Friday, 10 July 2009

News from Nowhere: Against the Dealmaking Culture

The European elections are over. They were not a success (the winning parties would disagree). Turnout has fallen in every Euro election since 1979, and this one was no different: only 43% of Europeans bothered to go to the polls. In some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, turnout was embarrassingly low: 25% in Poland and 20% in Slovakia. Furthermore, these elections were not about Europe, except in the broadest "let's stick it to those barmy bureaucrats" sense. What we had was 27 different national elections: in Britain it was about expenses, in France it was about Nicolas Sarkozy's record in government, and in Italy it was about Silvio Berlusconi's personal life. The divide between Europe's enthusiastic elite and its apathetic people is as wide as ever.

So, as the new mandate of the European Parliament convenes, have our political class learned anything? You might think that the shock of the elections would have jolted them into reconsidering the way they do business. The EPs modus operandi has traditionally been based on a cosy consensus between the major political groups, where official posts and legislation are carved up in smoke-filled rooms (of course, smoking is not permitted in the EP building). The advantage of this lies in the ability of smaller groups to occasionally claim their share of the pie, winning legislative victories which would be unobtainable in an adversarial system. The disadvantages are the retardation of a democratic culture, an unwillingness to consider new ideas, and the "lowest common denominator" aspect of European legislation. In addition, popular enthusiasm and engagement with the European Parliament is not likely to be cultivated by a hierarchical culture, where all the key decisions are made by a few barons and then handed down for approval by the peasants (barring the occasional peasant's revolt).

The election of a new President of the European Parliament is a good test of the new mood. The previous President, Hans-Gert Pottering, was a creature of the bureaucracy: a stuffed shirt who would abjure democratic procedure in plenary if it stood in the way of a good deal (as in the climate change package last December where he disallowed all amendments in plenary to speed the vote up). This time, we were all set for a good democratic contest between Jerzy Buzek, a Polish conservative, and Graham Watson of the Lib Dems. Watson ran as the insurgent candidate who would break the consensus culture and revitalise Parliament's institutions. Until yesterday, when he withdrew from the race. His press release reads something like a forced confession during a show trial of the Stalin era: "The EU is mired in a crisis - economic, environmental and constitutional, and the three political families which founded our Union have decided to unite their forces to save it." One could point out that it is precisely during a crisis when it is most important to have vigorous debate and opposing and alternative views. The truth, however, is simple. Watson's group - ALDE (liberals) - have struck a deal with the conservative and socialist groups on committee chairmanships, and Watson had to withdraw as part of the bargain. So, the choice for President is now essentially Buzek....or Buzek.

A cynic would remark that the European Parliament elites go to remarkable lengths to save their members from the bother of actually voting. He might say that: I couldn't possibly comment.

Full Euro election results can be found here.

Daniel Wylie

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