Comitology rules

By Terry Bishop

“Europe in Charge: Committee Governance in the European Union”, Thomas Christiansen and Emil Kirchner, Editors, 189pp. Manchester University Press, £40, 0719055520

“Democracy In The European Union”, Dimitris N. Chryssochoou, 280pp, Tauris, £39.50, 1860643361

“Democracy And Constitutionalism In The European Union”, Judge G. F. Mancini, 268pp, Hart, £30, 1841331148

“Constitutional Change In The EU: From Uniformity To Flexibility?” Gràinne De Búrca And Joanne Scott, 372pp, Hart, £30, 1841331032

The debate on the future of Europe is rarely illuminated by politicians. Terms like “democratic deficit”, “social justice” and “centralized superstate” are bandied about by europhobe and europhile alike. But on one important issue there is near unanimity, and that concerns the weakness of the constitutional structures which provide for a democratic input to the decision-making processes in the European Union.

As Thomas Christiansen and Emil Kirchner suggest in Europe in Charge, European integration is a process, and this process is continuous. Margaret Thatcher’s call that enough is enough, now that the free trade area has been completed, ignores political reality. At the foundation of the European Union’s ancestor, the Coal and Steel Community, the motivating force was political as well as economic. This can be clearly seen in the original Treaty. The vision of the founding fathers was formed from the experiences of totalitarianism and warfare, as Spinelli and others have movingly stated, and the political and economic partnership mooted at that time was to prevent conflict in Western Europe. In practice, however, the drive for integration has been perceived as economic, and it is entirely understandable that many people still refer to the European grouping as the Common Market or European Economic Community.

Dimitris N. Chryssochoou in Democracy in the European Union examines the theme of democracy and the inexorable process of integration. He provides valuable insights into the question of democratic accountability within the complex mosaic of fifteen nation states, each with very different political traditions and institutions. In Britain, much is made of the flexibility of the country’s unwritten constitution, but the informality of this arrangement has led to tensions, not only as a result of the cession of authority upwards to the institutions of the EU, but also because of the devolution of authority to the new bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

One solution to this could be a federal structure. The concept of federalism, indeed the very word, has been demonized in Britain. This is odd, given the imperial legacy of a number of federal constitutions, some successful, as in Australia, others less so, as in the Caribbean and Central Africa. As Chryssochoou comments, “This antithesis between intergovernmentalists’ and ‘federalists’ has marked its impact on the debate over the future direction of the European polity.” In Britain, the argument in favour of greater democratic participation within the European Union is countered by the view from the sceptics that this is “federalist”, and a move to a superstate. On the other hand, in Germany, long seen as enthusiastically pro-integration, the top-down approach also illustrates Chryssochoou’s divide between elites and demos. There, popular opinion swung both against further integration and, in the lead up to notes and coins, against the euro, but no referendum looms in a society where authority knows best.

The French had a strong influence on the original vision of Europe: centralized and with a system of highly educated bureaucratic elites. An important aspect of this bureaucracy is examined by Christiansen’s and Kirchner’s edited volume, which studies committee structures. “Comitology”, the study of the role of committees, is a word yet to enter common usage, and it has two different spellings in this book. But its application to the functioning of the EU is illuminating for, as the editors state, the growth of committees is both an effect and a cause of integration. They estimate that, in 1995, there were some 1,300 such bodies – committees, working groups and expert groups. These ranged from formal institutions, such as the Economic and Social Committee (amusingly called the Economical Social Committee in the index), to ad hoc advisory committees.

The book paints a picture of the EU’s institutions being unaware of the activities of some committees; of member states not necessarily knowing who their representatives are; and of private or sectoral interests discussing issues of national or European interest. Brendan Flynn, in a fascinating chapter, suggests that “in fact the Comitology procedure has been for many years now an acknowledged democratic black hole. . .”. One example perhaps is the so-called sleeping committee, where a committee established under one heading is kept alive as a cost centre for budgetary allocation, but may in fact be working on something completely different.

G. F. Mancini’s collection of essays in Democracy and Constitutionalism in the European Union addresses most of these issues in a lively and very readable style. With concerns about human rights very much in today’s news, Judge Mancini reminds us that “the founders of the EC Treaty did not envisage the need to protect human rights”. The current focus on human rights may alleviate some of the cynicism of ordinary Europeans, but until the electorate has a stronger voice, there will be little sense of ownership of the European venture.

National governments show equal cynicism. As Christiansen and Kirchner point out, governments “dump” unpopular issues on the EU, subsequently blaming Brussels for the implementation of policies which they themselves have agreed or even proposed. We have become accustomed to ministers wringing their hands over EU matters which, as we later learn, they have accepted in the appropriate Council of Ministers.

Constitutional change in the EU: From uniformity to flexibility?, edited by Gràinne de Búrca and Joanne Scott, examines, inter alia, whether the European governance has shifted from uniformity and harmonization to flexibility and differentiation. As a work of specialist reference, it sits handily alongside Mancini’s clear legal analysis. The original six states may have come, as de Búrca and Scott say, “to operate as relatively centralised, homogenous, decision-making entities”, but it is probable that this was more a function of French political dominance at the time than simply a question of size of membership. However, the institutional structure of the EU remains broadly the same today, even though the membership of the Union has grown to fifteen.

With the probable enlargement of the EU to twenty-six or more countries, there has to be change. Jo Shaw (in the de Búrca and Scott volume) concludes that “the practice of flexibility is unlikely to disappear from the EU in the conceivable future”. This is unsurprising, given that the present fifteen member states have differing views on the way forward. The smaller countries are terrified of losing their commissioners and their influence; ordinary Italians, unlike the Berlusconi Government, are sanguine about further integration, seeing it as the salvation of good government, away from the mess of their own institutions; Germany’s role in the EU continues to underline its fifty-year membership of the democratic club; while France still has an atavistic fear of its near (and now much larger) neighbour. Britain is still defining its role.

It is sad, and ultimately damaging for the future of the developing Union, that at the heart of the political debate there is a vacuum. Where is the emphasis upon constitutionality and the need for greater democracy? These four books all draw on comparisons with the American constitution, and it is sobering to reflect on the notion of the rights of the people in that document and the absence of any equivalent in the Treaties. It is to be hoped that the European Constitutional Convention, which begins its work on February 28, will build transnational democratic, structures that are appropriate for a dynamic European Union, and which protect the essential pluralism of European cultures.

Terry Bishop is a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He can be contacted via t.bishop@ucl.ac.uk. This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 2002. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

Europe in Charge: Committee Governance in the European Union

Democracy in the European Union

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