Slouching toward Strasbourg

Trying to explain the inner workings of EU governance to non-Europeans is a bit like trying to explain the importance of the American League’s designated hitter rule to baseball neophytes. So it’s in the spirit of the 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox that I present my European press review, written for Slate, for your rumination and criticism.

The Buttiglione affair touches on a lot more issues than I had space to get into, and indeed more issues than I’d care to go into here, even. Just to name a few:

1. Following up on Tobias’s point below, why is it that when the U.S. President vetoes a bill or Congress blocks a bill’s passage with a philibuster, it’s considered business as usual, yet when European Parliament refuses to approve a slate of candidates for the Commission, it plunges the EU into “institutional crisis”? Aren’t Europeans getting a bit weary of one so-called “institutional crisis” after another? I recall something about a boy and a wolf… Do we not run the risk of one day waking up with a real institutional crisis on our hands — one that is met with a collective yawn?

2. According to Deutsche Welle’s press review:

Rome’s Il Messagero wrote that “it doesn’t take much to understand that in the end, Europe will have to pay dearly for this crisis which most likely won’t be resolved without some blood shed”.

Come again?? Is this a translation thing? In English, “bloodshed” almost always involves the actual shedding of blood.

3. The bit about Buttiglione calling Vladimir Spidla a “tough ex-communist” didn’t get much press outside the Czech Republic. I don’t know much about Buttiglione, frankly, but Spidla is neither tough nor an ex-communist. Is Buttiglione always this way? Talk first, think later (if at all)?

4. What exactly is the anti-Parliament beef of euro-skeptics like the editors of the Daily Telegraph? Is this a simple right vs. left issue, or is it, as I suspect, something a bit deeper and philosophical? The argument, it seems, is whether the the European Parliament has any real claim to democratic legitimacy. I’d say it does, for pretty obvious reasons — it’s directly elected, duh. (Then again, voter turnout in MEP elections is abyssmal, and there’s no democratic legitimacy without a nation state, and blah blah blah.) If one day we have a right-leaning Parliament and a left-leaning Commission, will the British press start singing a different tune?

6 thoughts on “Slouching toward Strasbourg

  1. There is an obvious question. If the parliament refuses a commission for reasons of ideology, the EU is heading for a Westminster style of parliamentary governments.
    How is that to work in a body as diverse as the EU with dozens of parties in parliament?

  2. The last thing that the Eurosceptics want is for the European Parliament to get any democratic legitimacy. In fact, if you want a laugh, suggest that the problem with the EU is that its overly bureaucratic and as a result more power should be given to the Parliament. The reaction you get is usually adverse, and usually very amusing. Eurosceptics, especially the press, in Britain are highly xenophobic, but cover this up most of the time because it is much more convenient for them to attack bureaucracy, which is a generally unpopular thing. Basically, they want Britain out of the EU almost totally, and they think that we have “surrendered too much of our powers” already. So the anti-Parliament beef is more to do with trying to deny the EU any democratic legitimacy.

  3. Since the European Parliament is the only elected part of the EU
    it seems odd to call it undemocratic. Did they really? Now if I
    were to call it undemocratic, I would say it’s undemocratic because
    the European Parliament has so little power. Kind of a mockery of
    democracy, a fig leaf, a charade even within it’s own roost — but
    then in effect I would be pro-parliament and yet anti because it’s
    powers were so limited and debased.

    If I understand correctly the European Parliament’s refusal to
    approve a slate of candidates is just about the only real power
    it has. (Note that they aren’t proposing candidates; note that
    apparently they can’t vote to strike individual candidates; etc.,
    etc. Note that employees of the EU can be fired by the EU on the
    grounds that they cooperated with the European Parliament!)

    Therefore the comparison of parliament to the U.S. Congress just
    doesn’t seem apt. Congress has near infinite theoretical power: it
    can impeach presidents; it can remove any judge, including Supreme Court
    justices; and it can interfere in and specify any detail it takes
    an interest in. A unified Congress can do anything it wants
    to. The only restraint being: it’s so difficult to unify.

    The contrast between the powers of the U.S. Congress and the
    powers of European Parliament is extraordinary. It’s like
    the Congress is a car and the European Parliament is a wheel
    spinning by itself in space. It’s true that a car has wheels,
    but to call a wheel a car on that basis is just plain wrong.

  4. Mark, I agree 100%. My intention was not to highlight any similarities between the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament. As you point out, there are virtually none. Indeed, most U.S.-E.U. comparisons are wide of the mark, and I perhaps should have inserted a disclaimer to that effect. The comparison was between public and journalistic reactions to the U.S. system of checks and balances versus the same reactions to the (albeit nascent) European system of checks and balances. When checks and balances are working in America, they’re seen as the regular machinery of democracy. When it happens in Europe, everybody starts screaming “institutional crisis! institutional crisis!”

  5. In fact, if you want a laugh, suggest that the problem with the EU is that its overly bureaucratic and as a result more power should be given to the Parliament.

    The assertion that parliaments are necessarily less bureaucratic than other bodies, seems a bit optimistic to me.
    Anyway, rarely ever we see a transfer of powers to the parliament. What we have right now is an additional power given to parliament. It may mean a comission with a more democratic odour, but the process itself has become more complex.

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