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17 March 1999

Degrading democracy

The shake-up of the European Commission following allegations of fraud is likely to lead to less democracy, not more, argues Bill Durodie

The European Commission has been in a state of chaos since an anti-fraud report found it guilty of 'lax management at the highest level', leading to the resignation of president Jacques Santer and 19 of his fellow commissioners. Following the report by the Expert Committee into corruption and fraud, MEPs have been demanding radical reform and a more democratic set-up. The problem is that the focus on corruption is likely to lead to a further erosion of democracy in Europe.

European institutions have never exactly been bastions of democracy. There is a saying that if the European Union were a prospective new member state applying to join the European Union then it would be turned down due to its profoundly undemocratic nature.

The European Parliament, which is currently taking a stand for 'democracy' against the fraudsters of the European Commission, also leaves a lot to be desired. The elections to the parliament are never about popular mandates based on debates over principle. Most people don't vote in the elections, those who do vote do so out of a sense of duty, and the majority of people neither know who their MEP is or what he stands for. The real ghosts behind the European Parliament, the European Council and its army of civil servants, continue to work behind closed doors.

Many have pointed out that through the principle of subsidiarity, most corruption and fraud with European funds occurs domestically, within individual member states. After all, the European Commission has a staff less numerous than the Scottish Office and controls a budget of less than two percent of the total European GDP. National governments, meanwhile, spend in excess of 40 percent of European GDP.

But the proposed mechanisms for shaking up the European Commission and restoring 'democracy to its rightful place' will end up making Europe even less democratic. The proposals range from the banal to the patently counterproductive. A code of conduct, a constitution, fewer MEPs, or more qualified majority voting, appear to be among the more scintillating options being put forward. There will also be more monitoring, more special committees, and more bodies packed with wise, unelected people to keep a check on what is happening. These 'solutions' will simply confound undemocratic procedure by replacing it with even more undemocratic procedure.

The stark reality is that real democracy cannot be contrived. The popular movements which fought for freedom and equality in the nineteenth and early twentieth century did not do so as the result of an Expert Committee's suggestions for better regulatory control. Their starting point was a belief in the ability of human beings to actively engage in the world.

By contrast, today's pundits advocate solutions which will erode such values. More checks and balances...because people can't be trusted. More technical solutions...because active engagement is the last thing they want. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French student revolutionary in May 1968 and now a Green Euro-MEP, claims that we are witnessing 'the eruption of a real European public opinion, gathering its force to end the centralism and bureaucracy'. In reality we are witnessing the opposite: undemocratic bodies taking steps to ensure that public opinion is kept at bay, and yet a further erosion of democratic engagement.

Bill Durodie is researching the European regulatory framework at the London School of Economics

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