The paradox that is the EU

I’ve been sorting out my files and in the process came on the transcript of an interview that one of my heroes — Ralf Dahrendorf — gave to an Italian journalist, Antonio Polito in 2003. It was published in the Journal of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 4, October 2003, p. 103. (doi). The headline over the interview is “The Challenge of Democracy”. Here’s the section that brought me up short, because it gets right to the heart of the problem of the EU. Dahrendorf says:

You are bound to know the witty remark, now no longer new, that in looking at the conditions set for the candidate countries for enlargement, we can draw only one conclusion: Were the European Union itself to ask to become an EU member, it would not be accepted. For its structure does not fit the basic criteria of political democracy that the Union imposes for the accession of, say, Poland or Hungary or Slovenia. We are facing the historical absurdity of having created something partly for the purpose of strengthening democracy, but having created it in a way that is intrinsically not democratic.

And why is it not democratic? In part the answer lies in the very origins of the project. There is little doubt that when the European Economic Community—and still earlier the European Coal and Steel Community—was planned, democracy did not constitute the prime con- cern of those who designed and built the new construction. The central issue was instead the need to set up an efficient mechanism for making decisions. The result was a typically French solution: Two categories of interests had to be reconciled, the European interest on one side, and national ones on the other. So there was a need for two institutions: one to represent the European interest, charged with putting forward pro- posals, and the other to represent national interests, charged with reaching decisions. That was how the Commission and the Council were invented. Rather a brilliant idea, but certainly not democracy. Europe was designed in such a way that the European interest could find a locus for expression in the Commission, while decisions were ultimately made in terms of national interests, which in any case were prevalent; and this was guaranteed by the Council’s role. That is why, right from the start, the unanimity rule has always operated, and failure to reach unanimity still remains a trauma.

I would add that, in my view, the Assembly (as the European Parlia- ment used to be known), which initially was made up of representatives of the national parliaments, was nothing but an afterthought in the initial project. At bottom, it was not even necessary in the original structure, and for a long time that was the way it was treated.

That’s the strange paradox of the EU. It was, from the beginning a well-intentioned, elite project. Indeed, it had to be an elite project, because the populations of the original member states would never had agreed to it — had they been consulted. (This is the ‘democratic deficit’ that Jurgen Habermas lamented in The Lure of Technocracy). And of course the attempt to retrofit the EU with democratic institutions (like the European Parliament) was always going to be ineffective (though the Parliament has gradually acquired a degree of control over the Commission). But ultimately it the Council of Ministers that holds the power, and although its members are elected via their nation-states’ various electoral systems, democratic control is heavily diluted and indirect.