Spreading legitimacy too thin?

Article published on June 23, 2003
community published
Article published on June 23, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

One of the most important aims of the Convention is to ensure that its institutions become more relevant to people. But can this be achieved at the same time as providing a basis for an enlarged Union?

The Citizens of Europe would like to see more Europe. So says the European Conventions website. Its a bold claim, and one that implies that the EU needs to do more to prove its legitimacy. It is too easy for people to ignore its achievements. More Europe: more involvement at every level of our lives; more visibility of institutions and their workings; more passion and serious debate over the European bureaucracys successes and failures. The Convention is the forum for change, we are told, a gathering with the aim to make the European Union institutions transparent and more reflective of its citizens desires. It offers the opportunity to finalise some issues and to put sensible mechanisms in place to fix future ones. It is also to ensure that the EU can take on its new members and thrive. The chance to determine the future of the Union. Grand aimsor maybe not: A tidying-up exercise according to the cautious British government representative.

In a sense he may be right. Many of the Conventions Constitutional proposals should not be that controversial. About three-quarters of it is the restating of clauses from previous treaties. For example, though the primacy of EU law is established without doubt in Article 10 of the draft Constitution something which caused murmurs of unease among the Eurosceptic parts of the press in Britain in practice it has been the case for a number of years. The Economist recently noted that most studies put the amount of national legislation drafted in Brussels at about 50 per cent. What the proposed Constitution does is set these clauses out in one place - hopefully without ambiguity.

But the other part of the Constitution is likely to remain messy. Quite how the future of the European Union will be governed is still under debate. Although everyone agrees that improvements can be made in the way the EU works, different member states have different ideas about what should be sacrificed. It is proposed that the national veto disappears in about 20 new areas. Member states will have to rely on the centralised European bureaucracy for such things as legislation on immigration. This may not be a bad thing a common policy across the Union might solve many of the current difficulties. It is, however, on politically hot issues like these that the Convention may be rushed into making a mistake.

The European Union has problems with its perceived legitimacy in many countries. Turnouts at European elections are low enough to create serious concern. Though the European Union plays a role in many levels of peoples lives, it is still seen as remote and, if the Eurosceptic lot had their way, alien. One of the aims of the Convention was to tackle this. It has to find a way to make the European process more vital to the common citizen to see more Europe. Moving the power away from national governments and towards the centre on politically controversial issues will allow people to see more of the EUs influence.

This is a fine aim. The EU ought to take more credit for the positive impact that it has had on peoples lives from part-funding regeneration projects to legislation that means we can expect the same rights across the member states. For too long a myth has existed that we would be better outside of the majority of the EUs spheres of influence. While a minority of people only holds this view, it pulls any discussion of European initiatives towards the need to justify membership first. Every discussion is tinged with the question is it worth it? If the Convention can simplify the European institutions and their mechanisms and allow people to have better visibility of their workings then this should start to persuade people that the EU is worth arguing about.

And yet there is a feeling that the Convention process is a little rushed. Legitimacy is not delegated from above but earned from below. It will take time for it this to happen. Most people - for all the talk of European citizenship - still see their identity through the nation state. Though it is fashionable to argue that this view is increasingly under threat in a globalising world that global forces will erode the nation state - it will not disappear any time soon. The EU has to and will - make itself a more vital companion to the nation.

It is here that one of the aims of the Convention the attempt to make European institutions more visible and hence earn more legitimacy runs into another to prepare for enlargement. There is a danger that the process of allowing the new member states to join will deflect attention from the transparency of the re-organised institutions. Eurosceptics may focus on the expected flood of East European labour that will surge into the established member states but other issues may also dominate. Getting the new member states up to the same standard of the existing ones may mean that less effort is spent on the latter. The EU may play a more active role in national livelihoods but if the majority of this happens within the East European countries it will not increase the EUs visibility in the other countries.

Enlargement is coming and it is hoped that it will prove to be a good thing. There are still important issues to be discussed. Small states are worried about the emergence of a two tier EU. New member states worry that they will remain inferior newcomers for too long. Any change in the governing structures will affect chances of CAP reform. Maybe the Convention can set out a way for an expanded, more challenged Union to become more visible to the average person as well as dealing with issues raised by new member states. But it will be difficult. Earning more legitimacy in existing member states while expanding to new ones is going to be an interesting challenge.