Leading article: The bankrupt parliament

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be a distortion to describe the European summit that begins in Cardiff tomorrow as the climax of the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union. The historic decision to proceed with EMU and the euro was of no direct concern to this country, and Tony Blair's handling of the exercise was profoundly undistinguished. (History is unlikely to record his excuse, although it is not a bad one; from a national perspective, peace in Ireland was his top priority, and rightly so.) The Cardiff meeting is no more than the final act of the UK presidency, although there is the possibility of a saving grace. The Prime Minister has proposals to tackle the EU's democratic deficit - which means that many citizens in Europe are growing irritated and anxious, the consequence of a feeling of powerlessness that comes from being told how they will behave by bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels. Mr Blair wants to establish a prestigious group to examine reform in the EU. One of its preoccupations must be the European Parliament, a subject on which the Prime Minister apparently has two proposals: first, the introduction of an "upper house" comprising senior national parliamentarians from each of the 15 member states, which would work alongside the European Parliament; and second, a standing committee of European ministers, each accountable to their own parliament.

The assumption behind these proposals is that the European Parliament, as currently constituted, is a failure. In Mr Blair's case this may be based on a disagreeable experience he had at the hands of Labour MEPs soon after his election as party leader. Nothing that has happened since has inspired prime ministerial confidence in the calibre of Labour MEPs. Strong personal reactions of this kind may not constitute a philosophical case for reform. But they do drive politicians on, and in this case a dubious motive may be justified by a benevolent outcome.

The European Parliament makes hardly any contribution to democracy in the EU. Occasionally it shakes a fist at the Commission, but when a commissioner ignores the MEPs they can normally be counted on to cave in. Their contribution to policy-making is marginal; they have proved ineffective at combating fraud or reforming the CAP.

The legitimacy of the Parliament is undermined by the consistently appalling turnout at Euro-elections. Although there is a closer sense of European cultural identity, there is in politics nothing even resembling a European sensibility. We are still 15 separate states, and there is no evidence of any desire on the part of the majority of the people of Europe to be anything else. As such, the idea of Europe-wide parties - the pre-requisite for any serious increase in the status of the European Parliament - is a pipe dream. The European Parliament should be regarded as an experiment in bridging the democratic deficit that has failed. The question is: how should it be replaced?

Mr Blair's first idea - an upper house of national parliamentarians - is fine as far as it goes. But a more radical idea would be to acknowledge that a directly elected parliament is anathema to the current European political identity. Until there is a sense of Europe as a political whole, Europe-wide elections will remain a farce. Why not bite the bullet and revert to a European Assembly of national parliamentarians? Drawing on existing national parliamentarians should, providing the right members are chosen, at a stoke bring a better quality of scrutineers. And by making no pretence at direct election we would move away from futile arguments about turnout and legitimacy.

The Prime Minister's second idea, that there should be a standing committee of ministers, is more interesting. In theory, members of the Council of Ministers are accountable even today. Their decisions and their voting patterns are subject to scrutiny by their respective national parliaments. Although it is unfashionable to say so, the rise of qualified majority voting in Brussels, far from smoothing the democratic process, has further undermined it. But the important thing about Mr Blair's proposals at Cardiff is not whether or how they will work. What matters is that the political leadership should understand the reason for the disenchantment with the institutions of the EU. If Mr Blair can start the process of reform in Cardiff, his performance during the six months of the UK presidency will not have been entirely undistinguished.