Deficient Democracy

Article excerpt

The EU Body Politic

On February 7, 1992, ministers of 12 European states signed a treaty ratifying the formation of the European Union (EU).

The document, which came to be known as the Maastricht Treaty, stated in its first article: "This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen."

It was thus part of the intention of the EU'S founders to create a democratic, autonomous political body that would be directly responsible to the European people. But how close does the EU'S population feel to the decisions made in its name? If voter turnout can provide any approximation, the 1999 elections for the European Parliament reveal a populace severely estranged from its representative body. In an all-time low turnout, fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, marking the latest stage in a persistent downward trend since the first elections in 1979.

The people of Europe are justifiably alienated from the EU body politic. Little of the power-making lies with the representatives actually elected by the people, while those who wield true power have little connection or accountability to the people. The 1999 vote revealed a long-term political malaise that has steadily grown in the shade of these institutions. Unfortunately, this trend in public apathy risks perpetuating the already non-democratic nature of the EU.

The power structure of the three governing bodies of the EU--the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament--is a principal cause of the public's disengagement. Of these, the 20-member European Commission holds the executive power. The Commission's encompassing powers include proposing all of the Union's legislation, supervising its enactment by the member states, and managing the EU's annual budget. Much of the remaining power in the Union lies with the Council of Ministers, the Union's legislative organ. Its members are cabinet ministers of European states who, in their capacity as EU ministers, are responsible for adopting and amending the legislation proposed by the Commission. The third institution, the 629-member European Parliament, is the only one elected directly by the people, but it is also the least powerful body in the EU. Although it is democratically elected, its powers are almost strictly advisory.

This concentration of power is particularly detrimental to voter confidence because of the lack of accountability of the bodies that do hold significant power. Although the Commission is integral to EU policy-making, its members are not chosen by the European people. The Commission's members are chosen first by a nomination from their national government. The nominated commissioners must then receive, as a group, the confirmation of the European Parliament. Because the Parliament's power of confirmation is so unwieldy, and because it would be such a harsh rebuke of the national governments, the Parliament has never exerted its veto power over an entire Commission. Thus it is largely up to the national governments to choose good Commissions in the first place. Unfortunately governments often award the post of commissioner to politicians whose domestic careers have expired at the national level. These politicians may be unqualified to be commissioners, having been forced into retirement by their inability to d eal with even domestic politics. A notorious example is Edith Cresson, former prime minister of France, who was awarded the technology portfolio in the Commission headed by Jaques Santer. …