Europe united, but who runs it?
The EU launched the euro. Now a governing body must grapple withcorruption and lack of accountability.
STRASBOURG, FRANCE — When a European citizen is angry about a European Union policy, where does he or she go to complain? With the recent launch of the single European currency, the euro, highlighting the way in which EU decisions reach into every corner of daily life, the question is more than theoretical. And the lack of a clear answer highlights a glaring anomaly in the shape of an increasingly unified continent. An economic and financial giant, the European Union is a political dwarf, where democracy is an alien concept. But a dramatic showdown this week in the European Parliament here may mark a first step toward a continent-wide political system of greater accountability. In a debate echoing the US Senate's impeachment of President Clinton, Parliament will vote Jan. 14 on a motion of censure that could fire the entire 20-member European Commission, the union's executive body, over allegations of fraud and cronyism. Such an outcome would throw the European Union into chaos, paralyzing the 15-nation organization just as it prepares a package of far-reaching reforms. That prospect alone will probably be enough to scare the Parliament away from the "nuclear option," as the censure procedure is known, making it unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed. But the debate itself is an important milestone in Parliament's efforts to win more control over the secretive and byzantine workings of EU headquarters in Brussels. "The censure motion has had the unforeseen consequence of bringing to public attention in our countries issues that had previously been dealt with behind closed doors," said Joaquim Miranda, leader of the United Left group in the Parliament, as debate opened Jan. 11. "This is about the ambiance, the ethos of secrecy, patronage, nepotism, and obstructionism which appears to surround the Commission," added Pauline Green, leader of the Socialists, the largest parliamentary group, who submitted the motion. The crisis erupted last year when Parliament used one of its few real powers and refused to sign off on the EU's 1996 budget, citing reports by the union's own auditing body of financial mismanagement and abuse in the $100 billion spending program. Commission president Jacques Santer dared Parliament to follow up with a vote of no confidence. With European parliamentary elections due in June, Parliament took up the challenge in a bid to boost its influence. Although the 626-member Parliament is the European Union's only elected body, turnout in elections tends to be low by European standards: Only 56 percent of voters bothered to cast a ballot in the last poll in 1994. "Parliament is caught in a vicious circle," says Anand Menon, a lecturer in European politics at Oxford University in England. "It has no powers so it doesn't have an electorate, and if it has no electorate, why should it be given more power?" The fight over the corruption scandal "is a profile-raising exercise," he adds. "A big turnout at the elections in June would be ammunition backing demands for more power." The European Commission, meanwhile, comprising 17,000 bureaucrats headed by 20 national commissioners (named by their national governments) is the most powerful unelected body in the world. It alone has the authority to initiate European legislation (Parliament can only amend its texts), which overrides national law in member states and now accounts for 80 percent of economic and social legislation in Europe. The commission also administers the EU budget, dispensing $35 billion a year in aid to poorer regions. It manages the largest foreign-aid budget in the world, and it is the driving force behind the whole project of European integration. It can boast considerable success, building a single seamless market from Portugal to the Polish border, and launching a single currency. But in the process it has also built a reputation as an arrogant, secretive, and unaccountable organization, even among supporters of the European project. Mr. Santer, chastened by the storm of criticism the corruption scandal has provoked, appeared before the Parliament with his 19 fellow commissioners on Jan. 11 to promise greater openness and new codes of conduct. But he is powerless to change the fundamental way in which the European Union fashions its policies, which is through closed-door negotiations between civil servants and ministers from the 15 member states. "The real obstacle" to greater democracy in European policymaking, says Dr. Menon, "is member-state governments, who use the European Union to bypass the democratic constraints tying them at home. "This increases policymaking efficiency because it insulates governments from public opinion" and allows them to blame unpopular decisions on Brussels, he suggests. That style of governance, however, leaves European citizens out in the cold. European parliamentary elections do not lead to the creation of a government and voters often use them simply to cast a protest vote against national governments. Thus far along the road to a united Europe, ordinary citizens have reacted to being ignored simply by being apathetic about the whole idea. But if things go badly wrong in the future on the economic and financial front, warns Menon, the lack of any broad popular involvement and support and the absence of democratic political foundations mean that "potentially, you have a very big problem."