Benn’s five questions

Tony Benn famously proposed five questions to be asked of anyone who holds power of one kind or another.

One of the many organisations to fail his democracy test at the time was the European Commission. But, since then, the EU treaties have been changed to increase the accountability of the Commission. How would it fare now under Tony Benn’s test?

Let’s ask his five questions.

1. What power have you got?

The power to draft proposals for European legislation, which are then submitted for a decision to the EU Council (made up of ministers from elected governments) and directly-elected MEPs in the European Parliament.

The power to adopt delegated measures to implement such legislation, provided these are not rejected by the Parliament or Council.

2. Where did you get it from?

The power to make proposals derives from the treaties, which have been approved by the national parliaments of every member country.

The power to adopt delegated measures is conferred in individual pieces of legislation approved by the Council and Parliament. This is a power which either can revoke at any time.

3. In whose interests do you exercise it?

The citizens of all EU countries.

4. To whom are you accountable?

To the European Parliament, elected by all EU citizens. Parliament elects the Commission President, confirms the Commission as a whole, and can dismiss it in a vote of no confidence.

5. How can we get rid of you?

By a vote of no confidence from elected MEPs.

The EU may not be perfect — but it now stands up quite well to Benn’s five tests. I elaborated on this further in my blog post about the so-called democratic deficit.

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5 Comments

  1. Maybe it would have seemed too outlandish at the time, but Tony Benn should have asked a sixth question: do voters understand what’s going on?
    Recent treaty changes have indeed strengthened the EU’s democratic accountability, but besides those who work in EU institutions, I doubt that there’s even one in a thousand voters in Britain or elsewhere in Europe who could explain how the system works.
    That situation simply isn’t tenable. To continue as we are is a gift to the nationalist parties across Europe trying to destroy the EU. And in this referendum campaign, it leaves those of us arguing that Britain should remain in the EU dangerously vulnerable to the atavistic nationalism irresponsibly exploited by the Leave campaign.
    To break the deadlock of the current debate, we need to talk not just about the wonderful things that the EU already does, but about
    what Britain should be doing to improve and strengthen the EU in the future.
    Reforming how democracy works at the EU level to make it comprehensible and convincing to the average voter should be top of the list.

    • Alastair, maybe voters lack understanding of EU governanace, but what about their understanding of the UK constitution?

      I consistently hear expressions like “I voted for Maggie”, or “I’ll be voting for Cameron”, when the reality is that only a very small number of people actually have the chance to vote for a party leader in a general election. In Cameron’s case it’s a group of people in a particular part of Oxfordshire. As for the powers of the monarch to intervene, or of the House of Lords to change legislation, this is pretty arcane stuff. The problem is people THINK they understand how the UK works when they don’t – a great benefit for those within the British state who wish to deprive electors of power and control.

      • Well, be fair. Those saying “I’ll be voting for Cameron” aren’t being ignorant, they’re just not speaking precisely enough for your tastes. They are casting a vote to the end of Cameron being Prime Minister.

        Powers of the monarch to intervene are indeed arcane, and not really worth fussing about much. “She can’t” is actually a more useful summary than the long-winded one. Was there any point in the odd article last year saying “The Queen could choose the next Prime Minister!”? It wasn’t going to happen.

        House of Lords, though: yes. I’d like people to get that more. Especially since Cameron bitched about the Lords not doing what they wanted. You can’t ask for an upper house and then complain when it does its job.

  2. Yes. The lack of knowledge about the way the EU works is truly monumental. The little that is known is influenced by the tabloids’ distorted presentation of “Brussels”. Facts and figures are not put into context (e.g. the contribution of the UK to the EU budget being just about 1% of GDP before the deduction of the rebate).
    The problem though is that a system which involves 28 countries will always be complicated and difficult to explain. Double qualified majority voting, acronyms, confusingly similar appellations (e.g. the EU Council, the Council of the EU not to forget the Council of Europe which has nothing to do with the EU but is based in Strasburg). The press is overwhelmingly hostile or neutral.

    Perhaps the way the EU works should be taught at school!

  3. I am sorry but Imust strongly disagree. The idea that 750 or so “elected” MEPs can represent about 600 million citizens, when each, if they speak at all, is limited by the so called “speaker” to one minute, is completely risible.
    Every policy comes from the commission for approval. Who elected the commissioners? 28 individual state leaders. Democratic???
    We can only dismiss the entire commission, not any one individual commissioner.
    Most tellingly, the co called Parliament has been carefully structured to put political groupings into play, which effectively says there is no opposition body at all. Currently, an unelected Civil Servant, Martin Selmayer is poised to be appointed as President of the Commision, and you think that is democratic ??
    3
    Len Clayton

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