Where does democratic authority lie in the EU?

Open Europe and Fresh Start: a pan-European Conference for European Reform

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Thank you to Open Europe and the Fresh Start Project for the invitation to speak today.

Both of your organisations have played a key role in stimulating the debate on European reform and doing the hard thinking about how to build a Europe that works for all of us.

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed something of a debate taking place in the UK. But this is not a UK debate. It is a debate right around Europe, looking for solutions for Europe as a whole.

So I am glad to see how many colleagues have come from across the EU to have that discussion.

I’m particularly delighted to be speaking alongside the Irish Minister for Europe, Paschal Donohoe and our former colleague, Reinhold Lopatka who has now escaped the delights of the General Affairs Council.

I am sure all three of us can testify to the fact that this morning’s discussion, on democracy and authority in the EU, has been the subject of increasing, and increasingly concerned, debate around the Council table, in the corridors of Brussels and even, dare I say it, amongst real people in our constituencies.

So I look forward very much to hearing their thoughts.

Today, we will be considering the question “Where does democratic authority lie in the EU”?

That is a fundamental question. And not just for its own sake. Because the reality of where authority comes from should guide us when we’re asking who should exercise that authority and how they should do so.

Discrepancy between those elements is a recipe for trouble.

I. Where and Who?

I take a pragmatic approach to the question of democratic legitimacy. So I look at whether ordinary people feel that institutions are delivering for them, and whether they identify with them.

On both counts we face a crisis.

Delivering for our people

The reality is that in many part of Europe, the EU is seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It’s clear that this is in part a result of the Eurozone crisis. But that is by no means the sole, or even the primary cause.

Rather the overarching issue is that people feel that the EU meddles in the minutiae of their daily lives –trying to regulate the use of olive oil bottles for example - rather than addressing the real issue that confronts the European Union – a crisis of competitiveness.

I know the Chancellor addressed this issue yesterday so I won’t repeat his words. But the short version is that the world is changing fast and that the most significant trend is towards greater international competition. The EU needs to act decisively if we want to have any chance of maintaining the quality of life, or social protection, that we’ve become used to.

This means making difficult decisions but also thinking hard about what the EU is actually for – and what our voters need from it.

And while for previous generations the EU may have been primarily about reconciliation, people across Europe today look to the EU to help deliver not peace, but prosperity. And their judgement is that it is failing to do so.

Identifying with institutions

Authority also derives from a sense of identification with governments or institutions. And here again we need to face up to the facts.

Last year’s Eurobarometer poll asked citizens whether they believed their voices counted in the EU. In the UK 75% thought it did not.

But as I said before this is not a uniquely British problem. In eight other Member States - Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Latvia, Estonia, Greece, and Cyprus – the figures were even starker. And in Ireland and Austria the percentages were not much lower at 67% and 64%.

Those figures speak not only to the frustration I have already identified but also to a more fundamental reality.

That reality is the absence of any European demos. You can tell that from looking at the low and decreasing turnout in European elections. You can tell it by looking at the fact that those elections are based fundamentally on national campaigns in which the most significant factor is domestic politics.

That is the reality.

Yes - the European Parliament has an important role in holding the Commission to account, and it can be a force for reform: as we saw with the recent reform to the Common Fisheries Policy to ban discards and move to local and regional fisheries management.

But I cannot help noticing that with every Treaty change the European Parliament’s powers have grown and yet with every election turn-out has fallen. I don’t see how anyone can avoid the conclusion that the European Parliament is not a sufficient answer to the democratic deficit.

And what that tells me is that, as the Prime Minister argued in his Bloomberg speech almost a year ago, it is in national parliaments that citizens feel themselves represented and it is national governments that they hold accountable for decisions.

I and my front bench colleagues feel this very personally during, what I would call ‘robust’ debates in the House of Commons. But we can see the same reality in Leinster House in Dublin or the Hohes Haus on the Ringstraße in Vienna.

II. How?

If democratic authority comes from national parliaments and governments, I now want to turn to what that means in practice for EU reform.

It is a conservative view, but a true one, that the democratic legitimacy of institutions is not built from the top down. It is hard won over time and requires consent and a sense of ownership from the voters.

So we should work with the grain of our political cultures to address the crisis in popular consent for the EU.

National Parliaments

First, we have been making the case over the past year for a stronger role for national parliaments in EU decision making. This would give voters a way to make their views count for more in the EU and would be a means to prevent the unnecessary interference we’re all familiar with.

Above all that means an ability to work with their colleagues in other European countries to block EU legislation that can be carried out more effectively at national level – we’ve all got our favourite examples there.

That is why our Foreign Secretary has proposed that in addition to strengthening the existing yellow card, national parliaments should be given the power to issue red cards to force the Commission to withdraw a proposal.

But we shouldn’t stop there.

Why, for example, can’t they propose new EU legislation or changes to existing law as some colleagues have suggested – the so called ‘green card’?

National Governments

Second, I want today to put forward some ideas on strengthening the role of the elected Governments in European business.

National governments, too, have clear democratic accountability to voters. But their weight in the EU, through the Council, has been shrinking and that decline should be reversed.

It is those Ministers that will be held accountable by their voters for EU decisions and so they need to play an appropriate role in decision-making.

What would that look like? Here are two practical suggestions we could put into place right now.

One, national governments, through the European Council, should set the strategic direction for Europe. They should agree a high-level plan with the new Commission, monitor its progress and feed into the Commission’s Annual Work Programme before it is issued.

So we in the UK will get behind Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans’ recent call for a ‘Governance Manifesto’ for the new Commission, which would lay out what Europe needs to focus on and, crucially, what should be left to Member States.

This would help ensure the Commission concentrates on delivering what people want. I think that five year plan almost writes itself: a laser focus on jobs and growth.

Two, we need to ensure stronger implementation of the decisions taken by the European Council.

European Council conclusions represent the agreed position of the highest level of leadership in the EU. But there are often difficulties in implementing what Heads of Government have agreed on. We should strengthen the General Affairs Council’s role in taking forward European Council decisions.


I hope these ideas on governments, and those on national parliaments, will prove a useful contribution to the debate on European reform. But we need results as well as ideas.

This year we will collectively agree on a new European Council President and a new set of Commissioners. So now is the time to put these ideas into practice:

  • For the Council to set a clear agenda for EU;

  • For the new Commission to agree that it will respect the view of national parliaments.

These are the kinds of practical measures that we need to put in place to start to address the crisis in the EU’s legitimacy. Let us seize this crucial year to make it a reality.

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Published 16 January 2014