Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


The Call for Reform

In his recent and much discussed book, `Democracy in Europe', Larry Siedentop describes the European Union as a `Centralised tyranny' based on an unreformed model of the French state (Siedentop 2001:113-121). It is, however, somewhat difficult to recognize this talk about `bureaucratic despotism' and the constant accumulation of power in Brussels. In reality, the EU bureaucracy does not amount to much. No more people are employed in the Commission than in the administration of a medium sized European city. One of the reasons why the Commission depends so much on the much criticised `comitology structure',5 is precisely because the size of its academic workforce is too small! Pursuing this line of argument, some observers even go so far as to argue that the current debate on the lack of transparency, the democratic deficit and the corruption in the Commission originates in unconstructive myth-making and lack of information. As Andrew Moravcsik has put it:

"Constant scrutiny from 15 different governments...renders the EU more transparent and less corrupt than almost any national government in Europe...Recent scandals, often cited to demonstrate the extent of EU corruption, are exceptions that prove the rule"(Moravcsik 2001: 120).

Whether this is a correct interpretation or not probably depends on the eyes of the beholder. It is also conditioned by whether one regards the European Union as a federation in the making or - as Moravcsik would have it - nothing but ordinary international co-operation between fully sovereign states (Moravcsik 1998). If the latter is the case, there is little doubt that the Union - compared to all other types of international organizations - has a democratic surplus - not a deficit.

Siedentop is, however, also wrong in holding that the Commission can always be criticised for acting in an extremely bureaucratic manner. As Helen Wallace has pointed out, several examples do, in fact, suggest that the Commission is capable of acting more hastily than the Member States when new common problems surface (Wallace 1996). Unfortunately, it makes only very little difference whether the Commission and the Union as such is much better than its reputation if the media and the general public perceive it as both overly bureaucratic and intransparent. If the Commission is regarded as a `bureaucratic monster' by the majority of Europeans - as Siedentop would have it - then this is the reality that counts and the reality that the Commission (and the heads of state) have to act upon.

After having had a closer look at the White Paper, it becomes clear that we are, indeed, dealing with a document that fights to improve this fading image. The White Paper has ambitions of being much more than pure public relations. When it comes to a closer scrutiny, however, the mission does not seem to be very well accomplished. The White Paper calls for a fundamental reform of European Governance and wants to bring the Union closer to the citizens. However, even at the outset, the turgidity of the wording is hard to miss: "Reforming governance addresses the question of how the EU uses the powers given by its citizens". (p 8)6 The problem with this kind of rhetoric is, of course, that, in a system based on indirect rule like the European one, the citizenry have never been given a chance to hand over power to the EU or its institutions.

Nevertheless, in its rapport, the Commission wants to make the EU more relevant to the citizens by integrating - more than previously - local and regional levels in the Community decision-making process. Five principles are launched as guidelines for transforming the whole Union structure: More openness, more participation (in particular from below), enhanced accountability, more effectiveness in European Union policies and, finally, better coherence in policies across different levels of governance. The proposal for change also talks about better involvement of regional and local actors in policy-shaping, namely, that the Commission should `organize a systematic dialogue with European and national associations of regional and local government, while respecting national constitutional and administrative arrangements'.7 The White Paper stresses the need for `greater flexibility' in the implementation of EU policies, and `overall policy coherence' between local, regional and Union level policies. All these suggestions have been heard before and hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the legitimacy-debate - even superficially. Or, as Kenneth Armstrong has put it: "...the White Paper seems like yet another strategy by which the Commission aims to do better but without really contemplating fundamental change - it is like déjà vu all over again."(Armstrong 2001: 6)

Before we go further into some of the concrete proposals, it would be useful to pause just for a second and take a closer look at the term `governance'. One of the problems with the governance-term is that it is a very fuzzy concept which has become a new buzzword in the academic literature in recent years. It signals `governance beyond the nation state' and that we are dealing with a political structure or polity that falls short of being a state (Jørgensen 1997). Is it, then, this post-modern condition that the Commission wants to discuss in its White Paper? Not at all. In a speech by Romano Prodi to the European Parliament on the fourth of September 2001, it quickly became clear that the Commission was taking a short cut and saw the governance debate as the equivalent of the well-known democratic deficit-debate: "When we speak of `governance' we are, in fact, discussing democracy. European democracy, how it works, why it does not work better and what its prospects are".8 The puzzling thing is that the Commission does not address the legitimacy issue in its White Paper. The Paper is not about democracy and how to combat the democratic deficit, but about better steering tools and managerial instruments.

5 `Comitology' refers to those 400 (or more) advisory committees working under the Commission. For an in depth analysis of the comitology phenomena, see Joerges & Vos (eds.) 1999.

6 My emphasis.

7 White Paper p. 13.

8 (2001a)




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