February 21, 2013

The pretence of transnational politics and why national parliaments still rule

The home of European Democracy?
The most resolute defenders of the European parliament often argue that it is the home of ‘transnational democracy’ where MEPs look after the interests of European citizens. However, in Monday's debate on the EU budget deal – struck by national leaders – reactions of the leaders of the Parliament’s four largest political groups which we cited on our blogshowed just how far from reality this assertion is.

The leaders of the EPP, Socialists and Democrats, Liberals and Greens all attacked the compromise, and demanded renegotiation. They all claimed to speak on behalf of their factions but in reality these tend to be hugely fragmented along national lines, a handful of ‘true believers’ aside. For example, the views of Dutch, Swedish, Danish, British and German MEPs – whose national leaders backed cutting the budget – were barely reflected. Moreover, in the UK and Holland in particular, the need for restraint in the EU budget was an issue of cross party consensus, and not of ideological contention.

Consequently we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of Labour MEPs sitting behind S&D group chairman Hannes Swoboda as he lambasted the budget cut which Labour leader Ed Miliband had demanded. The same applies to Moderaterna MEPs listening to EPP group chairman Joseph Daul and VVD and Lib Dem MEPs listening to the BBC-favourite Guy Verhofstadt ("he's always available"). Meanwhile, Martin Callanan of the ECR group, composed mainly of MEPs from the Conservative party and Poland’s Law and Justice party,broadly welcomed the deal.

However, in a inverse version of the above phenomenon, a debate in the Polish parliament yesterday morning, the Law and Justice representative argued that the budget deal was bad for Poland, in particular the failure to obtain more funds for rural subsidies and to obtain parity in direct payments with the EU15 countries, citing the speech by Jospeh Daul in support of his argument – the same Daul accused by Callanan of “throwing a teenage tantrum”. Meanwhile, referring to the fiscal treaty, the same Law and Justice MP claimed it would "murder solidarity in Europe", a view ostensibly more suited to the socialist and far left than conservative groups.

Particularly when it comes down to the core issues in a democracy  - such as taxation and spending - it's still all about national politics, and securing the best possible deal for domestic constituents and trying to inflict damage on their domestic political opponents. A genuinely transnational politics in the EU is nowhere near to becoming a reality.