When David Miliband gave the keynote speech to the Fabian Conference “The Global Change we Need” in London on 7 November 2009 he mentioned two things in the Q&A session. Firstly he said that the nation state remained the repository of democratic legitimacy. Secondly, he said that the EU institutions need to become more transparent in order for more people to connect with it better and easier.
While Miliband did not connect those two statements I asked myself whether their combination might not form the core of an interesting argument.
After all, the Council of the European Union, which is the place where government minister from all EU member states come together to (co-)determine EU policy, is the least transparent of the EU institutions. Their negotiations determine at least as much, if not more, of European policy and regulation than the work of the European Parliament or the Commission, which is where most of the public expect the power to lie.
Member state governments like to underplay their work in the forum of the Council of the EU in their national discourse at home. If something the public and media will see as positive arises from the Council’s work, most governments will sell this as their individual success at home. If something the public and media at home will be critical about comes out of the Council’s negotiation, most governments downplay their involvement in negotiations and blame an anonymous EU.
It is unrealistic to think any country can effectively retreat from global or trans-national governance structures, especially in the light of the increasing global nature of many of the challenges we face such as environmental, financial, economic and social issues.
Global or macro regional governance structures derive their democratic legitimacy via directly elected national parliaments and governments. These are again influenced by the media and civil society, which come together in a nation’s overall public discourse. Why it should not be possible to make better use of a pan-European public discourse, and engage the public more on a European level is beyond me. Especially now as the EU’s democratic legitimacy has been improved through the strengthening of the role of the directly elected European Parliament in the Treaty of Lisbon. However, there would be some mileage in improving the quality of the 27 national conversations about the EU by opening up Council deliberations and votes and with it member state governments as actors within to better scrutiny by their domestic media, civil society and electorates.
We will have to seriously think about how we can increase the democratic legitimacy of global policy making. To start with, we should look at how our own national governments’ work in the Council of the EU can become more transparent, so governments have to take more responsibility for their very direct input into the shaping of European policy and regulation. The EU is not as anonymous a body as the media, some politicians and europhobes want to make us think. The EU is shaped by member-state governments from within, which have to become transparent about their input, just as much as they have to take more responsibility for explaining compromise decisions within the Council to their national ‘home constituencies’, something they have been shying away from so far.
Maybe a citizens initiative for greater transparency of the Council would not be such a bad idea.