Essentially journalists, politicians, bloggers and the general public have two frames of reference when talking about the European Union. Either it’s talked about in terms similar to the descriptions used for international organisations (the UN, NATO) or in terms similar to states.

Take for example the question of whether the EU is adequately democratic. Compare the level of democratic accountability in the EU, where the European Parliament has rather little scope to shape the major issues of the day, and that in a state in the developed world, and the answer is clear – the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. Compare the EU to NATO or the UN and – unique among international organisations – it does have a democratically elected parliament, so it’s far, far ahead of those organisations.

When it comes to discussions about the budget the EU needs we’re stuck again. Compare the EU’s €140 billion annual budget to that of other organisations and it’s huge. Compare it to the budget of European states and its something close the the amount of public spending of a state the size of Portugal. Some UK government departments spend more than the entire EU does. [Note: this doesn’t mean the EU need spend more, or that what it spends today is right]

So – in short – what’s your yardstick?

Argue that the European Union essentially should remain an intergovernmental bargain among states, that it should remain technocratic, limited and shallow, is an intellectually coherent position. But you cannot in the same breath argue the case that the European Union is not adequately democratic. Networks of states imply incremental progress and slow negotiations behind closed doors. There’s not even the debate over whether the UN, G20 or NATO are democratically legitimate.

Further, the notion that the root of EU democracy lies with national elections is, and will always be, rubbish. Yes, the 27 governments are legitimate, but what can any government honestly put forward in terms of an EU policy in an election campaign and stand a chance of delivering? Just look at the knots the Tories are tying themselves in over the referendum lock idea.

This approach guards national sovereignty, but damns the notion of an effective or democratic EU.

The opposite position is to take the yardstick of a federal state, and use that to determine your answer to questions about EU politics. Here you come up with ways to achieve genuine democratic accountability – a European Parliament that would choose the executive, the European Commission, and hence have a role setting the political direction of the European Union. The EU would gain its legitimacy from the people primarily, but also through its states represented in the Council.

This approach, too, is intellectually coherent, but it damns national sovereignty and emphasises EU-wide democratic legitimacy and effectiveness.

Considering the challenges the western world is facing – succinctly outlined today by Timothy Garton Ash – which of those future EUs would do a better job? I’d bet it’s not the first.

Yet the prospects of making any steps towards the federation of Europe have never looked so distant. For so long federalists could at least use the process of treaty reform to advance the cause of EU-wide democracy forward at a snail’s pace, but that route has hit an impasse in an EU of 27, and it was essentially an elite, bureaucratic process anyway.

Where institutional reform offered a partial solution, proper EU-wide leadership would be another option. But as I’ve previously blogged that prospect is a distant hope, especially in the era of 24 hour news and the internet. The intergovernmental vision is as dominant as it has ever been. With an ageing population and a stuttering economy there’s little prospect of improvement.

Elderly and slightly less elderly federalists try to keep the flame alive, and in sentiment I am with them, although their lack of practical plans about how to move forward and an old-fashioned understanding of legitimacy and politics mean their efforts are destined to fail. Yes, blame the UK all you wish, but there’s scant little determination for federalism anywhere – France and Germany very much included! There also seems to be a recent tendency to favour the term ‘United States of Europe’ – not sure that’s good in Lakoff framing terms. Sure;y we don’t just want USA-lite?

So I’m stuck with the rather negative conclusion – the need for federalism in Europe is more valid than ever, but the prospects of advancing in that direction are further away than ever. It’s all understandable, but not desirable.

[UPDATE – 31.1.2011]
Anand Menon and John Peet have penned 9 pages for CER (pdf here) entitled “Beyond the European Parliament: Rethinking the EU’s democratic legitimacy”. I had intended to write a full blog post about it, but once beyond the 3 line summary realised it’s not worth the effort, and this post on federalism is already an adequate riposte. A quote from the paper: “However, the problem with the EP is that it fails to carry out satisfactorily the core task of any parliament – namely, adequately to represent its electorate. There is more to democratic legitimacy than just being elected. […] In the absence of any obvious means to remedy this failing, we consider a strengthening of the role of national parliaments to offer the best way of enhancing democratic legitimacy in the EU.” It’s not as if national parliaments are especially legitimate anyway, and how about giving the EP power to choose the Commission (the federal model) – something that Menon and Peet don’t even consider.

Photo: “European Union flags” June 8, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. Callum

    This is my exact viewpoint, the existing European Union needs enhancing in order to ensure that it is fair to all its members. This would not mean backtracking from Federalism, only enhancing or improving it, as nothing starts off as the finished article, just look at the League of Nations’ transition to become the United Nations. The EU needs to change to prevent meltdown and to allow future Federalism. The EU is not causing the recession in the UK, as surely then Germany would also face economic ruin due to the EU? It is Westminster’s fault were facing meltdown, not Brussels.

  2. Martin Keegan

    @Richard Laming: you’re conflating ex post review of legislation with review of executive action.

    I should have been clearer: the ECJ has almost never (only once?) said that a piece of legislation has been ultra vires the powers of the EU vs the member states. It has indeed, as you say, said that individual bodies such as the Commission have acted ultra vires, but that is not the same thing (the position of the UK courts is analogous: what’s being overturned is executive action, not legislation).

    Citizens do sometimes have standing to challenge things before the ECJ; again, I believe this a dead letter in practice.

    I don’t agree that MS governments are always incentivised to stand up for MS legislative competence as against the EU. The Council horse-trading process allows them to sidestep legislative and other political opposition domestically.

  3. Richard Laming

    @Martin Keegan: what more federalism in the EU would imply is that the notion of parliamentary democracy would become more established in its decision-making, as opposed to the intergovernmental negotiations we have now. There is a good criticism of this view in that the peoples of Europe are not enough in agreement to be able to sustain such a democracy; I don’t agree with that argument but I accept that it may be true.

    What I can’t understand is the suggestion is that the EU is better understood as a unitary state. Your description of the courts and of the distribution of competences does not correspond to the facts. The ECJ does indeed strike down actions of the Commission as being outside the law (as does the UK supreme court regarding actions of the British government). And all kinds of policy ideas get nowhere because of a lack of a legal basis. Why else is the EU tax and resource base such a mess?

    You are right to say that citizens have never won such court cases, but citizens as such do not have the necessary standing in the ECJ. This is yet another example of the intergovernmental characteristics of the EU, rather than those of a unitary state.

    Furthermore, it is not only the court that polices subsidiarity. The member state governments are themselves key players in the legislative process and have every interest in fighting an excessive use of power at an early stage, well before it might end up as a new directive.

    The problem of the legitimacy of the EU is not solved by my approach, though. The existing powers of the EU have far-reaching effects in the life of the citizens but there is not yet the corresponding sense of democracy. More democracy or fewer powers? That is the question.

  4. Martin Keegan

    More federalism in Jon’s argument seems to be the premise rather than the conclusion, but he also doesn’t define what he means by it.

    I can see at least three senses of federalism:

    1) favouring more power for the federal government as against the states; contrast “states rights”

    2) favouring a de facto and de jure separation of competences between federation and states, such that the one may not unilaterally revoke the powers of the other; contrast “unitary government”

    3) favouring the aggregation of states into large states

    I think Jon is promoting federalism in senses 1) and 3)

    The problem is sense 2), federalism as against unitary government. Inherently, this sort of federalism implies an enforceable limitation on government power: you have to be able to go to the courts and have legislation declared invalid on grounds that it was enacted at the wrong level of government. And *that* implies that courts have a power to declare legislation invalid at all.

    The UK, France, and the EU do not, in practice, have courts which behave like this. Has any citizen *ever* had an EU directive declared outside the power of the EU, by the ECJ? The absence of ex post review of legislation in the French and UK traditions has prevented the development of federal systems in those polities, and in any polities which adopted their traditions, such as the EU. The American practice of ex post review, dating to 1803, has allowed the entrenchment of federal vs state powers in the USA, and been copied in Canada, Australia etc. Germany is more similar to the American rather than Anglo-French tradition in this respect.

    So, the EU is a unitary rather than federal polity: the ECJ doesn’t in practice practise ex post review, and MEPs hold the idea of exclusive member state competences in open contempt. The contrast with America is again striking: American conservatives have no trouble opposing federal gay marriage bans on states rights grounds.

    So. The constructors of the EU have brought about a situation where there *can* be no enforceable division of competences between the federal and member state governments. An extremist minority persists in attempting further *deliberate* transfers of competences to federal level, and nothing can stop them.

    We should now turn to the Moravcsik fallacy, i.e., that the sorts of powers exercised by the EU are of a type which *should* not be exercised democratically. Classic examples are the ECB and the Commission’s anti-trust enforcement operation. If all the EU’s competences are of this sort, then the democratic deficit is not just non-existent, it is actually desirable.

    Of course, it’s also an argument for abolishing pretty much all EU competences *other* than the ones which ought not to be exercised democratically.

    Moravcsik’s approach is useful: the adequacy of the EU’s democratic mechanisms should be considered on a competence-by-competence basis. What he doesn’t say is that the EU’s record, when considered this way, is pathetic and embarrassing. The radically unitary character of the EU’s allocation of competences means that the record will deteriorate over time and further delegitimise the polity.

    Well done, guys.

  5. Richard Laming

    @Jack Thurston: the complaints that people have about the Commission are actually complaints about the Council: that is where the “unaccountable” and “interfering” decisions come from. The reason the EU attracts the complaints is because it is so active; take away its supranational elements and you would be left with something as irrelevant as the UN, WTO or NATO.

    @Steve Green is right: a new narrative is needed. Why do countries need to cooperate in the 21st century? When the reasons for this are clear – how important, how urgent – then the institutional implications can be addressed.

  6. The “United States of Europe” poses the question neatly. Is it singular or plural?

    The USA started as a plural: , “the United States are…” and it took the Civil War to make the change to the singular the “United States is…”. Not a very good analogy but even today the USA is split between federalists and statists.

    The EU needs a new narrative. For most citizens the Franco-German conflicts from 1868-1945 are history; 30% have little real awareness of even the Cold War and that was less useful in the Iberian countries.

    Tinkering with the institutions was the mistake of Amato and Kerr when they wrote the constitution/treaty and denied any realisation of Laeken. Endlessly fun but missing the point. What the narrative should be will I think have less to do with the institutions and more to do with as yet unknown visionaries who can bring new life into the “project”

  7. I agree. I share your sympathy for some aspects of the Spinelli group and their like, but it seems like groups of people sitting around agreeing with each other, rather than taking their ideas out of the Bubble and arguing for them publically.

    I suppose the question is: what should people do if they want to argue for different versions of the Eurozone, etc.? Is it worthwhile trying to push the Europarties, or national parties, on these issues (I have just yesterday sent a short email asking the Europarties some of their views on the Eurozone, and I hope to send similar, more detailed questions to the Irish parties during the upcoming election)?

    It’s hard to get people interested in European issues, so how far would it be worth trying to work outside party structures (as weak as they are)? I’ve been thinking about trying to invite Dutch, Greek and Irish MEPs to debate the Eurozone governance issue here in the Netherlands to show the different perspectives, but I’m not sure if many people would be very interested (it would probably have to be in English if non-Dutch MEPs are to be invited…)…

  8. The comparison with NATO and/or UN is odd.
    You’re basically saying “Hey, this whole ‘democracy’ thing might not be perfect, but it’s so much more democratic than NATO!”

    The real issue with this is that there is no real solution for the ‘democratic deficit’ problem in sight, no?

  9. Not sure I see anything in your argument that leads to the conclusion that more federalism is desirable. May I share my reactions on the democracy issue.

    The EU is composed of three institutions, the Council, the Commission and the Parliament.

    The Council is about as democratic as the UN, WTO or NATO, i.e as other intergovernmental institutions. The fact that not too many people fuss about the democratic deficit in these intergovernmental institutions seems to indicate that they’re sufficiently democratic, i.e. via the extension of legitimacy from the national governments they comprise. I’m pretty sure the man in the street understands intergovernmentalism

    The Parliament is democratic in theory but not in practice as democratic as national parliaments, I would say. Low voter turnout, party lists, a lack of any pan-European parties, perpetual stich ups by the two main political groupings and so on. I’m pretty sure the man in the street doesn’t even know who his MEP is. I wonder if the time hasn’t come for the EP to be a Parliamentary Assembly once again, bringing together legislators from national parliaments to discuss issues of European concern.

    The Commission is perhaps the least democratic of the three and I believe that when people (particularly Brits) get exorcised about the EU’s democratic deficit they are thinking of the Commission. We are less used to executive power being an appointed, technocratic institution than people are some continental political traditions. Perhaps we ought to just get used to it or perhaps the Commission should cede some powers to the other two institutions. One thing is for sure, we’re unlikely to see the Commission increase its democratic legitimacy, for instance through direct election of the Commission President, for the obvious reason that neither the Council or the Parliament would permit a move that would decrease their own relative power in the EU triumvirate.

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