Monday, 11 April 2016

"How the European Union actually works" - a World at One primer

A blast from the past

Radio 4's The World at One began a new series this lunchtime, seeking to explain "how the European Union actually works" and "make it all clearer" to its listeners (as Martha Kearney put it). 

And the first talk came from Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King's College, London. 

His task today was "to explain the institutions" of the EU.

As he was introduced as a non-partisan expert, listeners would doubtless have been listening for the facts, and nothing but the facts. 

Is that all they got?

Here's Prof. Menon's first talk in full:

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, 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 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 does the European Parliament, so in a sense our representatives get two bites at the cherry: in the European Parliament where people we elect vote and in the 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.

For me that sounded like an out-and-out defence of the EU's institutions rather than merely a disinterested, academic take on them. 

Anand Menon presented the EU in a very benign light there, didn't he?

He defended the EU against charges of being too complicated and confusing. 

He defended the European Commission against the charge (from "tabloids") that it consists of the "unelected" - and did so through what seemed to me to be a highly dubious point about civil servants everywhere being "unelected". (Doesn't that sidestep the obvious point that the "commissioners from each member state" - who he explicitly distinguished from the civil servants below them - aren't elected either?)

Also, strikingly, he kept using the words "us" and "our", over and over again, in what sounded to me like an attempt to show us that "we" really are closely involved in the EU's democratic processes. 

He made the EU sound much more democratic than many of us think it is, and said it's ultimately under the control of people like our elected prime minister. 

Even the problems of the EU, in Prof, Menon's take, were presented as being "slight", and - it seems - partly the fault of those (silly) people who don't have "faith" in "EU-level democracy" - even if they "do elect the European Parliament".

Anand Menon


Now, if The World at One genuinely believes that Prof. Menon's talk was truly 'impartial' then I think The World at One must  be very deeply lost inside the maze of its own pro-EU bias....

....unless I'm seriously missing something.

And there will be more. Martha Kearney ended the piece by saying, "Tomorrow Professor Anand Menon takes a closer look at the European Budget"...


P.S. I have to say that for someone chosen by the BBC to give a professorial talk to Radio 4 listeners "making clear" the institutions of the EU, his description of the European Council as "the meetings of heads of state where David Cameron meets his peers" didn't inspire me with confidence.

He surely meant 'heads of government'.

H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden don't attend too many European Council meetings as far as I'm aware.


  1. See the first two comments under 'What British Muslims Really Think,' which, in fact, belong here!

  2. Only one out of those four elements have any connection to the democratic process. And these people are surprised it's a concern?

    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.

    Where was this wisdom when the Beeboids were spitting venom at (Republic-majority) Congress for not rushing to rubber-stamp every Obamessiah demand?

  3. Have you seen the first installment of Nick Robinson's new EU documentary?