17 March 1999
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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