Jan 8, 2010

Some smart words on the EU: Zapatero revives an old debate

Zapatero who currently heads the council of the EU found some smart words on what the EU is missing. The FT cites him saying that “the EU was at its most effective when all 27 states operated under binding common rules, such as those governing competition policy. “ His conclusion thus is that “we need to equip the European Commission with new powers.”

While I could not agree more, I think that the proposal does not go far enough. I recall writing in the second year of my Bachelor studies, in 2002, an essay on the democracy deficit of the EU, a topic which is not as hot nowadays anymore as it used to be. Then, I argued for the need to give the European Parliament more rights and that a true European Union can only be based on a truly European wide election campaign for the parliament, not a nationalistic campaign.

However, the EU has become out of fashion and the visionaries and EU euphorics have been on retreat. The general discontent is not only a fault of the systemic problems but also reflect the increasingly ridiculeousbehavior of some EU staff. To name but two examples: Some members of parliament complained about the citizens not coming to elections and thus asked for a penalty to be paid by those who do not vote. I propose instead to leave the number of seats empty according to the share of non voters. Then politicians may actually start wondering why people do not vote and receive more incentive to reflect the voters will. A more recent questionable move has been the move by EU parliament members and the Commission to bring a case against the EU member states to the European Court to force them to accept an agreed upon salary increase (current EU MEP salary is roughly 6000 euros after tax and I’d be surprised if there are not some other sweeteners added).

“Staff at the EU institutions were due to receive a 3.7% salary increase according to a formula agreed between the bloc's governments in 2004, but the Council, which represents EU member states, last year decided to reduce the pay rise to 1.85% in view of the economic crisis.“ (see here)

Would they also back a similar move of employees in the private industry? How can you ask flexibility of your citizens and then do not adjust rules to reality of deflation and economic downturn with unemployment figures doubling in some member states.

In this light, more competences for the EU may appear somewhat far fetched. But it is similar to a chicken and egg problem. Unless the EU will receive truly democratic foundations and more power controlled by the European parliament, the EU risks to enlist itself in the row of dead letter organizations. To avoid this, the EU needs also to get its proper taxes. This would allow a serious enforcement mechanism of penalties. Since the EU could just deny to pay to the respective member its share of the tax receipts, it will actually have some leverage on the behavior of the member. Unless the EU will get such a leverage over its member states any new mechanism to make a member comply is doomed to fail just as the stability and growth pact did.

For the German (or Danish) speaking ones: you should definitely have a look at this documentary which documents the days and talks of the then-EU-council president Rasmussen before the EU Enlargement in 2004. It is a lesson in applied politics and bargaining. While the Germans and the French are the bad guys you may guess who comes late to conferences…..

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