Over the course of the past few weeks, as we have posted articles on growth, one realisation struck us: the European Union is doing a lot more than people suspect. This came as a fantastic piece of news but it also raised two interesting issues. We first asked ourselves: why are the long-term strategy plans and pan-European cooperative projects not better advertised? We then turned to the question: If we know so little about what projects the European Union is undertaking, do we have any guarantee that our leaders are acting in our best interest?
This week, we therefore decided to look at governance in the European Union: who is making decisions and why are these decisions not more transparent and better communicated? We realised that these two issues are closely linked.
The four main bodies at the head of the European Union have clear separate functions and powers. The European Commission, composed of 27 members appointed by the Council and voted in by the European Parliament is the executive body of the Union. The European Council, mainly composed of the head of governments of the member states is the body setting a political direction to the Union, and is often reported as having very strong powers, despite not having any formal ones. The European Parliament, is the only directly elected body and holds, along with the Council of the European Unioncomposed of the ministers of member states, the legislative power.
All these institutions have been designed and are being transformed with each new treaty with the goal of making them more accountable, transparent and powerful. However, a form of distrust remains anchored in citizens’ mind, as these institutions remain opaque and complex despite having increasingly greater powers. There are two main concerns with the current structure of European leadership. The first one being the perception of the Commission as too remote, unaccountable and technocratic and the second related difficulty being the lack of a European space for public debate.
The election of the Commission by the Parliament means that the Commission appears to citizens as an institution on which they have too little influence. Commissioners are generally little-known in their own country. They propose legislation to the Parliament, but lack the legitimacy to represent citizens’ interests. They implement legislation with an inevitable political bias and yet people think of the Commision as a merely technical, bureaucratic institution. On top of this, European citizens can feel that major decisions are taken over by the national leaders of the largest European countries. The recent EU summits were described by the press as being negotiations between the leaders of Germany, France and the UK. What voice for the other countries of the Council and for the other institutions of the EU was given in these discussions?
One of the reasons European citizens might feel left out of the European political process, or find it plainly uninteresting is the lack of public debate at a European scale. A number of initiatives to open this debate are regularly started, but few manage to reach an influence similar to that of national political debates. Explanations as to why this is the case have been put forward, such as language barriers, cultural differences, the lack of an EU-wide media platform or the fact that public debate is a local matter.
We believe however, that the lack of European public debate is not unavoidable. European citizens cannot be forced to feel European if they do not want to. But a number of young Europeans do and this is to be celebrated. It might take time, but any opportunity to support this shift should be welcomed. One step towards creating a true European debate arena, could be the coordination of local elections across Europe. It could also take the form of elections of key members of European institutions through universal suffrage. This would greatly contribute towards building a European social contract: offering European citizens the liberty to choose their European leaders and creating a space for European public debate. How would you feel about a leader from a smaller or newer country being elected, or about your own particular views not being shared by the elected representatives, some might ask.
The answer is simple: “aren’t these features of any real democracy?”