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|Secrecy at EU level is a challenge to democracy
The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said recently: “More Europe does not mean more Brussels!” He did not say what more Europe does mean: more summits and less democracy.
It means more private executive decision-making in various high-level summits by national leaders – more Europe as a “safeguarded sphere”, safe from popular democracy. The new zeitgeist is thus anti-democratic, even though there is an indirect link through prime ministers to national electoral processes.
It has long been a myth that increasing centralisation is largely attributable to over-zealous Eurocrats in Brussels, Luxembourg and elsewhere. But it’s also due nowadays to officials and ministers in London, Bonn, Dublin and the other capitals. The real democratic challenge is the lack of democratic accountability of national prime ministers in the European Council and other ad hoc summits. National parliaments are increasingly eclipsed by powers assumed
by national executives at European level.
And recent comparative research suggests the Dáil is one of the worst national parliaments in terms of exercising any democratic control over what is agreed by taoisigh in European Council and euro zone summits. If it is not clear who takes decisions, how and where, how can the executive be held responsible, to whom, and on what?
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, executive power is also increasingly being exercised completely outside the EU under general international law, avoiding to a very considerable extent supranational actors such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and national parliaments without effective democratic checks and balances.
British minister for Europe David Lidington in Berlin recently spoke of the “crisis of democracy” facing the EU. His solution – even more executive dominance, more power to more frequent meetings of the European Council.
And his reasoning? Only national governments are democratically legitimated and accountable.
He is not alone. It’s a view shared among the national governments, especially those whose parliaments are not engaged in a sustained struggle with them to prise out more information and debate. It takes no account of the real problems faced by parliaments keeping up with the acceleration of executive decision-making as well as its secrecy.
Parliaments struggle to exercise scrutiny over what their ministers agree in Brussels because of the working practices of both the European Council and the linked Council of Ministers and their secrecy rules.
Those national governments that concede to parliaments “non public” (“limited”) documents tend to require that the relevant committees will study them in secret. In Finland alone the constitution provides unlimited access to information for the parliament. Yet many of the Finnish Grand Committee meetings are held behind closed doors.
The rules mean that even if governments give access to documents to their parliament (the Dutch government has done so recently) the latter must effectively hold private sessions. Dutch minister of foreign affairs Frans Timmermans admitted to the house of representatives recently that the internal rules of the council take precedence over national rules and so parliament was to keep the documents “secret” even though they are not classified at any level.
In most countries the rules on the dissemination of information allow for an “executive privilege” exemption. In the Netherlands, for example, the government is formally obliged to provide all information “unless such provision of information contradicts the interest of the state ” – but the executive decides what is the “interest of the state”.
The interest of the state is then that its parliament cannot discuss publicly unclassified information because of internal EU-level rules. Those rules are not legislative in nature, and so were never publicly discussed.
Moreover, the government co-agreed them at the European level without any prior discussion at the national level.
The public interest of the EU thus apparently does not include the interests of parliaments or of the citizens in publicity, or any balance between the interests of openness and the necessity for secrecy.
Yet an unfettered discretion for unnecessary secrecy is highly problematic in a democracy.
Why should parliaments accept unilateral executive control over so-called sensitive information which takes no account of relative values of secrecy and openness?
Parliamentary defiance in Europe may be needed to recalibrate a new means of pursuing the European project in public. This is the challenge for European democracy in the 21st century.
Deirdre Curtin is professor of European Law at the University of Amsterdam
Hey Berlin, this is what an EU without Britain would look like
by Mats Persson
One of the biggest questions in today’s European politics is what price Germany is willing to pay to keep the UK in the EU. One school of thought – which strangely sees an over-representation of retired Europhiles and hardcore Eurosceptics – claims virtually no price at all. Berlin will choose Paris – and Warsaw – any day of the week. David Cameron might as well throw in the towel now.
Well, the past week may have given Berlin a taste of what an EU without Britain could look like. And it ain’t pretty.
The looming EU-China trade war has again pitted Europe’s north against its south, with Beijing pursuing its patented ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. The dispute was triggered by Brussels’ decision to impose anti-dumping tariffs on heavily subsidised solar panels from China. Beijing’s retaliation was swift: you Europeans spend an awful lot of cash subsidising wine. Is that really legal under World Trade Organisation rules?
It hasn’t been lost on anyone that the biggest wine producers in Europe also are the strongest proponents of the solar panel tariffs: France, Italy and Spain. Given the symbolic importance of wine in these countries, this is no longer only business: it’s personal.
A trade war with China would hurt everyone but, wine exports notwithstanding, it would be particularly bad for Germany. With demand in the eurozone drying up, the boost in German exports is largely due to a rise in its share of the Chinese market. A disruption in these export flows now, when the European recovery is balancing on a knife’s edge, would be a disaster for Germany.
It’s therefore not surprising that Berlin has gone to town over the anti-dumping tariffs, and it has been backed by the UK and other liberal countries.
However, since the EU has so-called “exclusive” competence in trade policy, the European Commission negotiates on behalf of all EU member states and Germany is hostage to majority decisions amongst EU ministers.
The way EU trade policy is decided is complex. A final decision on whether to keep the tariffs in place will be taken at some point towards the end of the year, though it could well be solved before then. But clearly, without the additional pressure and weight of the UK, Germany would struggle to get its way on this one. Any short-team decision to remove the tariffs requires a so-called Qualified Majority. Germany would find it extremely difficult to reach the necessary voting share absent the UK (and may even struggle with it, though the final decision is taken by a simple majority).
And this is where Brexit meets the German economy. At the moment, under a Qualified Majority Vote the Northern, liberal bloc has a “blocking minority” in the EU’s Council of Ministers, which means it can stop the many attempted protectionist measures originating in the Mediterranean. The southern group, too, has a blocking minority – meaning the two blocs balance each other. However, should the UK leave, the Mediterranean block would substantially strengthen its collective voting weight, whilst the German-led North would lose its blocking minority altogether. The field would be wide open for a barrage of anti-dumping tariffs and tit-for-tat trade wars (think “Buy European”) with China and other crucial destinations for German products.
There are several other reasons why Berlin fears a UK exit more than it lets on – prospect of paying even more to the EU, extra costs to UK-bound exports, losing a financial gateway to global markets, geopolitics and more. But as Germany increasingly goes global, it’s the fear that a more protectionist EU could prevent it from doing business across the world which really hits home.
Brussels fires shot in China solar trade war
by Bruno Waterfield, in Brussels
Brussels has fired the opening shot in a trade war with China by imposing stinging import duties on Chinese solar panels, levies that will lead to major increases in the cost of renewable energy for consumers.
Germany, Britain and 16 other economically liberal or exporting EU countries are opposed to the unprecedented “trade defence” measure which will add almost 48pc to the price of solar cells made in China and which is likely to be overturned by governments in six months.
The European Commission has used its trade defence powers to unilaterally impose an immediate tariff of 11.8pc, rising by another 35.8pc unless Beijing agrees to increasing prices, a gambit that is undermined by widespread opposition to the import duties.
“The ball is now in China's court,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner. “This is not protectionism. Rather it is about ensuring international trade rules also apply to Chinese companies – just like they apply to us. As you are aware, also the US currently apply duties to Chinese exports.”
Greg Barker, the energy minister, took to Twitter to denounce the tariffs which will hit companies that install solar energy in people’s homes as part renewable targets to cut climate emissions.
“Can someone please ask De Gucht why he's ignored massive EU downstream solar industry?” I have and very forcefully,” he tweeted.
China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels, with exports to the EU worth €21 billion (£18bn) a year and is accused by the EU of selling the renewable technology at up to 88pc below-cost to corner the market.
Unless national governments block the levies in December then they will enter into effect for five years.
The commission argues that Chinese “dumping” means companies from China now account for 80pc of the European market and that its production capacity currently amounts to 150pc of global consumption.
“In the short term, some jobs could be lost among companies installing solar panels. However, as the situation of EU producers improves and imports from other countries increase, these jobs could be recreated,” said a commission statement.
“Any job losses would in any case be substantially less than the 25,000 jobs in the EU solar production industry that are likely to be lost forever if measures are not imposed.”
Robert Sturdy MEP, the Conservative spokesman on trade, warned that the measures would cost jobs, force up prices for consumers, breach environmental policy and damage Europe’s trading relationship with China.
“These duties are going to damage businesses that install solar panels, and force up prices for consumers,” he said.
“We are sending out very bad signals about our environmental commitment and our trading relationship with Asia. If the EU is to grow its economy then we need to put the wider picture ahead of parochial interests and make trade defence decisions based on the wider ramifications that they could have.”
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