Making Europe more democratic will also make it too powerful

Will we be able to grasp a historic opportunity, or will we just see mere window-dressing?
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The Independent Culture
IF THIS week has done anything, it has demonstrated that Europe isn't always boring. Just as The Sun, from however distorted a perspective, helped to interest a large section of the British public in German politics for the first time by demonising Oskar Lafontaine last November, so the week-long crisis in the European Commission has powerfully increased the salience of the European Union as an issue. Ms Cresson has, if nothing else, made it on to the front pages of the larger-circulation British papers.

So much the better. Since democratic legitimacy is one of the issues arising from the catastrophe, it's appropriate that the people should start to care. The danger, however, is that expectations will be too high. Will Europe really never be the same again? Is this a historic opportunity, or time for some mere window-dressing? Are we in for the big bang or the quick fix?

The familiar horse-trading under way to decide who is the new Commission president makes it look very much as if not much has changed. The job of who runs the devastated Commission matters, of course. Do not assume that Tony Blair necessarily wants Romano Prodi, despite his cordial relationship with the former prime minister of Italy. The signs in Whitehall are that he might, ideally, prefer Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, if he became available. If a southern European candidate is deemed essential - as it may prove to be, after a long period of North European presidents - Mr Blair may prefer Javier Solana, the Secretary General of Nato. But he will keep his counsel over the next few days.

However, no one, least of all Mr Blair, thinks that the right choice of president solves the problems on its own. Nor will some of the necessary innovations for improving the Commission, which include a British-style auditor general with his own independent budget and security of tenure, and a trimming back of some of the Commission's ever-expanding remit to make it more economically and single-market focused. A bigger question is how to make the Commission more visibly accountable.

And here an idea that was much discussed in Whitehall last year and was then shelved, may just be coming back into its own: that of senior ministers for Europe from each member state probably reporting directly to their respective premiers, almost certainly at cabinet level, and responsible for sustaining the authority of the European Council (made up of heads of government) between their six-monthly summits. The ministers could even be permanently placed in Brussels.

The argument is that there is a ministerial power vacuum between the member-state governments and the Commission that was not originally intended. A decade ago or more the EU foreign ministers largely filled this vacuum through the General Affairs Council. But the increasing focus of this council on external issues (such as the Balkans) means that it is no longer as effective in this supervisory role. It was one reason why Jacques Delors, no less, went so far - and further than the British - as to suggest a council of deputy prime ministers permanently based in Brussels.

Such a move would cause tensions within, as well as between, some member states. Take Britain, where it might have called into question the continuing responsibility of the Foreign Office for internal European affairs, especially if, as was hinted at the time the idea was current, Peter Mandelson had been a candidate for the job. It would have meant a second, cabinet-level minister in the Foreign Office. But another possibility might have been - and perhaps could be one day again - to transfer the main EU responsibilities to the Cabinet Office. This would annoy the FCO. On the other hand, the Cabinet Office was considered a possible home for European policy as long ago as the early Seventies, when Britain first joined the Community. And some other European ministers - for example that of France - are in the equivalent departments to the Cabinet Office.

More pertinently, however, many of the smaller states deeply resented the idea that a powerful new arm of the European Council was suddenly stationed in Brussels overseeing the Commission, which they see as their protector against the predation of the bigger states - and reducing some of its powers in the process. The problem is that such an argument is much less tenable after this week's explosive fraud report.

No one has better summed up the dilemma posed by the crisis in Brussels than Dennis Skinner, who told the Commons with brutal clarity this week: "If [solving] the democratic deficit resulted in a European Parliament that could properly scrutinise fraud and all the rest of it, we would have a United States of Europe. My Right Hon friend the Prime Minister does not want that, nor do I."

Precisely. British reaction to the crisis this week has fallen, with variants, into two broad categories. One is Eurosceptic glee that it has exposed the European Commission, and by nimble extension the European Union, as deeply corrupt, woefully un-British, wilfully incompetent and much more trouble than it's worth. The other is a breathless rejoicing among the liberal pro-European intelligentsia that a thousand democratic flowers will bloom: the European Parliament, by forcing the Commission's resignation, has come of age at last and should assume new powers; the Commissioners should be elected by the masses in their own country - a proposal for which the British Prime Minister, at least, is not ready - and candidates for president should fight it out in a pan-European super- election. Transparency and accountability will rule for the next millennium.

The problem with the first argument is that no one, not even Michael Portillo, has thought of a better way of enforcing the single market, along with its good old Anglo-Saxon virtues, such as fair competition and subsidy-free industries, than having a supranational body to do it. The problem with the second is what you could call the Skinner paradox. The trouble with democratic legitimacy is that it can make the institutions that have it too damned legitimate; suddenly an elected Commission, or a Strasbourg Parliament, with even sharper teeth, will see its power increased relative to, and to some extent at the expense of, the elected national governments to which the EU's institutions are theoretically answerable.

This is the unresolved conundrum of European reform. A semi-permanent session of high-powered European ministers reporting to the national leaders and spending much of their time in Brussels doesn't, at least on its own, answer the problem. But it would be a recognition of the infinitely greater role played by the EU in the domestic life of its member states than when the present structure was set up. And it would mean that there were some important and accountable figures keeping a stern eye on the Commission.