Elusive Democracy: While Voters Fume, Brussels Fixes the Caravan

eu-flagThe European Union has weighed in on the grave issues concerning caravan safety. EU authorities are currently in the final stages of assembling a comprehensive set of regulations aimed at standardizing technical inspection procedures.

The European Parliament will debate this proposed legislation later in the year. It is widely expected that the new rules will come into force before the start of the 2014 holiday season.

In the UK, implementation of the European caravan rulebook will cost about €270 million according to the latest numbers released by the Ministry of Transport. This equates to about €500 per travel trailer.

A spokeswoman for the Caravan Club – an organization representing almost 400,000 caravan-pulling UK drivers – couldn’t have said it better when she noted that the proposed regulation “is not supported by clear evidence attesting to the existence of a problem and as such does not address a genuine concern.”

The EU is quite good at enacting silly legislation and supporting weird research such as that by German professors Andreas Hahn and Moritz Hagenmeyer. In 2011 these two recipients of a sizeable EU grant concluded that drinking water will not prevent dehydration. Hahn and Hagenmeyer even succeeded in presenting their findings with a perfectly straight face.

“The EU is quite good at enacting silly legislation and supporting weird research such as that by German professors Andreas Hahn and Moritz Hagenmeyer.”

It took the professors no less than three years of arduous investigation to disprove a palpable fact. Even worse: On their recommendation, EU bureaucrats promptly ordered bottled water manufacturers to cease claiming that their product could help prevent dehydration. Those insisting to state the obvious, thereby ignoring the Brussels edict, would face up to two years in prison. After howls of laughter, the EU relented and backtracked, albeit reluctantly. Water has now received Brussels’ blessing as a possible “agent” to help avoid dehydration.

Earlier – and famously – the EU had banned bananas and cucumbers “free of abnormal curvatures” from being sold. Also, as per EU regulations, no European kid may inflate a balloon without adult supervision. And if you happen to own a horse, please resist the temptation to eat it. EU rules make eating your own pet quite illegal. This of course is nothing compared to what Americans are prohibited from doing, in case you were wondering (or laughing from across the pond). Alaska reportedly has a law on its books that makes it a felony to eject a moose out of a flying airplane. The EU is by no means unique in drawing up silly rules.

In times of plenty these legal antics could possibly be explained away as the product of the idle thoughts of bored bureaucrats confined to stuffy and mind-numbing cubicles somewhere in ever-exciting Brussels. However, these are not times of plenty and most Europeans are not amused.

At first, the utterly superfluous new legislation on caravan safety might seem rather innocuous. Who cares, right? Well, the ten million or so caravan owners in Europe probably do as they are to foot yet another bill. Also, Eurosceptic politicians such as Dutch MP Geert Wilders care. His Freedom Party (PVV) currently enjoys a comfortable lead in most surveys thanks to its unrelenting criticism of most all things European. Mr Wilders is not one to let a good example of EU meddling go unnoticed.

In Britain, the UK Independence Party is surging in the polls and indeed claimed over 26% of the vote in the east of England (Essex and Lincolnshire) during last May’s local elections.

Elsewhere in the union, Euroscepticism is on the rise as well: In Austria, Denmark and Italy political parties that propose untangling the EU to a greater or lesser extent now claim up to 30% of the popular vote.

Nik de Boer of the Amsterdam Centre for Law and Governance is not surprised by the increased mistrust between the EU and its citizens: “Member states have seldom involved their citizens in decisions regarding the union. The few times voters were asked to express an opinion on the EU, it was promptly ignored. This reinforces the impression that the EU is largely governed from behind closed doors.”

This perceived democratic deficit is the EU’s Achilles’ heel. Four layers of government separate European voters from the European Commission, the chief legislative and executive body of the union. The commission is the only one in Brussels with the power to initiate Europe-wide legislation and to enforce it.

Yet this body is not even remotely connected to the people: European voters elect their members of parliament who in turn appoint 28 heads of government. These get together in the European Council which then proceeds to nominate the members of the European Commission and its president.

To make matters worse, the EU is also run by a bewildering plethora of commissions and councils with often overlapping authority and rotating membership.

Even in Brussels few can explain the difference between the European Council, the Council of the European Union (aka Council of Ministers or simply “The Council”) and the Council of Europe. All have their own president as do the European Commission and European Parliament.

The 766 members of the European Parliament are supposed to offer some checks and balances. But this assembly is not a full-blown legislature. Its powers, though somewhat augmented with the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, are still rather limited. The parliament may not initiate legislation and must restrict itself to either approving, amending or rejecting bills handed down from the European Commission. As such the parliament – the only European body elected directly by the voters – is much the weaker partner in the EU’s balance of power.

Pro-Europe thinkers as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas acknowledge the democratic deficit but see in its existence no reason to refrain from deepening and widening the union. In a speech at Leuven University in Belgium Mr Habermas pleaded for the rapid expansion of the “political union” in order to address the shortcomings and design flaws of the now rather dysfunctional monetary union.

Mr Habermas sees the EU – and in particular its workfare social security system – as a valuable bulwark against the “disruptive whirlwinds” of globalization. However, Herr Habermas was unusually vague on the practicalities of a more democratic and transparent Europe.

In Leuven, the German philosopher, who shaped most of the recent social and political thought on the European question, emphasized the need for the EU to embrace supranational democracy sooner rather than later. In order for the ill-conceived monetary union to survive – let alone succeed – Europe must make haste with the forging of a political union. Mr Habermas argues that such a broadening of the EU cannot be accomplished without changes to the union’s structure with a view of closing the gap between Brussels and the voters.

The problem is of course that Mr Habermas and other proponents of expanding the EU’s mandate and reach fail to paint even the faintest outlines of this EU 2.0 for fear of being booed off the stage. Any talk of boosting the EU’s power and authority is political dynamite: The countries currently struggling with high debt loads and fiscal deficits have no need for more lectures on frugality from Brussels while the few countries still financially afloat can ill afford a union that is organized around principles of solidarity, however beautiful these look on paper.

Also voters will not stand for it. There is a reason for the likes of Mr Wilders and Mr Nigel Farage doing well at the polls: Increasing numbers of voters all across the Europe want less EU meddling.

Even so, not all is lost. Mr Farage and his UKIP in Britain is one of the few truly Europhobes on the political scene. Most Eurosceptics would like to either see the EU reinvented with a somewhat less ambitious outlook or have the union full-heartedly embrace democratic principles before forging ahead with yet more integration.

This however does not rhyme with the self-evident need to save the monetary union through ever closer cooperation (read: transfer union) between member states. The conundrum so formed may perhaps best be approached from a more principled angle: The primacy of politics. In a contemporary democracy, voters have the last say and their choices are to guide their representatives either in national parliaments or in Brussels.

Should voters express a wish for less union which in turn might damn the euro, then so be it: After all, elected politicians are supposed to manage the economy. Doing things the other way around violates all known democratic principles. It will also ensure the failure of not just the political and social union, but the monetary one as well.

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