Seventeen years ago, when the Maastricht Treaty was signed, ushering into life the new European Union, I thought I was witnessing a turning point in history. This was going to be the true beginning of the new world order, I proclaimed to anyone who would listen. After all, Communism was dead, the Soviet Union shattered into a million pieces, Sadaam Hussein neutered and totalitarian regimes around the globe were left quaking in fear of the march of democracy. The Europeans had it right. They were going to transform their old European Economic Community into a new supranational government which would issue its own currency and begin to exercise control over not only continental economic policy but arrive at a common foreign and security policy.
In short, the new European Union looked like the harbinger of a new world government that would once and for all eliminate war. Then this former hub of world conflict would become an exemplar of how humanity could come to its senses in eschewing militarism for the finer virtues of economic progress and mutual prosperity.
Well that’s certainly what the founders of the EU would have had us believe. Several treaties later, the machinery of the new government has bloated to 20,000 bureaucrats, Europeans have slumped into a pacific torpor and the EU has become the largest unrepresentative deliberative body on Earth.
The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on December 1, 2009 after an excruciatingly long ratification process among the constituent states, has put the final seal on the European Union, stamping its permanence on the face of the old continent.
But don’t think of this creature as some kind of federated copy of the United States or Canada. The reborn European Union is actually nothing of the sort.
It is governed by three separate institutions. The first, and weakest, is the European Parliament, whose MPs are elected by the populations of their respective constituencies for a fixed five-year term. They approve the president and members designate of the European Commission and may force the Commission to resign through a vote of censure. Uniquely among parliaments, however, this new one body lacks any power to reject bills put before it by the executive. Members are chosen through an unnecessarily complex system of proportional representation and party lists so they do not represent constituents for whom they are accountable. Parties from the 27 countries are chosen in blocs that claim a shared political outlook, self-described as either Left or Right. Yet there is no proper opposition and nor could there be when the parliament does not answer to real people but only to the abstract entity of “Europe.”
Then there is the European Commission, which operates as a kind of revamped Committee of Public Safety, hoisted virtually intact from the French Revolution. This ’super civil service’ formally originates all legislative measures and is responsible for the implementation of all decisions agreed by the Council of Ministers. It has a number of direct decision-making powers in such spheres as the coal and steel industries, agriculture and the environment. At the head of the Commission is a committee of 20 nominated commissioners who are appointed for a five-year renewable term of office. They are answerable to a president and up to two vice-presidents. It is a kind of executive, legislative and bureaucratic body all rolled into one.
Yet the true power of the New Europe resides in The Council of Ministers. This is the central and ultimate decision-making body in the union. Each country has one vote on this Council and no directive can be issued or amended, unless it is agreed by the Council.
What role do ordinary Europeans have in the operation and control of their new government? Almost none. There is no voice allowed for the European commoner ( a feudal designation which seems increasingly appropriate for this new absolutist system) because no one actually represents him or her. In fact when ordinary Europeans are ever asked their opinion, such as in the issue of referenda by the EU’s constituent governments, they are routinely slapped aside. This indisputably occurred in Ireland in 2008 when the Irish voted not to ratify the new EU constitution but were summarily ignored.. The British government had also promised its citizens a referendum on the Constitution, but it soon reneged, as did the leadership of its two most prominent opposition parties. There is almost no conduit for ordinary Europeans to have their grievances aired. What the Europeans governments have done, unbeknownst to most of their citizens, is to set in place an elite permanent bureaucracy, answerable only to a group of 27 men who have been delegated the responsibility governing 500 million people.
The irony of this top heavy concentration of power is that the European Commission, on its very own website, extols the primacy of democracy as its central objective:
“The European Union believes that democracy and human rights are universal values that should be vigorously promoted around the world. They are integral to effective work on poverty alleviation and conflict resolution”
But the actual structure of the European Union itself makes it less an pappropriate vehicle for inspiring democratic change around the world, than the mushrooming of an oligarchy which owes little of its power to popular suffrage.
Considering all this, maybe the Europeans don’t have it right afterall. Goaded by their intellectuals and bureaucrats into accepting the EU as a fait accompli, they may awaken one day from their post democratic, post-Christian narcosis to find that they have actually been abandoned by their self appointed guardians. They may then finally understand that there is no leadership ready or willing to address their fundamental concerns- the rise of fundamentalist Islam, demographic collapse, the emasculation of national identity and the erosion of traditional values.
In the event that such an awakening occurs, it may, ironically, be the much despised hegemon on the other side of the Atlantic that will emerge as the true model of modern democracy – and of which the European Union will be only a ghostly, fading image.