Leading Article: Democracy - a vital ingredient for a modern Europe

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The Independent Culture
ROBIN COOK is right to raise the question of the viability of the European Union's political institutions. The European "democratic deficit" has troubled all who care about Europe and have watched what was once the Common Market become less and less merely a zone for free trade and more and more of a political entity, the "ever closer union" envisaged in the original Treaty of Rome. The economic progress of Europe has far outstripped its political development. The enduring democratic deficit gives rise to a doubt that gnaws at faith in the European ideal and it is one that, sooner or later, we must confront. Mr Cook stated an important truth when he said that "the only way you can meet that deficit is by tackling it via democratic institutions in which the public have confidence and with which they identify".

The plain truth is that Europe's institutions - the Council of Ministers, the Commission, the Parliament - are rooted in the mentality of the 1950s and are not up to realities of the new Europe. They represent a technocratic approach to politics and were designed to run a free-trade area of six nations in an era of "dirigiste" economic planning. They were a product of the Cold War, a way of bolstering Western Europe's security against the threat from the Warsaw Pact. They did deliver prosperity and stability to a continent not long since riven by war and genocide. The historical achievement need not be underestimated as we ponder their inadequacy for the future.

Today the lofty but distant political ambitions of the EU's founding fathers are closer than ever to reality, but in a Europe that they would scarcely have recognised. Free market economics, the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the expansion of the EU will bring us eventually a union of 20 or 30 states encompassing as equal citizens Belgian dentists and Polish farmers alike. This represents an awesome political challenge.

Mr Cook recognises this and is to carry out "brain-storming" sessions to generate new ideas.

One idea that has been floated, however, may benefit from some further thinking. The idea that members of national parliaments could meet together to increase political involvement seems to be more about revisiting the past than a radical notion for the future. After all, true national parliaments used to send delegations to what was then called the European Assembly before direct elections were introduced in 1979. But the revival of such a body would, however, at base be a "bolt-on" to a rather unsatisfactory piece of machinery.

The deeper flaw with this proposition, and all those like it, is that it still represents a fundamentally national conception of Europe - a union of nation states. If this is the mindset then the ambition of European political entities will be put back rather than promoted by such reforms. A far more radical step for the Government would be to advocate the scrapping of the existing institutions and the election of some form of constitutional convention aimed at producing a simple constitution for the United States of Europe. Europe's citizens might then have new, democratic, institutions in which they have confidence and with which they identify. It is an idea that has been raised by Paddy Ashdown and it deserves attention. Of course such a move would be met with the incredulity in Brussels that often greets even more modest proposals. Mr Cook does not want to enter the conference chamber merely to be ridiculed.

But the very failure of the modest proposals of the past - direct elections to the European Parliament, subsidiarity, the Europe of the Regions - suggests that there is little to be lost by some bold thinking. One reason that Mr Cook was retained in his post after the last reshuffle was for the intellectual clout he still brings to the cabinet table. The sooner he starts his brain-storming, the better.