Is the Constitutional Treaty the first step to democracy?

By John Preston

The question asks: “Is the Constitutional Treaty the first step to democracy? – and to discuss (implicitly) the democratic deficit? – and the future of the Treaty?

The plan is to concentrate on aspects of the institutions of the EU and the same for a vision of Europe

My name was put forward by an office holder of the European Movement and of the Federal Union. Members, while for the process of integration in Europe, are not necessarily unanimous as to how that process should develop.

At a recent meeting of the Federal Trust, for example, Professor Vernon Bogdanor put forward a well-argued case for the greater role of the European Parliament. It would confirm the appointment of the Commissioners and censor individual Commissioners for defective behaviour as required.

The business of the evening concerns (1) the future of the Constitutional Treaty and (2) asks for a personal vision for the future of Europe.

The Constitutional Treaty: Is it the first step towards democracy? No, it is not: however, it is a further step towards fully democratically accountable European institutions.

Democracy – parliamentary democracy – was implicit in the process of creating the EU, starting with the Coal and Steel Community, implemented in 1951. Its main aims were peace, economic recovery and security. It did not require referendums to pioneer all this. It also carried with it the implicit support and confidence of a people in Europe that sought peace and recovery.

The Community idea developed from the multi-government conference in Messina in 1955 and, via the Treaty of Rome in 1957, got as far as the IGC at Maastricht in 1991-2; this was the point where these aims had largely been attained: perceived as a change of type from Community to Union.

The core membership of 6 countries had after 1973, through a process of enlargement, grown to 9 – and it would progress through to 27 in 2007: three times the number. Such a change in the order of magnitude necessitated modified rules: Hence the Constitutional Treaty.

Likewise, the Maastricht Treaty was seen by the new members, specifically the Irish Republic and the Kingdom of Denmark, as being of domestic constitutional significance. It was a change in “qualitude” and called for ratification by referendum. Explicit democracy.

President Mitterrand exercised his option to submit the Treaty to the opinion of the people of France. There were thus three referendums. The people of Denmark voted narrowly against the Treaty. A second vote gained a narrow majority through the new concept of the national “opt-out” – for example, the UK and Denmark from the euro.

The role of a referendum is: either as a constitutional obligation, or exclusion, as in the German Federal Republic, or it is the option of a head of a government to exploit as a balance of judgement.

A UK prime minister has 3 times offered it to the electorate. The promise of a referendum was successfully held by Harold Wilson in 1975. In 1998 and in 2003 Tony Blair promised a referendum; but on both occasions he simply abandoned the idea. In effect, the people of France decided against the Treaty on behalf of both France and the UK. The people of the Netherlands decided for themselves.

So how has democracy developed in the EU so far? We went through a period of the ‘implicit’ between 1957 and 1992. We are now in the phase of the ‘explicit’. The EU has helped to highlight all this in the collective European mind, while largely respecting local custom.

Even at the European level, it is the member states that agree to the 5-year Parliamentary period and to the futility of alternating sessions between Brussels and Strasbourg. However, they cannot agree to hold the EP elections on the same day of the week, nor on the electoral process for the selection and election of MEPs. Hence the unique system used in the UK.

Even in this tangle – entirely the responsibility of the governments of the member states in their pursuit of “Sovereignty” – we see the one institution of the EU that has democratic legitimacy: the European Parliament itself.

The Council of Ministers represents the appropriate national departments of government: this is a form of indirect democracy. Each minister is elected, selected and appointed nationally. In theory, this also means being answerable to the national parliament. The EU role is thus an extension of the national responsibility. The mandate is national not European.

The main institution of the EU is the Commission. Again it is a national prime minister who appointments each national Commissioner. The democratic process is by patronage and totally indirect. In my view, for the UK, wrong as a system.

On the other hand, I understand that the Republic of Ireland takes all this very seriously and appoints of its best available candidates. The success of Ireland in the EU comes from a positive attitude to the EU – partly attributable to being independent of the UK! The people of Scotland have noticed!

The UK only appears to do this. The late Lord Cockfield was a classic example. He was thought to be a “Russell Bretherton” (Our man from the Board of Trade representing the UK as an observer at Messina). In fact his, Lord Cockfield’s, astute brain and pursuit of detail led to the implementation Single European Act – and typically his subsequent replacement by Lord Brittan.

Both should have been Commissioners in their own right.

Thus far the development of the current constitutional status of the EU has seen the parallel emergence of three types of democracy: the implicit, explicit and indirect – patronage, even!

That is my answer to the first part of the question. The process of designing and ratifying the Constitutional Treaty exposes the differences between the political cultures of the member states – as expressed by the different governments and their vested interests.

I submit that the national governments exaggerate the differences between the people of Europe. As the measure of opinion polls showed in 2003 over the Anglo-American war against Iraq, that public opinion across Europe was much of one voice: It was the national governments that were the problem.

That neatly leads on to the vision of the future of Europe – that is how the main institutions of the EU might be reformed and developed.

Let us take them in turn:

The Councils of Ministers should reflect their true identity and work closely with their national parliaments in the scrutiny of EU Legislation – one of the recommendations of the Treaty. For example, in the UK this would oblige the House of Commons to “do better” in its review of EU legislation. MPs are have other motivations.

In fact it is the special committees of the House of Lords that do a thorough job in the scrutiny of EU legislation. Their lord- and lady-ships fulfil an important function of state through their expertise and commitment. Long may it remain through whatever reforms come about at the UK or English level!

We should now consider the future of the European Parliament: my starting point is the example of the Jenkins Report of 1998 and its proposed reforms for the UK electoral system. Not in the interest of the Prime Minister, so, like the referendums: dumped!

The appeal of this Report is that it recommends a combination of single member constituencies; it is designed to produce a result with the number of seats allocated in proportion to the pattern of electoral voting through a member list system. The EP at the EU level is fine – it is the UK voting system that is the main problem. One vote for nine candidates is a nonsense. This shows contempt for the electorate.

My main recommendation concerns the Commission and the Commissioners. It and they lack a mandate (I quote Vernon Bogdanor again). The process of their selection and appointment is currently at the behest of the nation state, its government, but not its people. Indirect democracy through patronage.

So I will put forward a straightforward proposal: That the number of Commissioners be limited to 7 and with specific departmental responsibilities for only those tasks best performed at the European level. I suggest 7 to be an ideal number for an effective committee or cabinet meeting. They would be elected on a European scale. I commend this as a principle at this stage, perhaps for discussion later.

This process of direct election would link the people to the European level of decision-making and oblige the candidates to declare a mandate based on their professional qualification in a specific area of expertise, addressed to all the people of Europe.

The weakness in the present system is that the Commission is not always in touch with the public mood, with national concerns (the referendum in Ireland and the Commission intervening on a matter of EU public finance) and particular local issues – cheese making in Cheshire, abattoirs, sweet shops in Oxted etc.

In short they are inhibited from direct contact with the ‘ground level’ implications of their actions and decisions. The matter of timing is also important. Perhaps the Commission and the Commissioners do get things right most of the time. They are unable to communicate direct to the people. Their mandate is based on a divided loyalty.

Being dependent on the motivations of the national politicians and local media, the blunders and indiscretions of the few are news; the good work of the many passes like ships in the night. Communication is an important factor.

This straightforward proposal – for a limited number of “Director Commissioners” would advance the progression of democracy and mandate accountability at the European level.

It would help to define the key roles of the individuals and the institutions that serve the people of Europe. It would simultaneously define the people of Europe as a coherent Community; it would address the vision and commitment of the founders of the process of European integration: peace, economic development and security – at peace with ourselves.

It would also unlock the minds of both the rulers and the ruled of Europe; it would get us out of this prolonged period of reflexion into the realms of decision and action. It would expose the self-serving mentality of local politicians. That is the nature of the human being. As a sales manager once told me: “It is essential to identify what it is that really motivates people.”

I simply ask that we all to think and understand the importance of decision making at the European level. The motivation would be to serve a European electorate: a European community.

It would prove that European politics is the property of her people – we/us, the Europeans. It would prove, above all, that, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan: “European politics can be fun!”

That is my vision of Europe for my 2 grandsons. I shall not live to see it, but what fun to think that either or both could one day become a Director of the European Commission in, say, 2030! And many of you may be voting for them!

Or they may vote for you even sooner than that! Something to think about. Even to discuss.

Thus I offer you the vision of true European democracy.

Based on a talk given by John Preston, member of the committee of Federal Union, to King’s College London European Society on 2 February 2007. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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