Democracy v European Integration? Rejection of the ECI against TTIP

2014-09-16 News

democracyThe EU Commission has decided not to allow the ECI against TTIP and CETA to proceed. In terms of politics, the formalistic blockade on citizen participation is a disaster. And from a legal standpoint, the Commission’s arguments are extremely weak. Commentary by Steffen Stierle from Attac Germany, a co-initiating NGO of the ECI “Stop TTIP”.

It’s not exactly news that all is not well with the democratic legitimacy of the EU. Major institutions – like the European Central Bank and the Troika – behave outside of any parliamentary control; the powerful Commission is nominated, not elected; and the European Parliament isn’t a real parliament because it lacks such crucial parliamentary rights as the right to initiate legislation.

Despite this, it must be admitted that in the years before the banking and finance crisis there was some progress. The Lisbon Treaty did strengthen the Parliament, even if this was a relatively minor improvement. And the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) introduced for the very first time an admittedly rather weak element of direct democracy at the EU level. The weakness lies above all in the fact that a ‘successful’ ECI can only present recommendations; it cannot impose any obligations on the EU institutions. Nonetheless, these steps could have been a good start – one which was long overdue. In particular since the 1980s/1990s, there has been a massive transfer of political powers from the Member States to the EU. As long as the EU resists further democratisation, each of these transfers of powers effectively represents a degradation of democracy. The absolutely core element of any restoration of legitimacy for the continuing integration process has to be the consistent democratisation of all the decision-making levels of the EU and the introduction of strong and effective direct-democratic instruments.

In recent years, however, there has been a failure to build on the supposed good start and to expand European democracy. Quite the opposite: the EU’s response to the crisis brought with it a wide-ranging dismantling of democracy. The fiscal pact and the European Stability Mechanism were approved as international treaties alongside European law, thus bypassing the European Parliament; lacking any democratic legitimacy, the EU’s Troika programmes made deep incursions into the economic and social policies of some Member States; in practice, core elements of the banking union were devised by lobbyists from the world of finance. Furthermore, and against the wishes of the majority of citizens in the member states, the Council of Europe agreed a new wave of rearmament and militarisation. These are just a few examples of the current anti-democratic nature of EU politics.

Now the Commission has made it clear that even the non-binding ECIs will only be given the go-ahead if they do not disturb the politico-economic fortunes of the Brussels bureaucracy. There’s simply no other way of interpreting the refusal to register the “Stop-TTIP” ECI. The stated ‘arguments’ are absurd; it is claimed that two formal requirements are not met. Firstly, ECIs may only contain ‘positive’ demands, not ‘negative’ ones i.e. they may only acclaim the Commission, not seek to block its proposals. Secondly, an ECI must refer to a ‘legal act’ – but the negotiating mandate for TTIP is supposedly not a legal act, but merely an agreement between the organs of the EU.

Politically speaking, this formalistic blockade of citizen participation is a disaster. The ECI is backed by 230 organisations from 21 EU member states. 700,000 signatures against TTIP have already been collected in Germany. For an ECI to be ‘successful’ (in terms of progressing to formal submission to the Commission) a minimum of 1 million signatures must be collected from at least 7 member countries. Given the German tally, there is hardly any doubt that this ECI would have been successful. It seems clear that the Commission intends to block citizen participation and push TTIP through against the will of the population. The many closed doors behind which the negotiations are taking place are now to be protected by a giant lock.

From a legal point of view the arguments given by the Commission are extremely weak – as is shown by a legal opinion commissioned by the ECI Alliance before the proposal was submitted. Whether the non-registration of the ECI is legally sound or not is not, of course, decided by independent legal opinions. The issue will probably be decided by the European Court – yet another EU institution that is outside of any democratic checks and balances and that has already on several occasions excelled at producing extremely borderline interpretations of European law when it served the political interests of the Council and the Commission.

The anti-democratic character of the EU’s policies to deal with the crisis has already caused the approval ratings for European integration to plummet in many places. The successes of right-wing populist parties at the last EU elections are another consequence of the undemocratic policies of the EU. But the rejection of the Stop-TTIP ECI takes it to a new level, cashing in even the weak existing democratic rights at the EU level.

It poses the question as to whether it is at all possible to achieve any democratisation of this EU, or whether the focus must now be on defending what democracy remains against further EU integration.

Steffen Stierle is an economist and a member of the “Euro Crisis” project group of the Attac network. He is a co-author of the Attac core texts: “Europa-Krise: Wege hinein und moegliche Wege hinaus” (The Crisis in Europe: How we got into it and possible ways out of it) and “Umverteilen: von oben nach unten. Verteilungsgerechtigkeit statt Kuerzungsdiktat” (Redistribution: from above down. Distributory justice instead of enforced cut-backs).

(Translation: Paul Carline, 15.09.2014)