The Independent View: New report from the Electoral Reform Society: Close the Gap – Tackling Europe’s democratic deficit

EU flagThe new report out by the ERS, written by Chris Terry, is one in which the problem of “democratic deficit” in the European Union is explored. This is an issue that pro-Europeans have traditionally shied away from. However, it is the pro-Europeans who must actually take the arguments forward if Britain is to remain in the EU. The Eurosceptics, meanwhile, simply need to hammer home the fact that, from their point of view, there are no answers other than exit.

In the report, twelve recommendations on how to improve the EU are given. Some of them are very common sense items – the introduction of a better voting system than closed lists for EP candidates (we specifically recommend STV, of course), parties should seek better gender representation, finding ways of giving ordinary citizens more ways to help shape EU legislation in its infancy.

But there are more controversial ideas within the report, such as those dealing with “colour cards”. At present, there is a yellow card system working, created by the Lisbon Treaty, which means that if nine EU countries want to pause a piece of legislation, they can do. Problem with the yellow card system is that it is unwieldy and the time frames so limited; countries have eight weeks from the start of the legislative process to organise the rethink. We recommend a green card system, that means national parliaments can be proactive, as well as a red card system, which would allow legislation to be scrapped if an agreed upon number of reasoned opinions were against it. Many soft Eurosceptics on the Tory backbenches like these proposals; by going in this direction, we as a nation would be travelling in a pro-EU direction by default, as we have to be in the Union for them to make sense.

This brings us to the role of national parliaments themselves in EU legislation. There have been a few ideas that have popped up of late in regards to this, such as Boris Johnson’s idea of having MPs simply taking the place of the MEPs. There are many problems with this idea (two spring to mind: don’t MPs have a full time job already without popping off to Brussels all the time? Also, how is 73 MPs being selected by the Prime Minister of the day more democratic than directly elected officials?), so we have not recommended it. Instead, we have set down ideas that I happen to think are straightforward and common sense: scrutiny of legislation needs to be done much better than at present. Having a Eurosceptic like Bill Cash running the EU scrutiny committee is like having a teetotaller pick the wine for your wedding. Much better to have the relevant select committees overlook the legislation as opposed to it all being dumped in a “From Brussels” pile.

I’ve only been able to offer a taster here of what the report has to offer; please read it and let me know what you think.

 

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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8 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 30th Apr '14 - 3:57pm

    Now, THIS is what I mean when I say ‘reform of the EU’; not changing trade rules to open up more small countries with struggling economies to exploitation by multinationals – but making the centres of power accountable to the people…

  • Totally agree with your front page ideas about the European Parliament, the Commission and the parties.

    On reforming how national parliaments deal with the European one, I like the green card idea where national parliaments can initiate EU legislation. It might go some way towards clearing up exactly where legislation comes from. Red cards are trickier, raising the question of what happens when a broadly popular idea runs counter to the self interest of a few, or one member.

    The idea that parliament should scrutinise the government’s position in Council summits would be good – part of the problem is that Westminster’s opaque, difficult to account for processes transfer their unaccountability on to the EU as a whole.

    The problem I have is with the idea of holding pan-European parliamentary meetups. For one thing, it duplicates functions, for another it adds another element that looks like an expensive jolly for the politicals, and further it looks like a recipe for a struggle over control of the European legislation making process.

    But, on the whole, good ideas that look achievable. If something like this were to result from the instability of the next few years it might turn out for the best after all.

  • jedibeeftrix 30th Apr '14 - 5:30pm

    “We recommend a green card system, that means national parliaments can be proactive, as well as a red card system, which would allow legislation to be scrapped if an agreed upon number of reasoned opinions were against it”

    A red card system would certainly help persuade me. It would be useful in the time-frame of the next five years as mechanisms are put in place to formalise the political union necessary for the monetary union to survive, because the temptation will be to make these EU mechanisms, rather than eurozone mechanisms. They must be dissuaded from this if we are to remain in.

  • Alex Macfie 30th Apr '14 - 8:22pm

    The European Parliament should be able to initiate legislation. I’m rather surprised that that is not in the list of recommendations.
    Having a European Parliament consisting of delegations of national parliamentarians is indeed a non-starter. It’s how it was when the European Parliament was created, but surely that was only ever intended as a stop-gap. MPs and MEPs have different jobs to do. The great strength of the European Parliament is in its independence from national political bubbles, and the lack of any sort of ‘payroll vote’. Turning it back into delegations from national parliaments would mean each nation’s MEPs would just mirror the views of the government and opposition of the day in national seats of power. This would completely defeat the point of its existence, as its very role is to scrutinise the work of the Commission and Council. It cannot do this if each country’s MEPs have an in-built majority in support of their respective government position. Our MEPs have to be free to criticise the positions of this country’s government in the Council, whichever party is in power nationally.

    Thus I’m at a loss to understand the point of recommendation 6: “Parliament and the UK Government should put in place mechanisms for giving citizens a direct say in the shaping of EU legislation”: surely that is what the European Parliament does.

  • Richard Dean 1st May '14 - 9:35pm

    How about making the European parliament into a kind of travelling circus, sitting in non-capital cities of different countries in some form of rotation? For instance, Birmingham might be the host in June, Rouen in July, Seville in August.

    Special events could be organized when the circus came to town, maybe even a holiday. Special sessions could be held in which the concerns of the host country were fully exposed and discussed. A media frenzy could be organized in which the host country learnt far more about the people from all nationalities in the parliament. Tours could be organized so that everyone in the host country who wanted to could attend either the parliament or a fringe event.

    The local economy would benefit, everyone could have a good time, everyone could be involved in some way, and the parliament’s popularity could soar!

  • Richard Dean 1st May '14 - 10:02pm

    To amplify my previous comment, I suggest that the perception of a democratic deficit may have little to do with the European institutions as such, and much more to do with the failure of MEPs to represent the populations they are supposed to serve.

    My impression is that industrious MEP’s tend to see themselves as accountable to the political parties who helped get them elected, not to the populations who did the actual voting. This means that the only times they really try to engage with the electorate is just before a vote, so it’s no wonder the electorate are cynical.

    A travelling circus might be one way to address this failure. Some form of legislation might also help, requiring MEP’s to spend a certain amount of time and effort reporting to the electorate, and consulting with them. There would need to be some form of inspection and enforcement or sanction – maybe a credible mechanism for the population to do that.

  • peter tyzack 2nd May '14 - 2:55pm

    entirely agree Richard, but the other main feature of the ‘democratic deficit’, which the report doesn’t mention, is the reliance of the public (and politicians) on the ‘free’ press and broadcasters to tell us what is going on. In simple terms, they don’t, so we are left in the dark.. and what is worse, those organisations which we assume tell us the ‘news’ actually run their own agendas, according to the whims of their non-dom, non taxpaying owners. ie worse than not telling us anything they tell us a distorted version.. Yes ‘some form of legislation’ would appear to me essential if we want the public to know and to take an active part in our so-called democracy.

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