Europe needs a democratic redesign if greater integration is to succeed

By Steven Hill, Guardian, May 24, 2012

The crisis in Europe has made it clear the EU needs more than economic reform. Going forward requires political restructuring

With the election of François Hollande as French president, the left and right in Europe have now entered intense negotiation over the best way to enact economic growth, employment and debt security (possibly eurobonds). But the crisis has made it abundantly clear that it’s not just Europe’s economic policies that need reform, so do its political and governance structures. Without greater democratic legitimacy, it’s unlikely that the public will consent to a more integrated economic union.

The EU’s current political institutions have several severe defects. First, while the current structures are adequate for a loose confederation of member states, they are inadequate for a monetary and fiscal union. David Cameron was largely correct when he stated recently that a successful eurozone will require a “single government“.

Yet not every EU member state wants to be part of a single government, much less a monetary union, so unsurprisingly these tensions are splitting Europe into two speeds – a eurozone core and a non-eurozone periphery.

Second, the European Commission, which is an increasingly powerful body endowed to be both the chief executive as well as the primary legislative body of the European Union (since it alone has the power to initiate European-level legislation), is not directly elected and in fact is four times removed from “We the Voters”.

Unlike the American model, which has a clear separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, the indirectly elected commission has been invested with both functions, and the European parliament – the only body elected directly – is very much a junior partner.

Any credible redesign of governance structures must account for all these factors. So here’s my back-of-the-napkin proposal for redesigning European-level political institutions:

Initially, it would be wise to empower member states’ legislatures in the federal legislature. That’s what a young United States of America did because each member state was sufficiently diverse to have legitimate state-based interests, and no clear-cut national interest or culture existed. In addition, buy-in was needed from the political elites of each member state, and many of these elites mistrusted the average voter even more than European elites do today.

So while originally US voters directly elected the federal House of Representatives, the member states’ legislatures were given the power to elect the powerful federal Senate, as well as to elect presidential electors that chose the national president. For decades after 1790, both the member states and the elites played a significant role in selecting the political leadership of the federal government.

Eventually America empowered individual voters over the state legislatures, both with popular direct election of US senators (though not until 1916) and with state legislatures agreeing to abide by each state’s popular vote in selecting presidential winners. So Europe should include an amendment process that allows the system to evolve eventually into direct popular election as a pan-European political consciousness and culture takes root.

Here’s what a more democratic and streamlined European governance would look like:

1) A European parliament with two chambers, one directly elected by voters such as the current European parliament, with the number of representatives per member state a close reflection of each state’s population (so the more populous member states would have more representatives).

2) A second chamber selected by member state legislatures (as the EU’s Council of Ministers sort of is now). The number of representatives should mostly be proportional to the population of each member state, but with a few additional representatives granted to low population states so that they are not overrun by bigger member states.

(WARNING: don’t make America’s mistake of granting equal representation per member state in this second chamber. That has resulted in a US Senate where conservative, low-population states often strangle legislation supported by the majority of Americans, resulting in minority rule and contributing to the current US paralysis.)

3) This European parliament would then select a prime minister of Europe, who would in turn nominate her or his cabinet, with one cabinet member each from a member state (similar to the current process for selecting the European Commission), to be approved by the first parliamentary chamber.

4) A largely ceremonial post of president of Europe would be directly elected on a continent-wide basis (as German chancellor Angela Merkel and others have proposed), as a step towards forging a Europe-wide identity. Eventually this directly elected president could be invested with more power if that better matched the zeitgeist.

This kind of streamlined structure would do much to simplify continental governance for European citizens, as well as to clarify lines of authority and make decision-making more efficient, transparent and democratically accountable.

But we also have to deal with the current reality of a two-speed Europe. It seems most likely that a 17 (or so) member core will be the entity that adopts the above-proposed federal structure initially, as the momentum of economic union drives the need for a more streamlined political union. For the sake of discussion, let’s call this new entity the United States of Europe.

This USE could co-exist with a more loosely confederated European Union of 27 member states (including the USE core), allowing the EU to retain its present governance structure (but with reduced powers). This two-speed structure would allow those using the euro currency to plow ahead with the political institutions that are necessary to properly regulate a monetary and fiscal union and maintain democratic legitimacy.

And the EU-27 would be able to operate under much less pressure to integrate more than its disparate members are capable or willing (this should be constructed so that individual states could migrate from the EU-27 into the US of E when it made sense). There are historical precedents for such an inside-outside arrangement, such as the early British commonwealth and the current United Nations led by the Security Council core.

Europeans are midstream in a years-long journey to overhaul their key economic and political institutions, much like a young America was in its Articles of Confederation stage. It is hard to imagine how the current EU political institutions will be able to govern both the EU-27 as well as an increasingly integrated eurozone. The times they are a-changing.

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