Thursday, October 28, 2004

Shrinking the democratic deficit

The current power struggle in the EU is absolutely fascinating to watch, and not just from schadenfreude, but because of the way it mirrors the early struggles of the British Parliament and the birth of our own democracy. For those of you who don't follow such things, the incoming president of the European Commission has been choosing his team and assigning portfolios among his commissioners. Neither the president nor the commissioners are elected - the presidency rotates, and the commissioners are appointed by the member-states - but they are subject to confirmation by the elected European Parliament, in that the EP can vote down the entire commission. Now they seem to be trying to leverage that power into a veto on the roles of individual comissioners. The Italian appointee, Rocco Buttiglione, is a conservative Catholic who hates gays and thinks women should stay in the home. Naturally then he's been nominated for the portfolio of justice and home affairs. The European Parliament's socialist, democrat and liberal groupings won't stand for this, and have threatened to vote down the entire commission if he is appointed. And last night, the president blinked, saying he could not name a commission at this time.

I'd originally thought that the likely result would be shuffling Buttiglione off into a portfolio without human rights implications - agriculture, anyone? - but it now seems that the EP wants to assert itself even more, and that there are "three or four other commissioners who do not appear to be up for the job". In other words, the ability of national governments to appoint any old hack or crony to a powerful position in the EU government is at an end. This represents a significant shift in power in the EU away from the national governments and towards the elected European Parliament, and therefore a significant shrinking of the EU's "democratic deficit". And that's something that ought to be welcomed.