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Can a Federal Europe ever be democratic?

12 September 2018

Can a Federal Europe ever be democratic?

The most europhile MEPs, often from the liberal ALDI or Greens, have united in what they call the Spinelli Group, named after the founder of the European federalist movement. Last week they brought out a new manifesto, in which they make a number of proposals for a sovereign and democratic Europe. But could a United States of Europe ever be truly democratic?

A democracy has a legislative, executive and judicial power. In the Netherlands, the two houses of Parliament constitute the legislative power, the government the executive and the judges, of course, the judiciary. According to the federalists, the European Parliament should become the equivalent of the 'Second Chamber' - the Dutch Parliament’s main legislative power – the European Council a sort of First Chamber – often referred to as the Senate – with the various Councils of Ministers as 'sub-chambers' - and the European Commission the government. On the way to this there would have to be - there it is again! - a European Constitution and the whole construction would have to be tinkered with as it proceeds step by step.

The ideas aren't new, but what is new is that the federalists want to exclude any country which doesn't go along with this. If you don't agree to unbridled marketisation, as the British have said in relation to the free movement of persons, services and capital, then you're out. If you don't agree to a common asylum policy, you can't be a member of the new-style EU. Only a small group of core members will, in the view of the federalists, want to go along with this, but rather small and federal than big and à la carte.

After 9 years of having worked in the European Parliament, I see much to admire in European cooperation, but absolutely nothing in Brussels diktats. Reducing ever further the role of the national governments and their leaders and increasing that of the European Commissioners (for which read, 'ministers') is simply making the gap between rulers and ruled greater. As a citizen of the Netherlands, you can turn to your MP to put the government right in its approach to Brussels. Admittedly, with someone like current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who when he visited the EP openly solicited a top European position and suddenly became a European true believer, you likely won't get very far, but at least Rutte would be obliged to pass the responsibility on to people whom you can approach directly.

Jean-Claude Juncker's Commission has, on a number of occasions, such as the recent Selmayr business, shown that when it comes down to it it couldn't give a fig for the EP's opinion. It's already as things stand a pretty arrogant body, but make them ministers and that arrogance will only increase. And before the Parliament can give the Commission the boot, a great deal is needed, which means that to date it's happened only once: it remains easier to kick a national government out.

Aside from the fact that a European government and European Parliament would be a long way from the European public, and would even create resistance, there's another fundamental objection: in the Brussels bubble everyone knows everyone. Business and personal interests are tied to each other, and no code of conduct can really change that. Precisely because the whole of the bubble is so remote from the citizens of the member states, the multinationals have managed to get themselves entrenched there.

Can a federal Europe never be democratic, then? Never say never, but if it's to happen the Brussels bubble will first have to be popped. No more secret confabs, no conflicts of interest. We're working hard on achieving this, but progress is extremely slow. And even getting there wouldn't be everything. You need enough action groups which are so well established on the national level that they can make a fist of things in Brussels. That can only happen if the interests of the citizens of, for example, Greece, Poland, Estonia and the Netherlands synchronise. And they're not doing so. But workers and the self-employed from different member states are continually being played off against each other. Only if there were a genuine, strong European left movement built from below could a European ‘demos’ come a little closer. Until such time as this occurs, a federal Europe would only be good for the 10%, while the 90% should give it a miss.

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