‘Totally dysfunctional’: Sophie in ‘t Veld on the EU’s relationship with democracy | European Union

EEven by the standards of plain Dutch, Sophie in ‘t Veld is pretty brutal. The European Council – the body of EU leaders – is “democratically a monster” and “totally dysfunctional”, she says. The European Commission “shamelessly protects” autocratic governments, to the detriment of the application of the rule of law. And the European Parliament, thinks the veteran MEP, “is not playing its role in European democracy”.

As EU leaders applauded the unprecedented speed of EU sanctions against Russia, taboo-breaking decisions to fund lethal weapons for Ukraine and aid Ukrainian refugees, in ‘t Veld thinks the war has only exposed the EU’s ‘dysfunctional’ governance, a complex patchwork of institutions for which national governments are ultimately responsible. “I am very pleased that the European Union is now taking steps [to support Ukraine], that there is more integration; I think this is long overdue, but it also increases the need for a more democratic union,” she told the Guardian.

The European Peace Facility, which funds arms for Ukraine, she points out, is controlled neither by the European Parliament nor by the national legislative assemblies. Instead, a group of member state officials meet behind closed doors to sign their budget and annual accounts. In ‘t Veld supports EU funds to arm Ukraine, but thinks more transparency is needed: “So we are spending 1.5 billion euros [£1.24bn] without democratic control over arms and I think that is a very good illustration of why we need a drastic and rapid reform of the European Union.

Such views do not make her very popular, even in her own group of centrist MEPs. She says a colleague “really yelled at me” for “attacking” the commission. While in ‘t Veld supports the EU’s Ukraine policy, she doesn’t think MEPs should stop asking tough questions: “Since when is parliamentary scrutiny considered an attack?” I think it is an attack on democracy if there is no parliamentary control.

It’s an argument she makes in a recent book, The Scent of Wild Animals, which calls for a radical overhaul of how the EU works. The title was inspired by the late co-founder of his D66 party, Hans Van Mierlo, who spoke admiringly of animal spirits in the Dutch parliament. In ‘t Veld would like to see the same cut and thrust in Brussels and Strasbourg: “The European Parliament must be a real political arena, with the smell of wild animals, blood, sweat and sawdust”, writes- she.

Instead, too many MPs lack parliamentary spirit, she thinks. This month [April] the European Parliament has relaunched “Question Time” with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. A process meant to hold the EU executive to account, several MPs used their niche to deliver mini-speeches and ask several sprawling questions. It was “a joke”, says the ‘t Veld. “There were the kind of questions, where I was like, ‘People if this is what you want to know, do a Google search.’ It is not a political question”.

The European Parliament has three problems, she says: a large number of first-timers, Covid and Brexit. Although MEPs have resumed meetings in Brussels and Strasbourg, a lot of work is still being done online. “People are stuck at home in front of a screen and they are much closer to national politics than before,” she said. Then there is Brexit: the European Parliament said goodbye to the 73 British MPs in January 2020. A few years later, “the UK’s parliamentary tradition is sorely lacking” in Brussels, according to in ‘t Veld. The UK provided “a cohort of people who saw parliament as a counterbalance to other EU institutions. Little by little, I am starting to realize how important they were for the political culture here”.

When the commission was recently found guilty of maladministration by a European watchdog over text messages von der Leyen had exchanged with the chief executive of Pfizer at the height of the pandemic, while negotiating vaccine contracts for a billion euros, the European Parliament has done nothing. “Can you imagine another head of government or executive doing this and the national parliament being mummy? I’m just totally shocked. I don’t know what to say”, said in the t’ Veld.

If the European Parliament is too weak, in ‘t Veld believes that European leaders are too powerful and too irresponsible. She would abolish the European Council, which she describes as “fundamentally undemocratic” because of its ambiguous role which is neither fully executive nor legislative. That, she admits, won’t happen, but she would rather like more transparency about how he makes his decisions.

This is a view that many would dispute. Luuk Van Middelaar, political theorist and former adviser to the President of the European Council, said the EU had shown “remarkable dynamism and resilience” in its response to the Covid pandemic, largely thanks to the decisions taken by EU heads of government. The increased role of the European Council in the multiple nightly crisis summits on the eurozone, Brexit, migration and Ukraine would also make the EU more democratic and more visible to voters.

In ‘t Veld disagrees: “Yes [EU leaders] have legitimacy vis-à-vis their own people, but they have no mandate or legitimacy to make European decisions… I cannot vote for this council. I cannot hold them accountable. I can’t even demand transparency.

And the MEP regrets that each government exercises a right of veto, including Hungarian Prime Minister Vikor Orbán, recently re-elected in a contest which, according to independent observers, leaned in favor of the ruling party. “This guy was elected in unfair elections… He makes decisions that affect us all, I mean literally decisions of war and peace, life and death… At the national level, something like this would not happen not. In most democracies, if someone in government has broken the law, they must resign.

She welcomes the victory of pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron and the defeat of Slovenia’s right-wing populist prime minister, “the Orbán impersonator” Janez Janša. “It’s important if out of 27 heads of government two are anti-European or pro-European, it makes a difference.” But she sees no government supporting the fundamental changes she advocates. “It doesn’t matter what kind of European Union they advocate: I don’t see any movement in the member states to move towards a more supranational, more democratic European Union.

In part, the debate is an old fault line: should the EU be run by powerful federal institutions based in Brussels, or is it a club of member states, where national capitals take the major decisions, with the committee as the secretariat. Today’s EU is a mixture of the two, but the intergovernmental idea, championed by former French President Charles de Gaulle decades ago, has been on the rise for at least two decades.

Research shows the commission is less likely to sue wayward member governments than in the past, underscoring the influence of national governments over Brussels. “The commission does not want to piss off the governments of the member states,” says ‘t Veld. “And that’s kind of the end of it all: you can pass as many laws as you want, but if they’re not enforced, there’s no rule of law, because then everything becomes arbitrary.”

To counter this, she argues that the commission needs to be more independent of national governments. It would therefore abolish the rule of having one European Commissioner per Member State. And the European Parliament should have the power to dismiss individual commissioners, she believes. Under current rules, to elect a commissioner, MPs must knock down all 27.

But the European Parliament must start with itself, argues in ‘t Veld: “Parliament does not use its political powers. If you mention… a motion of no confidence, or force the commission to resign, then everyone looks at you like you’re some kind of dangerous radical with a bomb in your hand. But, sorry, it’s a very mature tool in any normal, mature democracy and it happens all the time.

“Over the past two years, governments have been sent back to the EU. This is not the end of the world. The sun rises again the next day. So why are we so afraid of our own shadow?

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