THE BLOG
14/12/2011 19:26 GMT | Updated 13/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Europe: Adding a Democratic Crisis to an Economic One?

Britain may have wielded its first ever veto in defence of the financial institutions in the City of London last week but an even bigger national, indeed universal interest, was also at stake: the very concept of parliamentary democracy itself.

Britain may have wielded its first ever veto in defence of the financial institutions in the City of London last week but an even bigger national, indeed universal interest, was also at stake: the very concept of parliamentary democracy itself.

In pursuit of greater fiscal integration the new agreement carved out by the other 26 European leaders in Brussels will require each of them to submit future national budgets to pre-legislative review by EU officials before they are put before their own parliaments, with those unelected officials empowered to demand amendments.

Scrutiny of taxation, expenditure and public services is fundamental to any democratically accountable political system: it sits at the heart of the relationship between parliament, government and the public. At Westminster, parliament has a unique constitutional role in authorising and scrutinising government finance; between elections it is parliament's responsibility to hold government to account for the way in which it raises and spends the public's money. The idea that a budget will be passed for scrutiny and possible amendment to unelected officials - whom the public did not appoint and cannot therefore get rid of - before it is considered by elected Members of Parliament is profoundly undemocratic. What is the point of a parliament if this crucial role is stripped away?

Any reading of the continental press over the last few days would leave you with the distinct impression that the British people are uniquely hostile to the European project. Yet the European Commission's own research shows that the public across Europe - including in France and Germany - are equally unhappy with the direction in which the EU is currently going. Only 22% of the French, 24% of the British and 26% of the German public think that things in the EU are going in the right direction. Across the entire continent 40% agree that things within the EU are going in the wrong direction and a further 29% either don't know or have no view.

Some of this dissatisfaction is inextricably linked with the economic situation but dig deeper and it is clear that there are broader misgivings. Only 20% of the people of Europe associate the EU with democracy. 50% of Europeans think that their country's national interests are not properly taken into account by the EU and six in 10% think that their voice does not count.

Only 45% of Europeans trust the European Parliament and even a majority of Germans distrust the European Commission. Overall, 47% of Europeans simply do not trust the EU: indeed distrust commands a majority in 10 member states including France and Germany. Throw in the fact that in only six EU member states does a majority of the population trust their own Government and Parliament and what you have is a democratic crisis in the making. Since this research was conducted in May two elected governments - in Greece and Italy - have been replaced by technocratic, unelected 'national unity' administrations; were the same questions to be asked today the results would therefore probably be even more toxic.

There is a danger that European leaders, in trying to fix the immediate economic problems of the moment, ignore or act in ways destined to exacerbate this democratic deficit. The financial crisis will not be solved by taking a hatchet to parliamentary accountability in any member state: it will simply add a democratic crisis to the economic one. Since Brussels the focus has been on why Britain chose to veto the deal; the more interesting question is how any democratically elected leader who believes in parliamentary accountability could agree to it.