process at EU level cannot be influenced, let alone set, by the citizens, then the contents of the electoral act evaporate. The election of a Member of Parliament is nominated by a national party and is often elected from a more national than a European point of view. It then looses the significance for the formation of the political will at EU level.

There are also too few genuine European parties at present that would draw up certain political proposals from a purely European perspective. On the one hand, this is due to the election law for the European Parliament. Each member state may elect "its" deputy according to its own electoral law. The national parties may at best form electoral alliances with similar parties in other states. But this cannot be compared to a genuinely European party or a transnational list with a single European program. And the fact that legislative initiative is impossible from within parliament does not promote the emergence of a genuinely European party landscape.

The subsidiarity principle exists only on paper

The European level should only take action if it can regulate something better than the lower levels. But who decides where something is better regulated, and according to what criteria is it decided? Who has the competence?

Let us look at the example of the change of summertime. Recently, the EU Commission has tried to open up this issue more to the public by means of consultation procedures. In the discussion on the abolition of the annual summertime change, three alternatives were identified:

  • Maintain summertime change
  • Abolish summertime
  • Abolish wintertime

From a democratic perspective, it would be useless for the Commission to adopt one of these positions and infiltrate it into the EU legislative process, because the supporters of the position not taken into account would then feel ignored. The consultation procedure is of course voluntary, and it is more or less a matter of chance who has heard about the consultation and then takes part in it. The procedure is in no way transparent or representative.

This demonstrates the strength of the idea of parliamentary democracy. Ideally, the citizens have elected a parliament that reflects the spectrum of opinions in the population accurately enough. They bring proposals and counterproposals to Parliament, where there are public discussions and, at the end of the day, a public vote. This then has a completely different effect on society. It has a calming effect because every political faction or current can tell itself that it has had its chance and has been heard.

In the present case, the Commission has recommended deleting the directive on the uniform summertime change in Europe, so that the individual Member States can again decide for themselves whether they want to take part in the summertime change or not. Even if this recommendation seems reasonable, it reveals another problem in these decision-making processes if you examin it more deeply: Who actually determines which level is responsible for which issues? In this case, it seems that it is the EU level that decides. Only when it relinquishes its priority of competence can the level below become active again.

This is now paradoxical: the sovereign has transferred certain competences to the EU level, but he can no longer retrieve them on his own initiative. Only when the EU level comes to the conclusion that it no longer wants to use these competences can the national level become active again. That's not the way a federal state is meant to be!

Against the Nationalistic Deconstruction of the EU - For a European Campfire!

In our view, these procedural peculiarities lead to an accumulation of delegitimisational effects at EU level, which at the end of the day lead to the EU citizens - that is to say: us - no longer feeling represented. Turning away from the EU is a clearly observable consequence of this situation. Voter turnout in the EU Parliament has been declining significantly for many years, and in recent years nationally oriented forces, which are very strongly opposed to the EU, have met with a clear response in many EU countries. The nationalists claim that democracy can only be effectively organised and lived within a national framework. At the European level, only governments should negotiate with each other ("Europe of the Fatherlands").

If one wants to contradict this assertion, then one must not close one's eyes to the real democratic deficits at the European level, otherwise one immediately appears untrustworthy and drives the citizens even further into the arms of the right-wing nationalists. That is why we propose reforming the institutional structure of the EU. Beyond all the conflicts of interest that may exist between us in everyday life, we European citizens have many tasks and problems in common. That is why we want to work together to find solutions and be able to help each other. We all live in a common house, our "European House". And that is why we must agree on the building plan for this House. The blueprint is the rules, principles and values according to which democracy should function at European level.

A new foundation of the EU will only succeed if it clearly stands out from the current path. Power at EU level needs stronger legitimacy than before. In addition, we need a discussion on a redistribution of power between the different political levels. The aim must be to return more powers to those levels that are closer to the people. Not only the EU level, but also the nation states have to see it as their duty to hand back powers downwards.

Let us stand up together for a real European campfire!

Stefan Padberg, Working group Europe and World of the association Mehr Demokratie

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