Dimitar Toshkov: Improving the democratic legitimacy of EU is feasible

When European citizens vote, they do vote for a parliament that has a powerful role in shaping EU legislation

Despite popular misconceptions, the European Council, which is composed of the national heads of state or government, and the Council of Ministers, which is composed of national ministers, remain the most important institutions in the EU. Corporate interests find different ways to influence the legislative process in the bloc, and not all of these channels go through the Commission. Lobbyists also fulfil vital functions in a democracy by providing information to MEPs and policy makers about the likely effects of policies, says Dimitar Toshkov, social scientist, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Toshkov, with the European Parliament elections looming on the horizon, European citizens are still unsure as to what exactly they will be voting for. What hinges on the decisions of the EP, which arguably is not really a legislative body but rather a consultative instrument, often wielded by lobbyists?

The EP is in fact a legislative body. It co-legislates on an equal basis with the Council of Ministers on all acts under the ordinary legislative procedure, which nowadays covers most policy areas of EU involvement. In fact, the EP's co-legislating role goes back to 1993, when the co-decision procedure (the predecessor of the ordinary legislative procedure) was introduced.

For example, since July 2014, when the eighth EP held its first session, the EP and the Council have adopted 331 legislative acts under the ordinary legislative procedure. For comparison, only 33 acts have been adopted under the special legislative procedure in which the EP has only a consultative role, and 13 acts have been adopted under the special legislative procedure in which the EP “only” has to give its consent to the Council's decisions. When EU citizens vote at the EP elections, they do vote for a parliament that has a powerful role in shaping EU legislation.

People love to hate lobbyists, sometimes for good reasons, because lobbyists can skew public policies towards special interests and away from the public good. But lobbyists and interest groups also fulfil vital functions in a democracy by providing technical and political information to MEPs and other policy makers about the likely effects of policies. Interest groups can also serve as “transmission belts” for public opinion, so their involvement is not necessarily bad.

Who is actually at the helm of the EU? One of the key arguments used by populists attacking the legitimacy of the EU is that the bloc is run by Brussels bureaucrats representing corporate interests.

Despite popular misconceptions, the European Council, which is composed of the national heads of state or government, and the Council of Ministers, which is composed of national ministers, remain the most important institutions in the EU. The European Council sets the overall strategic agenda and resolves the major controversies. The Council of Ministers is the main legislative actor (as explained above, together with the EP). So if anyone is at the helm of the EU, it is the national governments. This is, of course, not a very convenient fact for the populists who question the legitimacy of the EU, but it remains to be the fact.

The European Commission, which houses most of the EU bureaucrats in Brussels, does not decide on EU legislation. It only proposes legislative drafts, which are then negotiated and adopted by the Council and the Parliament. The Commission does not even implement most EU legislation, but monitors the implementation by national authorities. The Commission is important, but its importance is often blown out of proportion by national politicians who want to avoid blame for decisions they themselves have approved. Corporate interests find different ways to influence the legislative process, and not all of these channels go through the European Commission - they also go through MEPs and through the national politicians in power.

Can and should the EU become a more democratic organisation?

Yes, but there are different ways to be democratic and not all of these involve majoritarian voting or popular referenda. The EU remains primarily a regulatory organisation. That is, on a daily basis it deals primarily with regulation rather than with the distribution and redistribution of resources.

There are good reasons why regulatory institutions should be excluded from direct political control and majoritarian decision making. That is why at the national level the central bank, the competition protection authority and the telecom regulator are insulated from political interference. This does not make national governance undemocratic, because these institutions - the bank, the agencies, the regulators - are still held accountable and are subject to checks and balances. But they are not, and we do not want them to be, at the mercy of the politicians in power or popular referenda, because the politicians would raid them if they could, and because the issues they deal with are often highly technical.

It is the same with a lot of what the EU does. When the EU deals with regulatory issues, we want the EU institutions - the Commission, the European Central Bank, the Court of Justice - to be insulated from the direct control of national politicians, but we still want them accountable and subject to checks and balances. That's how the democratic legitimacy of the EU ought to be kept and improved.

When the EU does not deal with technical or regulatory issues, more classic, representational style of democracy is needed, but it is also to a large extent present. When the budget of the EU is negotiated or when the future of the Eurozone is discussed, national politicians and directly elected MEPs have important roles to play.

Nationalist and anti-immigrant parties announced in Milan recently that they were joining forces to form a new parliamentary group - European Alliance for People and Nations. What radical change to the EU are they vowing to initiate?

In the wake of the Brexit saga, even nationalist parties have learned two things: First, leaving the EU is devilishly difficult. Second, once people realise the actual implications of exit from the EU, they are less likely to support it. Across the EU Member States, approval of the EU has been on the rise after the Brexit referendum. Hence, direct opposition to European integration is not a very attractive electoral strategy. This leaves nationalist and populist parties with the option to accept, even if silently and grudgingly, that the EU and European integration are here to stay, but argue that the EU needs to be fundamentally reformed. Notice that Salvini wants to “shake up”, not to leave the EU.

The problem is that everyone has a different idea about what the direction of radical reform should be. Some want more fiscal transfers within the EU, others want less. Some want more redistribution of EU migrants within the EU, others want less. Some want stronger sanctions against Russia, others support lifting the sanctions. Overall, it is unlikely that nationalist and populist parties can agree on the substance of how EU policies should be reformed. And even if they could agree, reform in the EU is subject to supermajorities and requires the consent of several institutions. Change is hard, and radical change is even harder. It is extremely unlikely that nationalist and populist parties will get a majority. What they could do, however, is to block and delay ongoing legislative processes and policy reforms. Moreover, they can indirectly influence the policy process, by shifting the agenda away from some issues (e.g. migration) and by influencing the behaviour of the parties in the political centre.

Brexit is at an impasse. What do they really aim for?

Despite their best efforts, the entire British parliament, political class and electorate cannot decide what they aim for, so I would not dare to guess. Part of the problem is that different people and segments of society want different things, and there is no obvious way how to aggregate the different preferences. What is clear is that what the UK, collectively, aims for is not one of the options that have been discussed so far. What is not clear is whether what the UK, collectively, aims for is feasible in the world we live in.

Europe is often described as a “soft power”, an economic juggernaut that remains a political dwarf. Trump left both the Paris Agreement on climate change and the nuclear deal with Iran, withdrew from the 1987 treaty for control of short-and intermediate-range missiles. Against this backdrop, Europe seems somewhat helpless, without leverage and will to respond. Is this the case?

First, being a soft power is not the opposite of being a big power. Soft power in its various manifestations (normative power, cultural attraction, regulatory power, etc.) is usually complementary rather than in opposition to 'hard', military and financial, power. Second, it is true that the EU is not big in hard power, as it does not have an army, a secret service or a big budget to distribute to autocrats around the world. I am not sure this is a bad thing. Third, the EU has not been able to achieve much progress for many of its declared foreign policy objectives, and Trump's government has rolled back progress on some of these. I find it hard to imagine what kind of EU could have prevented the US from leaving the Paris Agreement or recognising Jerusalem as a capital of Israel.

We live in a multi-polar world, in which no actor, no matter how powerful, can impose its positions on the rest of the world. The EU is no exception and perhaps punches less than its economic weight would suggest. Why? Because it respects and tries to accommodate diverse national interests. Personally, I would not trade that for more foreign policy influence in the world. I only hope that if a crisis necessitates a common EU response, it will be delivered.

Brussels is threatening to revoke the voting rights of Hungary and Poland in the Council and is launching various procedures against them. For their part, these countries insist that they be compensated for the protection of their borders and given a chance to steer EU debate. Where is this confrontation headed?

The EU is a political system based on certain rules and values, at the heart of which are democracy and the rule of law. Adherence to these rules is not optional. So the procedures against Hungary and Poland are not a political revenge for their stances on migration nor personal attacks against particular politicians. They are legitimate actions, based on the existing treaties, to investigate and correct infringements on the rule of law in Hungary and Poland. Such actions to protect democracy and the rule of law are essential for the survival of the Union. If anything, the EU has been too slow in initiating and too timid in moving the procedures forward. Where this confrontation is heading will be seen after the EP elections. If Orban's FIDESZ party is left out of the European People's Party group, I would not be surprised if the infringement procedures against Hungary and Poland are enforced more aggressively.

Under the flag of neoliberalism and right-wing policies, Europe has been steadily dismantling its most valuable achievement - the welfare state. Despite the economic growth, people have worse living standards and more uncertainty to deal with compared to 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. Why do the elites fail to recognise the destructive potential of this growing inequality?

In the context of globalising economies and aging societies, the welfare state in Western and Southern Europe could have been dismantled to an even greater degree in the absence of European integration. In Eastern Europe, the reforms and the establishment of the new welfare systems were inspired and shaped by American-style economic liberalism much more than by EU direct demands or indirect pressures of European integration. I would not say that overall the population of the EU has worse living standards now than in the past. Across Europe, with the exception of Greece and possibly some other countries in Southern Europe, more people live better rather than worse today compared to 10, 20, or 40 years ago. Especially in Eastern Europe, living standards have improved for a majority of the people. But there are many people who face very difficult economic circumstances and who have seen a deterioration of their living standards over their lifetimes. These are not only individual tragedies but a systemic failure of some European states to provide for a decent life to all their citizens.

One of the effects of the rise of nationalist and populist parties has been the increase in political and public attention to issues such as migration and Islam, at the expense of issues such as economic inequality and welfare. But it is hard to move the pressing problems of inequality and welfare to the center of the political agenda, if voters get more excited about the threat of migration, Islamic terrorism or fall for the lure of good old nationalism.


Dimitar Toshkov, 40, is a social scientist with interests in European integration, public policy, and research methodology. He holds a PhD in Public Administration from Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he is now associate professor. His latest book Research Design in Political Science was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. Currently, he is a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.



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