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Tony Benn's five questions
28 Oct, 2018

Throw the rascals out!

One meme that Leavers use to challenge EU supporters is Tony Benn’s five questions to ask the powerful. London4Europe Committee Member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg works through the answers. An article “Is the EU Democratic?” complements this post.

Ask the powerful five questions

One meme used to challenge the EU, though Leavers do not always stay for an answer, is the well-known five questions that Tony Benn said that one should ask the powerful: “The House [of Commons] will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler - one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”.

Let’s work through the answers for the EU institutions. I am here building on the work of Richard Corbett MEP and European Movement Vice-Chair who worked through the questions in respect of the European Commission in 2016.

The Commission – a bit more than a civil service, a bit less than a government – is only one part of the architecture. We also need to consider the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers (correctly named Council of the European Union), the European Council (the body usually associated with EU summits), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and other institutions. (The Council of Europe is not an EU institution.)

What power do you have?

The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. It adopts 'conclusions' during European Council meetings which identify issues of concern and actions to take.

The Commission has the sole power to propose legislation. The Parliament reviews the Commission’s work programme and may ask it to propose legislation. To pass, a law needs the approval of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. (The Leave claim that the Commission makes laws is simply false. Whatever one thinks of the procedure for appointing the Commission, no primary Act can be passed without democratic approval.)

The Commission has the power to make delegated legislation, subject to annulment by the Parliament and Council of Ministers. (That is similar to the UK Government’s powers with respect to secondary legislation.)

The Commission implements policy and enforces law under existing legislation.

The Parliament with the Council of Ministers approves the EU's long-term budget, the "Multiannual Financial Framework". The Commission sets spending priorities together with the Council of Ministers and Parliament. It sets annual budgets, subject to approval by the Parliament and Council of Ministers. The Commission supervises expenditure.

The Commission negotiates international agreements. These need the approval of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers to pass.

The Council of Ministers co-ordinates EU countries’ policies.

The Council of Ministers develops the EU's foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines.

Where did you get your power?

All powers of all European Institutions are rooted in the treaties that set them up. The decision of member states to ratify the treaties followed national decision-making processes, typically a Parliamentary vote or referendum.

Laws passed by the Parliament and Council of Ministers give the Commission specific powers.

To the extent that the question means: who appointed you?:

  • The President of the Commission is chosen by national leaders in the European Council, taking account of the results of the European Parliament elections. He or she needs the support of a majority of members of the European Parliament in order to be elected.
  • The Presidential candidate selects potential Vice-Presidents and Commissioners based on suggestions from the EU countries. The list of nominees has to be approved by national leaders in the European Council. Each nominee appears before the European Parliament to explain their vision and answer questions. Parliament then votes on whether to accept the nominees as a team. Finally, they are appointed by the European Council, by a qualified majority.
  • MEPs are directly elected using proportional representation. The number of MEPs for each country is roughly proportionate to its population, by degressive proportionality: no country can have fewer than 6 or more than 96 MEPs.
  • The Council of Ministers is made up of the relevant subject Minister of each member state, chosen by that State’s processes.
  • The European Council consists of the heads of government of the member states, together with its President and the President of the Commission (these two have no vote). 
  • The President of the European Council is elected by the European Council.

In whose interests do you exercise your power?

The institutions of the EU serve the citizens of the EU collectively.

To whom are you accountable?

The Parliament and the Council of Ministers hold their discussions and votes in public.

The Parliament holds the Commission and certain other EU institutions to account

The European Court of Justice ensures that EU institutions and member states and individuals adhere to European law. It can for example annul a law passed by the Parliament and Council of Ministers if it is found to be in breach of the treaties or of fundamental rights.

The European Court of Auditors ensures that money is spent properly.

National members of the European Council and Council of Ministers are accountable in their home countries.

How can we get rid of you?

Parliament can dismiss the Commission on a vote of no confidence.

Individual Commissioners may be compulsorily retired by the Court of Justice, at the request of the Council or of the Commission itself, for breach of the impartiality obligation or if they have been guilty of serious misconduct.

MEPs may be voted out at the next election.

If people wish the President of the next Commission to be of a particular party grouping they can vote for that party grouping in the next European Parliament elections.

Members of the Council of Ministers are Government Ministers of member states. So the national processes for removing Ministers apply.

Members of the European Council are the heads of government of member states. So the national processes for removing governments apply.

Comparison with the UK

The EU is a treaty organisation with member states; the UK is a single state. But one can see clear similarities:

  • There is a Government/ Commission that proposes laws, enforces them
  • There is a two-chamber legislature that passes laws and holds the Government to account
  • There are auditors and law courts to ensure compliance with laws and procedures

There are also some real differences. Most obviously the upper house of the legislature is the House of Lords in the UK and the Council of Ministers in the EU – that could be seen as a little like the upper house in a federal system, eg the German Bundesrat is composed of representatives of the governments of the Länder. The EU also has the European Council. These two councils reflect the basis of the EU as a treaty organisation where member states come together.

Can you throw out or choose the UK Government/ European Commission? Yes, sort-of in both cases. For sure, kicking out or choosing the Commission President at the next election would require quite a campaign. But then, people exaggerate their ability to choose the next Prime Minister. Most UK Parliament seats are so safe that voters have no influence on the overall result.

Democratic Deficit?

The EU runs itself reasonably democratically, accountable to Parliament, bodies representing nation states, auditors and law courts.

The big gap as regards the UK is the rôle of the British Parliament in holding British Ministers to account for their actions in the EU. Some other countries are more effective in supervising Ministers, as Richard Corbett has set out. That is of course a matter for the UK, not the EU.




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