BIASED PROFESSOR?: World at One started a series yesterday which presenter Martha Kearney said would explain how the EU ‘actually works’. The impression given was that these would be objective guides. The first item was by Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. Was it actually impartial? You can decide, the transcript is below. But it most definitely did not seem so. First off, he said that although people complained that the EU was ‘too complicated’, it was not the case – or rather, it was no more complicated ‘than any other political system’. Well the US Constitution is around 1,300 words – the Lisbon treaty almost 13,000. And maybe the EU’s important Passerelle clauses and the functions and powers of COREPER (a shadowy but hugely influential body that dictates the framework of European Council business) are not so easily understood as US democracy? The reality is that the EU is an unusually complex construct and even many MPs do not understand how it functions.
Next, Menon states that the European Commission is made up of a Commissioner from each member state, under which are civil servants. These, he asserts, are the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ so beloved by the tabloids – ‘but let’s face it which civil service isn’t unelected?’ Menon thus seriously underplays concerns by Eurosceptics about the powers of the Commission. They argue that one commissioners is appointed for each country, but once appointed their allegiance is to the EU, not their country of origin, so any link of accountability is severed. Second, civil servants in the UK are under the control of the UK Ministers and are appointed on the basis of rigorous competitive standards first framed in the 1870s. Those in Brussels are accountable only to the undemocratic complexities of the EU. The Commission, supported by the Luxembourg Court, is the sole executive of all EU law. It mismanages the EU’s budget and arranges foreign trade deals badly, hiwhc Menon did not mention.
Menon then described the European parliament, it was, he claimed:
‘directly elected by all of us, and which is charged with providing democratic oversight’.
The point here made by Eurosceptics is that the parliament does not operate at all like those in nation states. It does not form a government; it cannot originate legislation and though it can propose amendments and reject decisions by the Council of Ministers, the main tasks in the framing of laws are performed by the unelected Commission working with COREPER. Menon further suggests that democracy then has ‘two bites of the cherry because measures proposed by the Commission ‘for the good of Europe’ go through ‘our representatives’ on both the Council of Ministers and in the European Parliament. He again sidesteps and glosses over the main concerns of Eurosceptics – that the EU is being driven by bureaucrats whose main interest is that of ‘Europe’ as they see it, with ‘ever closer union’ at the core. Our ministers and MEPs are regularly outvoted, and our Parliament (Lords and Commons) is powerless to change any of it. Summing up, there is more that is problematical in his script, but it’s more of the same. This was a highly sympathetic and at best disingenuous (at worst seriously misleading) analysis of the operations of the EU.
So how ‘independent’ is Professor Menon? One warning bell is that King’s College is so enmeshed with EU funding that it appears to have established a permanent EU office. Part of the way the EU operates is by influencing academic work. A second warning sign (h/t Craig Byers Is the BBC Biased?) is that back in 1999, when most of the Commission was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that led to most of them being ‘removed’, is that he wrote a robust defence of both their function and their conduct for the London Review of Books. Most of it is pay-walled, but what is available suggests that Professor Menon thinks the Commission is a remarkably beneficial institution. And finally, Menon is Director of a glossy initiative called Britain in a Changing Europe, set up by King’s College in association with the Economic and Social Research Council. It claims to be independent, but even cursory reading of its reports suggests strongly otherwise. Take its approach, for example, to the ‘Norway Option’. It is headed ‘Norway Option for the UK: Oh Really?’. To put it mildly, it is scathing about both ‘Brexiteers’ and their analysis.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, The World at One, 11th April 2016, How the European Union Works, 1.37pm
MARTHA KEARNEY: Do you know your ECJ from your EU Council? The difference between the Commission and the European Parliament? Well, of course most WATO listeners are extraordinarily well-informed, but audience research shows that a lot of people are pretty hazy when it comes to how the European Union actually works. So, in the run-up to the referendum on June 23 is a first of a series to make it all clearer – we hope. Today Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King’s College, London, explains the institutions.
ANAND MENON: People often complain that the European Union is just too complicated and too confusing, but actually it’s probably no more confusing than any other political system. The problem is it’s a unique system and so it’s harder for us to compare it with things we’re familiar with. There are four main institutions. Firstly, the European Commission, which is made up of a commissioner from each member state, under which are the civil servants – the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ so beloved of tabloids, but let’s face it, what civil servant isn’t unelected? There’s the Court in Luxembourg that adjudicates on matters of EU law. There’s the European Parliament, directly elected by all of us, and which is charged with providing democratic oversight. And, finally, there’s the Council of Ministers, where member state representatives, including ministers, meet to make decisions. So how does this system work? Let’s think about how laws are made. The European Commission is meant to represent the interests of Europe and so it gets to propose legislation. Then it’s the turn of the Council of Ministers where our national ministers vote on the proposals from the European Commission. At around the same time so too does the European Parliament, so in a sense our representatives get two bites of the cherry: in the European Parliament where people we elect vote and in the Council of Ministers where the ministers of our government also vote. So what this whole process is about is trying to blend what is good for Europe (the Commission) with what its member states want. And once laws are passed the Commission and the Court then have the job of overseeing what happens – making sure that member states obey the laws they’ve signed up to. It would be a pretty senseless system if it generated regulations that people were free to ignore. And the ultimate backstop here is the European Council – the meetings of heads of state where David Cameron meets his peers and where the ultimate direction of the European Union is set. Now, this isn’t a perfect system but it’s quite hard to find a political system that is perfect. In some ways it’s slightly remote and the lack of a sense of European identity means that not everyone has faith in EU-level democracy, even if we do elect the European Parliament. And, secondly, the system can be very slow, but it’s slow for a reason. It’s slow precisely because there are so many checks and balances to make sure things aren’t imposed on member states against their will.
MARTHA KEARNEY: Well, tomorrow Professor Anand Menon takes a closer look at the European Union budget.