Time for leaving or reforming?

Dorothy Dobbie Issues in the News
Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the News

Watching a slight majority of English men and women vote to remove their country from the European Union brings back sharp pangs of anxiety over the always fragile state of the Canadian Union. I was there. I was part of the volatile debate over accommodating Quebec’s simple desire to remain a distinct society within the greater English language federation. As co-chair of the 1992 Dobbie-Beaudoin committee on the renewal of Canada, which led to the Charlottetown Accord, which itself was voted down, I went through months of tortured hearings in every corner of this country, listening to resentment and anger because a minority wanted recognition for its right to remain distinct.

While the vote three years later under the Chretien government squeaked out a miniscule majority for staying in the federation, it was too close for comfort. “Yes” meant leaving and it gained 49.2 per cent. “No” meant staying and it garnered 50.58 per cent. The voter turnout was 93.52 per cent of eligible voters.

I was in Britain in April when Obama visited and predicted dire economic consequences to follow a leave vote, saying that the United States would have to cherish the larger partnership over Britain, and that he wasn’t saying never to a future trade deal with them but that they would be dead last on the priority list, that the U.S. might get around to making a deal with them a decade or so from now. I gasped at his words. The commentators were stunned. But think what ordinary Britons must have felt: threatened, pressured, and angry.

The international rhetoric and thinly veiled threats did not stop there. Others lent their voices to the discussion, including Canada’s prime minister who proffered his own weighty advice about the dangers of leaving (although he has backed away recently, saying, properly, that the decision was Britain’s alone). And all the prognosticators used the same arguments that were used in our own separation battles: separation would mean economic disaster.

The problem is, people vote with their hearts over their pocketbooks. The economic threats sway some, but the average guys goes with his gut. And the gut, in these troubled times when England is being flooded with people from all over the continent, makes them just as concerned as were the Quebecers back in the day when they saw their language slowly fading, when they saw their position within the federation eroding as the population of the rest of the country exploded.

Similarities aside, there are other concerns for people who live in the European Union, which has been forming and reforming since the war, until it became the EU in 1993 and introduced a common currency in 2002. The United Kingdom joined in 1973. Citizens feel so far away, so separated from the decisions that affect their everyday lives. And no wonder. Firstly, they are just one of 28 countries (until Britain leaves) whose collective governance machine is multi-layered and complex. There are seven institutions of governance, of which the elected arm is only one, and not the primary source of decision making.

The European Parliament has 751 members, elected by universal sufferance for five-year terms. This means that EU representatives may be members of parties different from the party in power at the time of their election.

The Parliament has only recently earned a limited right to introduce legislation and it shares its powers of veto with the Council of the EU (the Council of Ministers), a group of national ministers elected at home, who of necessity must delegate many of their decisions to their bureaucracies. To complicate matters even more, this body is a shifting group populated by ministers who have specific portfolios. There are 10 areas of responsibility. For example, the agricultural ministers form a council to discuss proposed legislation on that topic. It’s all held together by someone called the High Representative who more or less runs things and has access to other institutions, including the European Commission. The titular governance of this body is by presidents of the council, who hold office for six months, sharing responsibility with the past and the future presidents to ensure continuity.

This council cannot propose legislation: that is the purview of the powerful European Commission, which is comprised of one member from each country, appointed for a five-year term. The Commission is headed by a president who was elected by the European Parliament, but who, strangely, does not report to Parliament. Currently this post is held by Jean-Claude Junker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg. He leads a Commission of 28 members, one from each EU country, and he hands out their portfolios or disposes of them at will. He has seven bureaucratic vice-presidents that lead teams of commissioners in different policy areas.

The Commission is responsible for initiating legislation, which is offered to the Parliament for an “opinion”, which then submits said opinion to the Council of Ministers. If the council and the Parliament cannot agree, the legislation goes back and forth for second or third readings, then third party conciliation and if, after all that, Parliament still rejects the bill by a majority of members and three-fifths of the votes cast, it dies.

There is also the European Council, made up of heads of state from each of the member countries. Its current president is Donald Tusk, former prime minister of Poland. This body sets the strategic agenda. Their meetings are attended by the president of the European Commission and the High Representative.

The other institutions are the European Central Bank, the European Court of Auditors and the European Court of Justice. Suffice it to say that there is also a huge bureaucracy: 5,000 civil servants work for the Secretariat General (currently a Danish diplomat, Jepp Tranholm-Mikkelsen, the eighth since the formation of the union. He will serve as Secretary General from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2020); and around 34,000 serve the European Commission which administers finances (with a budget of around EU155 billion), implements policy, and monitors and supervises initiatives by member states, making sure they follow the rules.

Given all this, it is not that hard to see why individual citizens would feel alienated from the decision maker. Indeed, in the organization charts of the union, the European Parliament ranks far down the power structure, although it has gradually been gaining strength over the past few years. Its limited right of legislation initiation means that it can only “invite” the Commission to propose a bill.

A major flaw, in my view, is that the European Parliament is elected through universal suffrage. As Wikipedia puts it, “A 1980 analysis by Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt concluded that European elections were fought on national issues and used by voters to punish their governments mid-term, making European Parliament elections de facto national elections of second rank.” So Parliament has no connection to the government of the country it represents; little wonder there are conflicts.

Secondly, the size, the complicated and unwieldy legislative structure, added to the intrusive nature of the Commission and the fact that EU laws hold equal weight with national laws are all cause for alienation.

It is said that there are 80,000 complicated legalities to go through before Britain’s withdrawal from the union can be completed. That in itself gives reason for thought. Maybe Brexit is a signal for ultimate reform, including simplification and a reduction of the power given to the bureaucracy.

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