I spent part of last week in Brussels, pondering variously legitimacy, legislation, accountability and The Project itself. One overall theme stands out in each of these areas: namely, that no-one seems to quite know what to do.
I’m only going to write about the first of my ponderings today: that there is a growing democratic deficit around the EU. It is not the Parliament, nor even the Council which is deciding on where next – it’s national ministers coming together in what are also confusingly called councils but supposedly making decisions for some greater good, not in their national interest. That means that Europe as an issue is becoming ever-more present in domestic political discourse – which is probably a good thing, given that it IS part of our lives – but it’s always seen as something to be fought against, or which is fighting against we the people – which is a bad thing, and should not be the case.
Crucially, the problem is getting worse, because it feels like the crisis just goes on and on, that no-one is doing anything about it, and that everyone talks about it in a bloodless, technocratic way, with no sense of urgency, and faceless beings demanding new elections until people give the ‘right’ answer.
The first event I attended last week was a discussion of this democratic deficit. Most of the speakers largely identified the problem, but completely failed to understand the scope of what is required to resolve it – most clearly shown by Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s insistence that the EU ought to raise its own taxes, which it should then spend on grand infrastructure projects (particularly trams in Eastern Europe, apparently), which would *obviously* generate growth so we could spend more and tax more in the future. Sadly this shows the two great fallacies the EU currently labours under.
The first is that government spending on infrastructure is not a silver bullet to generate sustainable growth. Good infrastructure is only part of what encourages private business to invest, people to flourish and economies to grow; it is not an intrinsic good of itself. Too much debt, too much spending on inessentials and inefficiencies and not enough confidence – these are the things that are really damaging.
The second is a more general point about the attitudes held by European institutions, politicians and mandarins – particularly a general assumption that ever closer union is obviously a good thing and the argument in favour never needs to be made. I think this is wrong; I don’t think ever closer union is a good thing in most areas, but more than that – I have no idea why anyone else thinks it is. That is what is really difficult about the EU: the sense that we have no say, that no-one listens to us, and that all the EU political class wants to do is take our money and spend in on things IT supports rather than on the things that are necessary and important to us.
I do think that the European institutions have a strong role to play in many areas (and should be doing more in some of them) – a (real) single market, free trade, climate change, international relations, aid and development, spreading democracy… But they must remember that they are supposed to be accountable, and they are supposed to be representative, and that they – as every governing entity – must make the case for what they are doing. And crucially, not get involved in things which are best left to individuals, communities or national governments.
The EU could and should be a great force for good. But as things stand, it often doesn’t seem like it wants to be or is able to be. And that is where the real democratic danger lies – because if the leadership, proportionality and purpose we expect are absent, voters have a tendency to either disengage entirely or turn to overly-simplistic and short-sighted arguments instead.