We do not take Leavers’ concerns about the EU’s unaccountability seriously enough, writes London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg.
*** Update 17 July 2019. Following the 2019 European Parliament elections no party group had a majority of seats. Nor did the European Parliament rally round one of the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates). In the light of that inconclusive result, the European Council (Heads of Government of the EU Member States) proposed Ursula von der Leyen to be President of the European Commission. She is a member of the German CDU party, which is part of the EPP - the largest Group in the European Parliament. On 16 July 2019 the European Parliament approved her appointment by a majority vote. Later on, it will be for the European Parliament to decide whether to approve the Commission as a whole. So, although the Sptizenkandidat system did not operate in 2019, the EU showed its commitment to democracy by having one body made up of elected governments propose the candidate for EC President and the directly elected Parliament decide whether to approve the choice. The UK equivalent would be for a new Prime Minister to show that they had the confidence of the House of Commons by winning an appropriate vote. ***
On a recent visit to Berlin l caught a showing of Brexitannia in a small arthouse cinema in Neukölln near the Landwehrkanal. This new film consists of 80 minutes of vox pop shot with artful naivety soon after the referendum followed by 20 minutes of expert commentary. It is available on Youtube but you have to pay. There is an LSE blog reviewing the film.
The experts add little, though l took away one thought: one can see Brexit not as Britain leaving Europe but rather as Britain expelling Europe from Britain.
The vox pop by contrast was fascinating. Make all the usual allowances for editing and selection. Few people spoke much sense – on either side.
Factual errors abounded, for example: the EU bans the sale of bent cucumbers. The regulation did require the bendiest cucumbers to be packed separately and for good reasons: it was hard to know how many you would get in a box, they tended to be damaged in transit, clog up machines, and consumers did not buy them anyway; so it was an anti-waste measure. But the regulation was a classification tool, and did not ban bendy cucumbers. The rules did not originate with the EU but with a United Nations body. Finally, following changes in the industry, the regulation was repealed in 2008.
These Euromyths and failure to understand the role of regulations in facilitating trade are easy enough to dispel, but do take time (l have just spent over an hour on getting the cucumber story straight) and a willingness to recognise that government regulation sometimes helps and does not always hinder. The story is similar with the even more popular non-existent ban on bendy bananas.
The interviews showed nostalgia for when Britain was great; hostility to people viewed as immigrants sometimes seen as any black and brown skinned people, irrespective of where they were born or what their nationality was; anger at the lack of jobs and prospects, at inequality.
Some points were interesting. A voice from Northern Ireland reminded us that white people could be terrorists, a point that seemed to have been overlooked by many. A Scot attributed the Remain vote to the extensive political education that had taken place in the independence referendum debate – something that passed me by as the UK media tended to focus on the political leaders in Scotland, who were often rather shallow.
A concern over accountability
But we make a mistake when we dismiss too readily Leavers’ concern over sovereignty. Yes it is based on a failure to grasp the nature of sovereignty in an interconnected world. Yes, it is by pooling sovereignty that we obtain the strength to stand up to the global powers whether they are states (USA, China), trading blocks (Mercosur, the likely Asia Pacific agreement) or corporations big enough to bully individual states (internet giants).
No the Commission does not make laws, that is the job of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, representatives of the elected governments.
And it is easy to exaggerate how democratic the UK is if you are not a swing voter in a marginal constituency: House of Lords, first past the post, just under one third of seats have not changed hands since 1945.
But there is something about the remoteness of the EU, the difficulty of “throwing the rascals out” that needs to be addressed.
Drawing on vague text in the Lisbon Treaty, the method since 2014 is the Spitzenkandidat. Broadly, the political groupings in the European Parliament pick their contender to be President of the European Commission before the popular votes for the Parliament and then expect member states to select the President based on the results of the Parliamentary election.
Member states are at best ambivalent about it – seeing it as an encroachment on the rights of Prime Ministers in the Council (a reminder that much of the lack of democracy and some of the inefficiency (two locations for the Parliament) is down to member states, not the EU institutions). President Macron – who does not have a party base – is opposed to the Spitzenkandidat system. European Parliament groupings are only lightly like political parties in domestic parliaments.
In some countries, for example Germany, where EU elections are taken seriously, the Spitzenkandidat is viewed as a real part of the process, though even there CDU MEP candidates were more likely to put Angela Merkel’s photo on their campaign brochures. In other countries the identity of the Spitzenkandidat was almost unknown.
But for all its faults the Spitzenkandidat system is a little like a national election in a parliamentary system. You vote for a candidate to become MP and hope for the party leader to become Prime Minister.
Another way to enhance democratic accountability would be to directly elect the President of the Commission. That would give real political legitimacy to the job – and hence attract the opposition of at least some member states. It would require treaty change.
What can we do?
We can explain the Spitzenkandidat process to Leave voters. Their vote in the European Parliament elections really matters. And as they are held under proportional representation each vote makes a difference.
We cannot of course promise voters EU reform. But if active in political parties we can press them to support the Spitzenkandidat process for now and move to a directly elected President in the future.
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