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the european union

Asked by joeyboy234 | May 9, 2008 | AS Level > Politics > Homework
joeyboy234 asks:

'the european union is a very democratic institution' discuss......

etutor answers:

This is a very complex question. As you will see below, it would be difficult to argue that the EU is 'very democratic'. To tackle this question, you need to understand the powers and functions of the principal EU institutions (which I have detailed below) and the arguments that focus upon the 'democratic deficit'. I have also included material on the failed EU Constitution, as well as on its successor, the new Lisbon Constitutional treaty.

The European Union has been growing steadily wider as more countries have joined it, and also deeper as it has gained more powers. In half a century it has evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community and the Common Market to a ‘social’ and ‘political’ Europe. It has been transformed from a body with limited control over to industries to a continent-wide Union with all the trappings of a state. It has a parliament, a president, a currency, a supreme court, a flag, an anthem and supremacy over national laws. The original purpose for the Common Market in the 1950s – to ensure that there would be no more wars in Europe – has ceased to be relevant. Despite this, the ‘European project’ in pursuit of ‘ever-closer union’ has continued unabated via a succession of treaties (Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon) that have transferred more and more powers from national parliaments and governments to EU institutions. With the collapse of the Soviet empire and enlargement of the EU in 2004 to 25 countries, and in 2006 to 27, the focus is now on ‘making the Union work’, and thus on the powers that citizens are prepared to see its institutions exercise on their behalf. At the same time the EU has aroused growing resentment as it has controlled ever more aspects of the lives of people whose first loyalties remain to their nation-states.

The Accession Treaty in 1972 introduced for the first time a written element into the British Constitution. Entry into (the then) European Economic Community in 1973 meant that EU law took precedence over UK parliamentary law – on accession, 43 volumes of existing EU law, including 2900 regulations and 410 directives, automatically became part of UK law. This ended the idea of an undiluted ‘sovereignty of parliament’ since the UK parliament is now subject to the provisions of several Treaties, the law-making of the Council of the EU and the rulings of the European Court of Justice. Since 1986, some EU law has also been subject to Qualified Majority Voting; the four subsequent treaties have all extended the scope of such law.

Some 70% of laws affecting UK citizens now originate in the EU, while the supremacy of EU law has been frequently brought home by the Court of Justice, most notably in the Factortame case. Here the Court ruled that the UK’s Merchant Shipping Act contravened EU law providing open access to Spanish fisherman to fi sh in ‘British’ waters and to purchase British ships to do just that. The UK Parliament thus remains sovereign only in as much as it could revoke all the Treaties from the Treaty of Rome onwards, and thus leave the EU altogether, but this is a highly unlikely (and very complex) option. UK judges now interpret EU law as well as enforce UK legislation. Judges have steadily become more rights conscious, especially in the areas of employment, social security and equal opportunities. Judges work within the codifi ed framework laid down by the European Court of Justice and can award damages against the British government if it does not give effect to EU law. At the same time all EU legislation is now consistent with the provisions of the European Declaration on Human Rights (since the 2000 Nice Treaty) and so, in effect, this Declaration can be seen as one of the bases upon which EU law is formulated.

A growing number of legislative proposals affecting British citizens are now initiated by the European Commission (and eventually become law through the codecision procedure of the Council of the EU and European Parliament. There is limited time and opportunity for the UK Parliament to scrutinise these proposals, while Parliament itself has no direct input into the legislative process. There are Select Committees in both the Lords and Commons; they draw attention to proposals in need of debate in the
two chambers. They also have access to the relevant EU documents, but this is a very weak form of scrutiny.UK Ministers are accountable to parliament, and MPs certainly try to infl uence their stance at the meetings of the Council of the EU. But this again is a very weak form of accountability, and especially in those cases where EU laws are passed under the QMV procedure and where theUK minister was on the losing side.

The European Union consists of both inter-governmental bodies (such as the Council of Ministers and the European Council) and supra-national bodies, with their own authority, (such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice).

Until 2004, the Commission had 20 Commissioners (five states, including the UK, had two, and ten had one). Following the accession of 12 new member states, all now have one. The Commission is headed by a President, who is nominated by national governments acting in the European Council, and elected by the College of Commissioners. Since the Treaty of Nice, only a qualified majority is required; the nominee must be approved by a vote in the European Parliament. Each member state government nominates its own
Commissioner, following consultation with the President; Commissioners mustalso be approved by the European Parliament. The President and the Commissioners serve renewable five-year terms. The President
allocates executive portfolios within the College of Commissioners. Commissioners are independent of national governments; they are spokesmen for EU interests and not national interests. The Commission has responsibility for initiating proposals for EU legislation and policy, based on its judgement of what is best for
EU citizens as a whole, and after widespread consultation. It is the guardian of all the Treaties – in other words, it ensures that EU law is applied correctly by all member states. To this end, it has scrutiny powers and the power to fine member states. It issues regulations and directives arising out of EU law, and in this way executes EU policies, including trading relationships with non-EU members. In a more general sense, the Commission is the EU’s ‘civil service’, employing over 20,000 staff, managing EU policies and negotiating international trade and cooperation agreements. .

The European Council consists of the heads of government (or heads of state, in the cases of France and Finland) and foreign ministers of the 27 members. It meets at summits three or four times a year, and is political rather than legislative body. The President of the Council acts as the spokesman for the EU, and the Council is responsible for the initiation of Treaties and the launch of new inter-governmental initiatives, and thus sets the agenda and the policy direction for the EU. Its meetings are chaired by the member state holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU, which is held for six months by each member state in rotation. The Council of the EU (formerly known as the Council of Ministers) is made up of the relevant departmental ministers (such as Trade or Agriculture) from the 27 member states, depending on the policy area for the agenda. It meets about 100 times a year. It is responsible for making EU law (in conjunction with the European Parliament), for setting the political objectives of the EU, and for coordinating national policies in all those areas covered by the various Treaties. There are currently nine specifi ed Council ‘domains’, and therefore nine separately constituted Councils. Much of the preparatory work is completed by national delegations, each headed by a permanent representative. They hold weekly meetings in COREPER (the Committee of Permanent representatives), a body that takes decisions on technical issues. Most EU laws, such as contributions to the budget, currency arrangements and admission of new members, require the unanimous consent of all 27 ministers. In a growing number of policy areas, however, law can be made through the process of Qualified Majority Voting.

The European Parliament has been directly elected since 1979. MEPs serve a renewable term of five years; the last elections, all of which are conducted through some form of proportional representation, were held in 2004. Any EU citizen (or group of citizens) can petition the Parliament and seek redress of grievances. It has responsibility for approving the annual EU budget; ratifies the appointment of the President and members of the Commission every five years, and can require the entire Commission to resign after a censure motion. It shares legislative power with the Council of Ministers, and its legislative powers have increased over time as a result of several EU Treaties, most notably the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997). Its infl uence varies in accordance withthe procedure being used. Originally there was simply the CONSULTATION PROCEDURE – i.e. the Parliament could offer an opinion before a legislative proposal from the Commission could be adopted by the Council of Ministers. The Maastricht Treaty introduced the COOPERATION
PROCEDURE, whereby the Parliament was given the power to amend legislation in a number of specifi ed areas, such as regional policy and the environment. The Amsterdam Treaty introduced the CODECISION PROCEDURE, which gives the Parliament equal status with the Council of Ministers in several specifi ed policy areas, such as the Single Market, health and education. If there is no agreement, the Parliament can now reject the proposal; it can also initiate its own legislation in defined areas, which are largely social and environmental. Essentially, however, the Parliament remains much more an amending rather than a law-initiating legislature.

The European Court of Justice is the ‘Supreme Court’ of the EU. It has 27 members, with one judge appointed from each member state for a renewable term of six years. The President of the Court is then elected from among the 27. EU Treaties specify the extent of EU jurisdiction over member states, and the Court interprets the Treaties and all EU laws arising out of them, adjudicating in any cases of uncertainty or dispute over the scope of their jurisdiction. Its rulings are fi nal and binding on member states, both on
their parliaments and on their courts. It is also the court of appeal for cases brought by member states’ governments and by EU institutions, settling disputes between states arising out of the application of EU law. It ensures that national laws are consistent with EU laws, and requiring member states to amend their own laws whenever they come into confl ict with EU law, which takes precedence.

Much of the criticism of the EU arises out of the observation that its decision-making structures are in many respects undemocratic, and especially with respect to the key issue of ACCOUNTABILITY to citizens and to national parliaments. This criticism has traditionally taken a number of forms:
• The only directly elected EU body – the European Parliament – is not the supreme law-making body, despite the recent additions to its powers in the Maastricht, Amsterdam and NiceTreaties (and the Lisbon Treaty, once ratified by all member states).
• The executive body of the EU – the Commission – is not (as is the case for executives in member states) drawn from the European Parliament; it is an appointed body.
• Neither the Council of the EU nor the Commission is fully accountable to the European Parliament.
• The Commission is not accountable to national Parliaments either.
• It is diffi cult for national parliaments (and thus citizens) to scrutinise the activities of ministers in the Council of the EU. Moreover, these meetings are generally held in private, with no minutes published. A minister cannot be meaningfully accountable to his/her national parliament in any situation where the principle of QMV applies, where he/she was on the losing side – i.e. the proposal becomes law despite the minister’s objections.
• National parliaments can only express views on new legislative proposals in general debates; they have no
direct input into law-making.
• The European Central Bank (which is responsible for monetary policy in the eurozone) is not accountable to national parliaments, nor even to the Council of the EU.

The proposed European Constitution was designed to address some of these points by making a number of
structural changes. It was abandoned following the failure of France and Holland to ratify it in 2006, but has since been resurrected in the shape of the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty, which is the same as the Constitution in all but name. Little emphasis is placed upon addressing the problem of the democratic defi cit, since any such action would increase the AUTHORITY and LEGITIMACY of EU institutions, precisely the reverse of what eurosceptics want to happen. This in large part explained opposition to an
all-embracing European Constitution. The European constitution was launched on a wave of ambition and good intentions. EU leaders gathered in Brussels in December 2001 to consider growing public disillusionment with the European project, and produced the Laeken declaration, which proclaimed: ‘The European institutions must be brought closer to their citizens’. Their solution was deemed to be the constitution, the long-held ambition of European federalists. A convention of twenty national and European parliamentarians was set up under Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president. The aim was to bring the complex set of treaties that govern the EU into one simple document, to set out clearly its powers and how it operates. Despite these democratic pretensions, however, Giscard and his fellow federalists steamrollered through their vision of a united, centralised Europe, transferring still further powers from national governments to Brussels, and converting the EU into a legal entity.

The constitution condensed all previous EU Treaties into a single document. It created an EU foreign minister, appointed for a five-year term, and a permanent EU president, with a renewable term of two and a half years. It enshrined EU law as being supreme over national law, and gave the EU a legal identity to enable it to sign treaties. It stipulated that all citizens of member states will also be citizens of the EU itself. It set up a common defence policy, and gave the EU greater powers in areas such as immigration, energy and health. It speeded up decision-making through extensions of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, requiring member states to give up the veto in 63 policy areas. The threshold for a majority vote was lowered from 74% of votes to 55% of states, representing 65% of the total EU population. It included a charter of fundamental rights, and set out social goals such as full employment and sexual equality. In principle it also provided for the first time a legal route for countries to leave the EU.

It is commonly acknowledged that the EU is in desperate need of greater popular legitimacy, shown in the huge anti-incumbent and sizeable anti-EU vote across member states in the June 2004 elections for the European Parliament. The Constitution was designed to bring the EU closer to its citizens, an agenda set out in the Laeken Declaration which launched the process, and which identified growing fears of excessive Union power, a lack of democratic accountability and inflexible practices as key issues to be addressed by Giscard d’Estaing’s Constitutional Convention. On this basis the final agreed version of the Constitution – described by The Economist as an exercise in ‘compromise, fudge, arm-twisting and obfuscation’ – failed to meet the Laeken requirements.
The Constitution:
u Did not set out clear guidelines, rules and constraints for EU institutions
u Offered citizens no increase in accountability or democratic control
u Extended the principle of subsidiarity only at the margin, and runs the severe risk of a huge backlash on the part of voters.

In 2005 French and Dutch voters rejected the Constitution in national referendums. EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg formally abandoned plans to approve the constitution by November 2006. Despite the referendum setbacks, most of the Constitution reappeared in the form of the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty, agreed by all 27 member states in November 2007, and currently in the process of ratification by national parliaments and, in the case of Ireland, by referendum.

I hope this is helpful.

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