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Alternative medicine?

Hannes Huhtaniemi on EVAn Juniorikumppani vuodelta 2003. Hänellä on Master in European Affairs -tutkinto Lundin yliopistosta. Parhaillaan hän työskentelee EUn Komissiossa harjoittelijana, mutta esitetyt mielipiteet ovat hänen omiaan.

European leaders would be well advised to consider how far removed ongoing work on a future European Constitution is from the 2001 Laeken declaration which began the project. Efficient and legitimate EU decision-making structures may in fact be achievable only via an altogether different approach.

As the Irish Presidency has quietly taken discussion on the European Union’s constitutional project behind the scenes, and public interest in the subject has all but faded, it is high time to for a bit of stocktaking in preparation for an eventual outcome. Namely, we ought to be concerned about whether, considering Europe’s long-term future, the ongoing intergovernmental bargaining on future voting weights will only end up producing a far less optimal balance than the carefully pro-integrationist conclusions of the Draft Constitution. If it does, there should be other options on the table.

Few people can deny the importance of better codifying the EU’s powers and institutional set-up, and thus of the progress made by the Giscard Convention in this respect. However, whatever agreement—if any—is now achieved on voting weights for the future Council of Ministers will shroud the entire endeavour with precisely the kind of traditional government-versus-government bargaining responsible for the sub-optimal Nice Treaty. In the event, it would be only slightly less like a conventional EU treaty hammered out in intergovernmental conferences, and a far cry from the Laeken declaration’s proclaimed goal of getting the people more involved in the process. Calling it a constitution would be an abuse of the term and a lasting admission that Europe is incapable of achieving one in the more genuine and emphatic sense.

Because of the time and energy already spent, EU governments seem desperate to forge a deal at almost any cost. But what if another option were put on the table—one that would dispose of the need to clutter the EU political machinery with yet another, ultimately dysfunctional decision-making arrangement? What if there were an easier path to clarity and expediency in EU politics—without which people cannot see public authority as fully legitimate—than via a distant procedure of fine-tuning voting weights, based on complicated mathematic formulae, for a largely anonymous Council of Ministers?

Unsurprisingly however, what presents itself as such a quick fix is actually a complete political non-starter. It involves scrapping the project of a Europe-wide constitution for now, and adjusting the constitutions of the member states so as to align their national general elections to coincide with one another. But non-starter or not, think about it. As the Council will remain the principal site of power in the EU for the foreseeable future, clearly demonstrated by the last ferocious clash over voting shares, why not abandon the frustrating effort of fine-tuning and instead reform the way in which the mandate of the Council itself is understood by the population in general as well as the officials and ministers working within? Effectively electing the Council for a determinate period at the same time as electing the national government would increase the salience of European issues in national debate. It would also impose a certain collective ethic and agenda, one of governing and not of merely representing national positions, on a Council acting under a more transparent mandate—as a quasi upper legislative chamber.

Specifically, aligning national elections would have three major beneficial effects. First, it would preclude periods of virtual limbo in EU policy-making when some of the bigger states are engaged in bitterly contested knife-edge elections. In this respect, the EU presidencies in 2002 of Spain and Denmark, with all the important business that needed to be discussed, were arguably handicapped by the de facto moratorium imposed by elections in France and Germany. “Every time there is a government crisis in one country, or a tight-fought election, it tends to stop the process (of EU policy-making),” writes Quentin Peel in The Financial Times echoing theories by Robert Keohane, Helen Milner and others of how concentrated domestic interests, by sheer electoral logic, override diffuse internationalist ones during elections. Furthermore, doing away with overlapping and intersecting terms of office for the Council members would improve accountability by instilling a clearer sense of direction and shared responsibility in those involved. Having a clearer stake in the success of the system, the incentive to scapegoat the EU, and thus alienate it further in peoples’ minds would also be mitigated.

Second, instead of ever-switching, issue-by-issue coalitions (e.g. northern member states versus southern member states, big ones versus small ones), the composition of the Council would be increasingly understandable in familiar terms of Left and Right, a popular and helpful if ideologically somewhat outmoded categorisation. Regarding the diversity in European party-space however, this is not to suggest that issue coalitions would not continue to dominate power alignments in the Council, simply to note that people could use more optimal lenses in looking at, and thereby identifying with, the Council’s work. And who knows—if elections were contested simultaneously, common interests could compel European parties to cooperate across an increasing range of issues and consolidate their positions in the Council in terms of these more familiar dimensions.

Finally, an increase in transparency and clarity in the Council’s agenda and working methods would enhance the ability of national parliaments to hold their governments accountable for EU decisions. A harmonised and determinate Council mandate would see sovereign powers (in areas not already under exclusive Community competence) once again more clearly lodged in national parliaments and not in the shifting briefs of officials and ministers.

Together, progress in these directions would introduce improvements in the three cornerstones of good government—expediency, legitimacy and accountability—far beyond what any new tinkering with voting weights could accomplish. Simultaneous elections would effectively graduate the EU into a higher level of international organisation, where the mission would no longer be simply to represent nations, but also to govern and provide leadership in the enlarged polity. True “representative government” at the EU level has increasingly to involve itself in upholding the second component in the concept.

To be sure, national sensitivities aside, immense problems would remain even with simultaneous elections. For one, the current emphasis on population size in qualified majority voting would somehow have to be adapted to also take account of party-ideological weights in order to serve the purpose of popular identification with Council policies based on Left-Right thinking and the idea of majority rule. A presidency system where a team of member state governments representing the victorious alliance of parties—again appropriately qualifying the “victory” with the population-factor—would set the agenda for the term of office could however partly overcome the need for more complicated calculations of the kind.

In sum, instead of washing out with another uninspired and mathematically specious institutional re-fashioning—in the meantime forever holding out for an eventual consciousness-grabbing moment when a genuinely European polity emerges to warrant greater powers for the European Parliament—we could use a fresh look at how existing institutions and procedures could be upgraded in view of demands for expediency and legitimacy in EU policy-making. Furthermore, by using the institution through which people are most closely involved in government (national elections) to reshape the one in which they are least (Council deliberations), the hallow but hollow EU principle of subsidiarity could at long last gain concrete articulation.