EU so misunderstood…

Debating the EU is tricky because it’s always easier to listen to those shouting: 
“EU, EU, EU – out! out! out!”
than to those saying: 
“What do we want?
A technical yet plain language discussion of the practical implications of the benefits and costs of addressing issues at different levels of political decision-making including European level, reappraisal of each and an institutional structure that faciliates this, accessible for and engaging with all!

When do we want it?
Within a reasonable timescale that allows for genuine debate without dragging on!”

I’ve been having a debate on the EU on Facebook. Dangerous I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself. After all, while I will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, I sort of feel that statements made about the EU should try to be based on fact rather than just statements. Facebook does not allow for the expansion of arguments and referencing that are needed in this sort of discussion so I’ve brought the discussion over here.

The FB status that I replied to read: TOTALLY SHOCKED! I did not know that the European Parliament only votes on laws proposed by the unelected commission, it can’t make or propose any laws itself! Democracy… NOT. Millions spent in the pursuit of jobs for the boys (& girls)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly sensible position for someone that believes in democracy to take.
Most political systems allow for the legislature as well as the executive to propose legislation (and the USA only the legislature).
But the EU is not a state, it is a different sort of entity, governed by Treaty and where the administration holds the right of initiative in order that there is a balance of power between the governments of the Member States and the European Parliament.
I wanted to know too who the “jobs for the boys and girls” refers to – given recruitment to the EU institutions is through open competition? If it refers to appointment of the Commissioners, well, yes, that does come about from appointment of candidates by governments, but more on that later.

So I replied:
I used to teach EU and constitutional politics. We are looking at a different separation of powers at EU level than in the UK. It’s in three parts: European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (member state governments, also called the European Council when heads of state and government are the ones attending).
The EU is not the USA – in the USA it is indeed congress and not the executive that proposes legislation. 
In the UK, legislation is proposed by the government, drafted by the civil service (parliamentary counsels, the specialist legislation drafters). Only private members bills are proposed by the parliamentarians themselves, and only stand a chance of becoming law if supported by the government (i.e. the drafters can be made available). The EP has a process of own initiative reports which are usually incorporated into the Commission proposals on any related issue and also has the right to ask for specific legislation to be introduced. 
The Commission has the official right of initiative to keep the balance between the directly elected EP, and the member state governments, to whom electorates usually say they feel closer. Its five year work programme is agreed with the EP and also with the Member States in the Council of Ministers, and a refreshed version each year in-between. That doesn’t mean nothing but the work programme happens, but it means that anyone elected and looking to get something specific done can get it done. 
The European Commission is for the most part a civil service, and is quite small given what it does (there are more people working for the UK Home Office than the European Commission). This is muddied by the appointment of politicians from different member states to the top level who we in the UK insist on describing as a kind of government (EP get a veto on those appointments). 
I’ll shut up now, but basically I don’t think that the EP constitutional set up on the right of initiative is shocking. Other stuff yes, but this seems not to be far out of line with what happens in Member States…

What I don’t think I expected was the response I got.
Er…. those proposing life changing rules, are not elected or accountable, just have very big expense accounts and pensions. What I don’t understand [rose22joh], is why you defend them so passionately?

What have the expense allowances and pensions of the European Commission officials got to do with who proposes legislation? I thought about this for a while. I guess you could say that, by paying people well, you make them out of touch with “real life”.
But equally, in proposing legislation that affects the lives of nearly 500 million people, I would want the people proposing it to be intelligent, well informed, realise the impacts of what they propose on real people’s businesses and employment, and to get them to be able to do all this, and without encouraging corruption with financial incentives from interest groups, I would pay them well and have strict rules on ethics and propriety. As for their relative value compared with others in other jobs, that’s another debate for another time.

By the way, I don’t think all lobbying is a bad thing. When it comes to making legislation, you have a choice:
i) have it drafted by people that don’t work in the affected sectors and with no contact with those sectors (such as politicians, civil servants or academics), so that it is “pure” but might have unexpected consequences;
ii) have it drafted by people in those sectors, but who come with vested interests for the status quo or particular change that would advantage one group over another;
iii) have it drafted by the first disinterested group but with input from that sector, and other groups with an interest, balancing the relative arguments and impacts and constructing a way forward that takes them into account, or not, depending on the political directions given.
Lobbying is a process for getting the information from experts to people drafting legislation. If it is more than that, with financial incentive for example, then it is bad and wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong for knowledge and expertise to be shared.

Would it be better if it was all done by elected people? Well, I don’t think so, but then I fully recognise that I’m a bit of a technocrat. There’s an art to drafting legislation, and it needs to be learnt precisely so that you don’t end up unintentionally impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.
Are elected people able to be less beholden to self enrichment and interest groups than technocrats? Er, no. The evidence is pretty clear from the duck house and paperclips claims in the UK and all the various stings by newspapers. This might be due to the sort of people that are willing to put themselves forward for election, or the notion that power corrupts, or other factors.

However, simply getting a proposal out is the beginning of a long and complex process. And I believe in good administration, it is something I feel passionately about.
So I replied:

I’m not defending, I’m explaining. The proposal is important but not the end of the process. The proposal goes through three detailed complicated negotiations, with the EP and the governments views negotiated separately and together. The end result can be very different from the initial proposal and legislation can fall if it is not actually acceptable to the parties involved. You can vote for your government, you can vote for your MEPs, those are the people that decide on the legislation, not the Commission. If you want a directly elected Commission, that’s a very different sort of Europe (I don’t necessarily think it would be a bad thing, but I’d be a half-hearted member of a very tiny minority of people if I wanted to campaign for that!)
I care because simply the fact that we pay people to do a responsible job is not to me scandalous. I do believe we underpay other people doing very important and valuable work in society that affect the lives and quality of life for many people, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

I pretty much guessed what the response would be:
I have no time for unelected law proposers who cost us a fortune and are part of an organisation where massive and corrupt expense claims are the norm I’m in favour of a Euro Parliament in some form. The corrupt, interfering gravy train we have ended up with should not be defended. They are a disgrace.

I didn’t defend it, I explained it. Defending it would be to say that this is an amazing system. It’s not, it’s just a system although actually it allows for more of the aspects of the legislation to be debated than the UK two chamber parliamentary system does, which can sometimes leave chunks of text under-scrutinised.
And I could go back with a step by step rebuttal, but do you know, I’m getting fed up with it because once you get to this “corrupt interfering gravy train” line of argument that frankly can be applied to any political system, then you know that it is not an argument you are going to win.

So instead a few related thoughts:

  • It costs me 41p a day to be part of the EU. I don’t think that’s a fortune considering what I get out of it (see this video).
  • What massive and corrupt expense claims? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – not defending, remember – but I’d like to see the evidence of this. Is it a reference to Edith Cresson’s dentist eleven years ago? The Commission has cleaned up its act a bit since then, introducing OLAF, not a big strong Swedish guy to fight the bad guys, but an anti-fraud office. Corruption seems to be a massive problem across the EU including the UK, but the EU institutions need to be seen to be above reproach and leaving them out of the EU-wide corruption report feels like an own goal.
  • It is intensely difficult as someone that sees so much good coming from our EU membership when the EU does things that seem completely indefensible from a democratic point of view – even if done for a “common good” beyond national democratic boundaries – installation of an emergency Prime Minister in Italy, say and much of what happened in Greece since 2008. I’ve blogged before about the new issues of democracy that this raises. Also sometimes its Member States re-run referendums to get “the right result” (Ireland).
  • The EU is not close to the people (what organisation covering 500 million people can be without a pledge of allegiance???), and when the people do have a chance to vote for a directly elected representative, they often either don’t turn out or vote on national issues, or choose to vote for people that say explicitly that they will not actually represent their interests there because they don’t believe in the process. Then they say the EU does nothing for them.
  • The voting system puts power in the hands of the political parties – so it seems that party loyalty is a more important quality than being able to actually secure decent legislation?

In conclusion, I am glad my friend agreed we need a European Parliament.
We need decent MEPs because basically what I can’t get across is just how important that amending of legislation proposed by the European Commission actually is.

The entire structure of a piece of legislation can be changed, and the legislators, that is the directly elected people in the European Parliament, do that. They do it in Committees – becoming report leaders (“rapporteurs”) and by submitting amendments. They do it as Committee chairs. They can also submit amendments as non-Committee members in Plenary session, that is, gatherings of all MEPs at which they vote on the drafts produced in the Committee.
But if you don’t know that, don’t understand that, then the system could seem as if the power rests in the unelected, unaccountable Commission.
On most things it doesn’t.
Now, the Council of Ministers, that is a whole other story…