Time for real Euro democracy

The dream of a fully accountable European Union is far from being realised, says John Lichfield
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How accountable is the European Union? Example: A House of Commons committee is furious with Whitehall and furious with Brussels. The Select Committee on European Legislation, which is supposed to scrutinise draft EU laws, complains that the government is first frustrating, and then ignoring, its work. The charge is denied by Whitehall but there is a strong case to answer. The committee also complains that the European Commission is slow in providing official English texts of its proposals. The charge is denied in Brussels; but, again, there is a case to answer.

Just another tedious Euro-squabble? Not really. It raises a very large issue - in some ways the largest single European issue - the democracy and openness and accountability of the European Union. These are deep and murky waters where many things are not quite what they seem. Consider three inter-locking paradoxes:

Paradox One: the EU was created to sustain democratic values. But it is not, in itself, fully democratic: it legislates in secret meetings at some distance from the voice of the electorate. Despite lip service from member governments, and promises in the Maastricht Treaty, and rulings by the European Court, this is getting worse, not better. Why? Because most member governments - and especially the British - like it that way.

Paradox Two: the EU is accused by the sceptics of sucking power and sovereignty into an amorphous, quasi-federal Europe. Less noticed is another fact, identified by Alan Butt Philip in a recent pamphlet for the John Stuart Mill Institute*. The EU builds up the power of national executives and national bureaucracies, at the expense of national parliaments and national electorates. How? The need to satisfy 15 EU viewpoints means legislation by government-to-government negotiation - mostly civil service to civil service negotiation - not by debate. Decisions taken by governments in Brussels are presented to the House of Commons as faits accomplis. As the Select Committee report shows, the procedures which exist for consultation before EU decisions are reached are widely circumvented or ignored.

Paradox Three: drawing attention to the democratic deficit of the EU is not, properly speaking, a Euro-sceptic cause. It is a Euro-positive - even, potentially, a Euro-federalist cause.

Increasing the democracy and accountability of European institutions would increase respect and understanding for the EU. The present system is a breeding ground for Euro-suspicion and Euro-paranoia. More specifically, democracy and transparency in European decision-making would sluice away many of the back-door deals and secret trade-offs, by which EU governments tend to negotiate and legislate. The effect would be to increase the influence and power of central EU institutions but also, essentially, the influence and power of national parliaments.

The EU has 23 ways of making decisions (which is, in itself, part of the problem). But the core EU legislative process has three main players. The European Commission initiates and drafts legislation. The European Parliament comments on it and can, in certain circumstances, force amendments. The final decisions - and the ultimate power - rest with the Council of Ministers, the legislative forum of the member governments. The heart of the democratic problem in the EU is the Council of Ministers.

In a sense, the Council is democratic. It represents the collective will of member governments which, in turn, reflect the opinion of national parliaments and national electorates. But this is democracy at one or two removes. The Council of Ministers meets in secret; it does not publish its agenda; it does not publish its minutes. The Independent revealed last year that those minutes sometimes amend, or even directly contradict, the published version of the decisions reached. Negotiating bottlenecks are removed by giving member states under-the-counter exemptions or special deals.

Several (but not all national) parliaments insist on their right to scrutinise all EU legislation before the decision stage. In theory, in Britain's case, the government is not supposed to take a decision until the Select Committee on European Legislation has given scrutiny clearance. This rule is frequently broken. Many national parliaments hardly bother to scrutinise EU proposals at all.

But what of the European Parliament, directly elected every five years since 1979? Does it not reduce the EU democratic deficit? Yes, up to a point. Its modestly-increased powers - and its modestly-increased seriousness as an institution - have created a useful role as a public watchdog and early warning system. But the cutting edge of representative democracy is the making of laws and, in the EU, the Council of Ministers makes the laws. Unreconstructed federalists may pine for the day when the European Parliament enacts laws for a central European government. But until that happens (which is likely to be never) a direct injection of people-power is needed elsewhere in the system.

A number of ideas are knocking around; some of them are being discussed in the present rolling, inter-governmental conference on EU reform. It has been suggested that the European Parliament should have a second chamber or Senate, made up of delegations from national parliaments. It has been suggested that the Council of Ministers could itself become a kind of Senate, with two or three permanent delegates of ministerial rank from member governments (which is how the US Senate began)

None of this is likely to happen. No matter. What is really needed is more boring and basic.

The Council of Ministers should publish its agenda, its minutes and its voting records. Under-the-counter deals should be outlawed. There should be a clear and uniform system for the scrutiny of draft legislation by national parliaments. Documents must be provided in good time. As suggested by the House of Commons committee, it should be illegal for the EU to take a decision unless each national parliament has had a reasonable opportunity to scrutinise the proposal and advise its government.

Many objections can be raised. Secret deals are the oil which makes the present already creaking EU system work. A more democratic system, without the present short-cuts, would be much more cumbersome. A public council of ministers would drive much of the real negotiation into corridors.

These are genuine problems but they are not reason enough to allow the EU to remain impersonal, unaccountable and misunderstood. This is also a formula for EU stasis or gradual collapse. MPs should take up the flag raised by their select committee. Democracy is a Euro-cause worth fighting for. But, Eurosceptics beware. If you win, you are likely to strengthen the EU (despite itself) not to weaken it

*Accountability in the European Union, pounds 6. John Stuart Mill Institute, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE.