Friday, August 1, 2014

How can public trust in the EU be restored?

In December 2013, the Dutch Government asked the Advisory Council on International Affairs (see its website here) to look into the following problem: the public's dissatisfaction with the EU, its feeling of being swamped by EU rules without the possibility to influence, and the growing lack of confidence in representative democracy.

The Advisory Council then studied the following questions: how can we strengthen democratic legitimacy, strengthen public trust and make control over EU governance more effective?

It presented a report (see summary here) containing inter alia the following observations and recommendations:

  • The voter’s trust will not necessarily be increased by referendums because their advantages are outweighed by their disadvantages. Example: they exclude nuanced opinion & solution-making by excluding the assessment of possible alternatives. Politicians should be able to play the role they have been given: weigh options in a democratic debate and make choices on behalf of voters.
  • National political leaders should acknowledge better that they are part of a bigger EU decision-making system. How? By defining more systematically their own positions in the EU debates and by entering into a regular, wide-ranging and open debate with citizens on how to develop the EU and about specific EU proposals. This could take away the public feeling of “fait accompli”.
  • National parliaments should not leave EU policy up to the EU parliament but on the contrary link their national debates more to the EU agenda and to the Commission’s work programme. Otherwise the EU will remain an abstract entity and the impact of EU policy misunderstood (or even invisible). National parliaments should also interconnect more with other national parliaments.
  • The profile of EU institutions should be increased. The election process of the Commission President is a good step forward. The EU Commissioner responsible for Economic Affairs should be bolstered, similar to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
  • Effective EU governance requires reliable national institutions (Court of Audit, Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, etc). It would however be worthwhile considering an independent assessment of their function, as in the case of aviation safety.
  • The “European Semester” is a policy partnership of EU Member States. It aims to harmonize national economic policies to ensure a stable development of the EU and to avoid crises like the euro and bank crises. This crucial partnership must be based on trust which requires transparent, informed and inclusive decision making. Currently, the relevant knowledge with regard to the European Semester is concentrated among too few Members of the Dutch Parliament. Solution: the establishment of a Dutch parliamentary committee for the European Semester in combination with more support by the civil service.
  • When pooling powers at EU level, focus also on how EU powers are exercised. It’s no use organizing better democratic decision-making (democratic legitimacy) if it is not follow-up by effective administrative and legal implementation mechanisms (administrative and legal legitimacy). This means: a smaller EU Commission with clustered portfolios, but also a stronger influence of National Parliaments in the European Semester.

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