The Blog

The European Union Does Not Need a Parliament

The European Parliament started as a democratic fig-leaf and has steadily gained power. To placate French pride, it sits in two places, Strasbourg and Brussels, at considerable cost and inconvenience.

It is in the nature of human evolution to imagine that what we have come up with most recently is the pearl of great price. And so representative government seemed to be. But let's consider the facts. Monarchy, as an institution, took the place of tribalism. Or, to be more accurate, tribal conflict became progressively destructive, and the success of one tribal leader in coming to dominate a region of tribes ensured greater stability. The hereditary principle, as a general rule of succession, reduced conflict further. Gradually, the role of monarchy took on bureaucratic characteristics, with tax gathering and the dispensing of justice increasingly formalized. The role of the monarch was to run his or her realm efficiently and to hold the ring against powerful interests. In this respect his position was no different from a US President or British Prime Minister today.

Now we know that the ancient Greek city state of Athens experimented with direct government. Those in the city entitled to vote (property owners and men who had served their time in the city's armed forces) would drop a stone in one of two containers, for or against a specific course of action. One of their greatest leaders, Pericles, was a master at persuading his fellow citizens to agree to what he proposed. But even his oratorical skill was insufficient to stop Athens being defeated by Sparta. Impressed by Greek knowledge, the Romans evolved a system whereby the citizens of Rome had a hand in electing what we would call members of parliament to their senate. Votes were freely bought and sold, so that the senate tended to be populated by the powerful or well connected. In theory, at least, Rome's leaders were elected by members of the senate, but as the empire expanded and became increasingly militarized, men like Julius Caesar assumed absolute power in practice.

We know, too, that in England a gulf developed between its Catholic monarch and a substantial body of people who espoused the new Puritan movement, whose members cherished a high degree of self-determination. Briefly, following the capture and execution of Charles I, the country became a Puritan republic under Oliver Cromwell. But on his death the nation had had enough and reverted to being a monarchy with a House of Commons packed full of men on the make and a House of Lords filled with the old landed interests. Gradually a system of party politics emerged, under a progressively de-politicized monarch, alongside a House of Lords whose membership has changed to being largely ex-members of the House of Commons, and others deemed meritorious by the Prime Minister of the day. The composition of both chambers does broadly reflect the country's diverse interests and exercises some control over the government of the day, which is drawn from the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons. One of the present system's greatest weaknesses, however, is that a (roughly) five year electoral cycle mitigates against coherent long-term planning, a shortcoming exacerbated by various Prime Ministers' attempts to politicize the bureaucracy.

The European Parliament started as a democratic fig-leaf and has steadily gained power. To placate French pride, it sits in two places, Strasbourg and Brussels, at considerable cost and inconvenience. A battery of translators are needed to relay every debate through headphones to its 754 members. As it is the European Commission that makes policy at the European level, after consultation with democratically elected ministers from each of the nations that make up the Union, it is hard to see what purpose the European Parliament serves. Its members are an odd bunch, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, lapsed middle-class revolutionary, and tend to vote along sterile left-right lines. The parliament's increased powers threaten to undo the painfully negotiated EU budget, just agreed. It is a body which takes government even farther away from the communities where accountability should lie. Abolish this monster, is my view, before it does real harm.