steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

What price subsidiarity now?

I’m not sure which way of selling the Lisbon Treaty was more patronizing - being told (like the Irish) that this Brussels sprout was going to reappear at every meal until they ate it up like good children, or (like the British) that the treaty is an awfully hard document written in grown-up words, and we shouldn’t worry our little heads about it.

Now that it looks like being ratified, the next item on the agenda is electing - sorry, appointing - the new President of the European Council, another post that voters needn't concern themselves with, because no one's going to ask their opinion. And that's fair enough, because it's really just a civil service post, right? Like the president of the European Commission is just a Permanent Secretary writ large in fifteen languages? Actually no, apparently this person is going to be a big-hitting political figure, the kind that warrants gridlock-inducing motorcades - or so says the Foreign Secretary. Normally of course we're against traffic congestion, but when it's in such a noble cause as a politician's wet dream who would be so churlish as to object?

All this has prompted me to audit the democractic account as it stands with me, right now. I'll begin close to home, bearing in mind the cherished principle of subsidiarity, which at one time (in the mid-1990s) was very fashionable, and suggests that power ought to be kept as far as practically possible in the hands of those affected by it.

So then, every few years I get to vote in the Bristol city council elections, and about that I have no complaint at all. I may not like everything the council does, but I can see that it's local democracy, of a rough and ready sort.

Then there's the English parliament. When I compare it with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, which deal with many aspects of the administration of those countries, the weakness of the English Parliament quickly becomes apparent: namely, it doesn't exist. So, no marks for democracy there, I'm afraid. In fact, rather less than no marks, thanks to the bizarrity produced by the West Lothian question.

Okay, let's forget the non-existent English Parliament and turn to the UK Parliament in Westminster. This is bicameral of course, and the upper house is now, as it always has been, untainted by any semblance of democratic legitimacy whatsoever. As for the House of Commons, once every four or five years (on a date selected solely with reference to the governing party's political advantage), I get to vote for the Bristol West MP. As a matter of fact I vote Green - which unfortunately means that I can be 100% certain that my candidate will not be elected. Moreoever, even if they were, they would certainly have no part to play in Government. The first-past-the-post system ensures that my vote is wasted every time.

I also get to vote for an MEP occasionally. Here, because of proportional representation, there is a chance that my Green vote might actually produce a Green MEP. Good news? Yes - except that the European Parliament cannot initiate legislation. That can only be done by a group of unelected civil servants, the European Commission. Half-marks there, then.

There's also the possibility for referenda to be held on matters of exceptional consititutional importance. However, this has not happened in my voting lifetime: the only one in my memory was the vote in 1975 to join a trading bloc called the Common Market. (Whatever happened to that?) Other promised referenda - such as the one on the European Constitution, which is essentially the Lisbon Treaty minus a clip-on Groucho moustache - were reneged on.

So far I'm not feeling terribly enfranchised, and the idea that the President of the European Council will be chosen not by voters but as the result of off-stage wheeler-dealing by politicians doesn't make me feel more so. Of course, as people will point out, a President of the European Council is not the same thing as a President of Europe. However, how long will it be before they start being referred to that way? Oh my, it's already happening...
Tags: current affairs
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