Setting the record straight on hearings

It’s great that there’s been some media interest — even in the UK — in the cross-examinations of candidate European commissioners which are happening this week and next in the European Parliament.

Cartoon from Charlemagne column showing European Parliament flexing its musclesAmong a lot of surprisingly accurate coverage, one less plausible claim is also rearing its head. This is the suggestion that these hearings are less about choosing the right people for the job, and more about Parliament “flexing its muscles”. This week’s cartoon at the head of the Economist’s ever-cynical Charlemagne column makes the point vividly.

This is a good example of a more general paradox that surfaces now and then in the narrative cycle of the eurosceptics. The main theme of this narrative is that Europe supposedly suffers from a democratic deficit (being run by a sprawling, unelected bureaucracy intent on undermining national sovereignty, blah blah). This is false, of course, but this doesn’t matter to the eurosceptics: most of the time they can keep spinning the same yarn, and the British media will keep lapping it up, with seemingly no inclination to check it against reality.

But, from time to time, reality gets a little harder to ignore. One of those times is now. The European Parliament, made up of directly-elected MEPs, has a duty (under a treaty written jointly by all 28 EU countries) to scrutinise European Commission candidates, assess their suitability for the job, and either approve or reject them. This process forms the beginning of Parliament’s continuous supervision of the Commission, which sees its members regularly called to explain themselves before MEPs in the course of their work.

This is a genuine, important, and above all conspicuous example of democracy in action at the heart of the European Union. It cuts across the eurosceptic narrative far more obviously than other ‘inconvenient truths’ which our media try to hush up — such as the fact that all EU laws are passed by elected governments and directly elected MEPs, or the fact that the supposedly “sprawling” Commission is actually a pretty small organisation, with fewer staff than Leeds city council.

Faced with this obvious counter-example, eurosceptics can no longer stick to the line about lack of accountability. So do they respond by facing up to their mistake? No — they simply brush it under the carpet (from where they can retrieve it when the media spotlight has moved on), and start slinging mud in the opposite direction for a while. Suddenly Parliament is on a power-grab, MEPs are getting too big for their boots and have too much clout, and so on. Hence Charlemagne again:

Armed with the superficially attractive argument that it is the only European institution directly accountable to voters, the parliament has accrued powers over the past few decades. Like a child receiving sweets, each goody it acquires feeds its demands for more.

But hold on a minute. Firstly, MEPs are indeed directly elected by citizens, and that mandate empowers them to do the very jobs that national governments ask — indeed, require — them to do: agreeing new rules jointly with ministers, scrutinising the Commission, overseeing the budget. If we’re going to dismiss democratic oversight in these key areas as a “superficially attractive argument”, then the future of representative democracy is in dire straits indeed.

Secondly, the whole premise of the eurosceptic argument is ludicrous. The Commission-designate that MEPs are holding to account right now is the very same group of people whose supposed unaccountability is lamented by eurosceptics for the other 364 days a year. Equally, when our elected MEPs veto a cosy budget deal or rewrite a dodgy law, it takes a particularly disingenuous form of chutzpah to brand that as a parliamentary power-grab in the same breath as complaining that ordinary voters have no influence over EU policy-making. They really can’t have it both ways.

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