Many in the UK and across Europe tend to view the EU as an elitist and alien bureaucracy, out of touch with the everyday needs of its citizens. This is particularly significant at a time when there is widespread alarm over the Euro crisis coupled with growing separatist yearnings in the UK. So how is the EU responding to such charges? Can the EU become more democratic, more transparent, and increase the participation of its citizens in the policymaking process? Eureka spoke with two high-ranking officials of the European Parliament, Diana Wallis and Michael Shackleton, to find out their thoughts on the matter
Diana Wallis, a Liberal Democrat member and Vice President of the European Parliament, has been given the specific responsibility of improving transparency in the EU.
“We have to admit that at the moment there tends to be an unwillingness to accept the decisions that come from Europe,” she begins. “You’re only going to overcome that if people can see what the process is much more clearly and feel that they are involved.”
Last June she helped to introduce the Transparency Register, a measure which has made the process of lobbying in the Parliament and Commission far more transparent and accountable. Lobbying groups such as private companies and NGOs are now required to register on a list and information relating to their lobbying attempts is now made publicly available. Interestingly, Diana points out that no such transparency exists regarding lobbying in Britain, or indeed in most EU member-states.
But what about the policymaking process itself? One of Diana’s chief concerns is the way that decisions are increasingly being taken in informal ‘trialogues,’ private meetings between representatives of the Commission, European Council and Parliament.
“However you conduct this, people will always meet in the corridors or have a cup of coffee before a meeting; you’re never going to get everything into the public arena,” she says. “But where you have all three institutions agreeing on legislation, that really needs to be brought out into the open much more.”
These informal meetings often lead to ‘first-reading agreements’ where decisions are accepted by all three institutions at the first stage of the political process. This then removes the potential for public discussion or the proposing of amendments in the European Parliament, which under the Lisbon Treaty has become a co-legislator equal in power to the Council.
“We’ve gained new powers, but it feels as though we’re almost handing them back again by not taking full advantage of the legislative process,” argues Diana. “We need more pre-discussion before we take final decisions or give a mandate to one person.”
Nonetheless, Michael Shackleton, who heads the European Parliament’s Information Office in the UK, argues that the EU’s decision-making process remains far more open than that of most national governments. “There is a whole debate in the EU about whether we should make public sensitive internal documents about how the institutions operate. But the government in the UK would never release information like this, for example a document about the accounts of the Ministry of Defence.”
As Michael goes on to explain, these perceptions of transparency also vary greatly across the member states. “Everyone’s political culture has grown up in a different way and this can generate problems when trying to promote transparency. Some MEPs think, ‘well, why should we? We wouldn’t do something like that in our country.’”
Yet in spite of this the European Parliament remains the most transparent of the EU’s institutions, especially in comparison with the European Council. For example Votewatch, a public database which shows how MEPs vote in the European Parliament, is having difficulties trying to extend coverage to the Council.
“At the moment the Council only produces a document describing how member-states intend to vote, rather than how they actually ended up voting,” Michael explains. “It’s quite a difficult issue. If their eventual vote was also released they could have a hard time explaining things to national parliaments. This could actually prevent compromises and restrict the decision-making process.”
However, Michael remains optimistic: “The Council has responded to pressure over transparency in the past, and I think it will begin to feel awkward about being an outsider to the other institutions. It’s a gradual process, but at the moment the movement is in one direction-towards greater transparency.”
Such improvements in transparency are of course desirable, yet they do not address a central issue; the lack of public interest and participation in EU decision-making. There seems little point in the political process being more open to the public if hardly anybody is actually taking any notice. So, in what ways could citizens be encouraged to engage more with issues at the EU level?
Diana argues that the media must do a better job of improving peoples’ understanding of how the EU works. “At the moment Europe is still being portrayed as an entity where certain heads of state, right now its ‘Merkozy’, get together and make decisions. It’s as though all the democratic checks and balances in place didn’t exist.”
The European Parliament has created its own media platforms such as Europarl TV, to try and get its message across and raise public awareness at a European level. But as Michael argues, there’s no obvious answer to the question of how to increase public interest in the EU: “The institution can try do draw people towards it, but in the end it has to be something that’s out there in society. People need to feel it’s something worth looking at.”
Several political reforms have been proposed to try and address this issue by creating more of a European political space. One of these is the proposal for ‘transnational lists,’ which would make a proportion of MEPs elected on a cross-national party platform rather than on a local basis. But both Diana and Michael are sceptical of this proposal.
“On the face of it sounds like a good idea, but my fear is that they won’t fulfil the need for people to have their voices and that of their region heard,” Diana explains.
Michael agrees with this sentiment: “It’s not really solving the issue. People already don’t know what difference their vote will actually make on the ground.”
“I’m much more enthusiastic about the idea of linking European parliamentary elections with the appointment of the Commission President,” Michael adds. “Each of the European political parties will nominate a candidate for the Commission president, someone who would state clearly what they stand for. This would then create a standard against which their behaviour could be judged- because the problem at the moment is that nobody actually knows what a party will do if they are elected.”
“There are significant difficulties with it,” Michael admits. “One of the issues is how do you find somebody who is identifiable and acceptable across 27 countries, and the answer is you probably can’t. But it’s going to happen in one way or another in 2014, so we’ll see what happens.”
Another new development is the European Citizen’s Initiative, which has been described as the “first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history.” This initiative, which comes into force on the 1st April 2012, will mean that petitions signed by at least one million citizens from across European member-states can call upon the Commission to propose legislation. Diana has been involved in the planning of the project and is enthusiastic about the prospects.
“I think it’s a real opportunity to create a European dialogue at the so-called ‘street level’. It’s going to need a huge amount of publicity to succeed, but it will show that the EU isn’t an out-of-touch political elite. The potential to set the agenda is being put in the hands of European citizens.”
“This is just a toe in the water of direct democracy,” Diana adds. “If this works successfully, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be extended to allow people to suggest treaty change or European wide referendums.”
But can such measures really help to improve attitudes towards the EU, particularly in increasingly Euro-sceptic Britain? Michael is not so sure. “I think the issue of transparency is used more as a stick with which to beat the EU, it isn’t the central reason for anti-EU feeling. It’s more that we just don’t like this sort of transnational institution, which is often seen as this alien thing which we’ve got nothing to do with.”
Diana agrees that there is a need to overcome this nationalist sentiment. “Partly due to economic circumstances, many people across Europe want to ‘batten down the hatches’ and be left on their own to sort things out. However, the only way we can deal with our current problems is by acting together.”
“Unfortunately, the way Europe is being made to function at the moment is too intergovernmental,” she continues. “We need more meaningful relationships between the European Parliament and national parliaments to help hold heads of state and governments to account.”
All of this seems particularly relevant at a time when undemocratically elected leaders are taking over in Italy and Greece, and when major decisions about Europe’s economic future are being taken by just a handful of politicians. In this environment, making our governments answerable to the public is more important than ever. And whilst in a union of 500 million citizens one voice may be insignificant, united we are much stronger than any single country will ever be. Perhaps then it is time we stopped viewing Europeanisation as necessarily equating to a loss of power, but instead as a potential way of empowering citizens and of increasing the accountability of our leaders.