The Own-Goal on Qatar

More accountability to reform the institutions. 

Column by Francesco Grillo for the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero

Qatar min

This is not the first scandal hitting the European Institutions. On 15th March 1999, the entire European Commission – presided by the Luxemburgish Jacques Santer – had to resign because a European Parliament’s Committee refused to ratify the EU budget.

Even then, as today, the attitude of the entire system was heavily judged (“It seems like nobody has any sense of responsibility left”, one of the auditors claimed) and yet there are at least two differences. The “Qatar Gate” is hitting the Parliament (which in 1999 was accusing Santer) instead of the European Commission, the technical body of the EU – at least for now. Moreover, Europe was at its apogee back then (the irrevocable decision to adopt the euro had just been taken and the European Union was moving towards enlargement), while today the idea is that of a continuous obsolescence of institutions that were made for a more stable context.

Next year, the European Parliament is turning 43. It was created as the first (and so far the only) assembly elected by citizens from different sovereign countries. That innovation was welcomed as an experiment to be nurtured in time, and to replicate in other organizations (e.g. the United Nations) trying to address global issues. In the nine countries of the then European Economic Community (which still included the UK), two out of three voters took part in the elections. For the first time, Willy Brandt experimented a transnational electoral campaign as he travelled to Italy, France and the Netherlands, and those elections made Simone Veil President of the EP. Since that heroic first time, while the powers of the EU and the Parliament increased, the voter turnout of the EP elections consistently decreased (as underlined in the graph accompanying the article), going down to 42% in 2014. In 2019, the last elections saw a lukewarm rise in the electoral turnout, but the most successful parties were those according to which the EP should not even exist. What President Metsola calls “the attack on democracy” comes from this parable.


The question, then, is: what should we do, since most of us believe – in both an ethical and intellectual sense - that today, even more than in 1979, there is no other way to govern a world that is out of control but sticking together?

The wrong way to do that is through palliatives. Creating an authority that preserves the moral integrity of MEPs seems like an expensive medicine: we need to find incentives to pursue common interests, not only sanctions to be applied once pathologies appear. It would be useful – but not decisive – to introduce a mechanism ensuring that MEPs only see officially registered lobbyists: a MP, just like any citizen, has the right and the duty to hear from anyone who provides the primary ingredient of decision-making – knowledge. Most importantly, though, this cure seems to come from the wrong diagnosis. 

European MPs are prey to private interests (which would be a mistake to link to Qatar or any Third Country only, as European businesses have a much more pervasive influence) because they are isolated. They are too far from their own constituencies, much more than the MPs of national democracies – having a critical time themselves. If a politician does not have the honor and the burden to be accountable to his/her electorate, that void tends to be filled by other influences. These include the unwarranted influences raising a political question that the judiciary (just like in Italy) cannot solve.

The idea is to fulfill that promise of democracy that the European Parliament made 44 years ago. However, this entails going back to what Willy Brandt sensed. Brandt saw Europe as a dream that might come true, travelling between countries divided by war. We need to create opportunities for discussion and, if necessary, for a civilized conflict between different positions, dividing the public opinion not only through national borders; we need electoral mechanisms allowing a French candidate to be voted by Italian people (which is unheard of), or vice versa; and we need these mechanisms to create European constituencies for a European assembly, as well as voters who know and communicate with those who represent them. This attempt has been repeatedly rejected - with hypocrisy - from those who are scandalized by the current situation.

After all, a system that ends up isolating itself in Brussels (and Strasbourg) can have similar effects on the European Commission too: an administration that is not held back by politics goes beyond its original objectives. The EU Commission is composed by some of the best officers and it is vital for any reform to link their career to previously determined results. The British (who left the EU) see the “accountability” as the only true chance to avoid the deterioration of the institutions we care about. Today, we have a European Union that lost not only the “sacred fire” inspiring Simone Veil, but also the vision guiding Romano Prodi after his predecessor’s - Jacques Santer – resignation. However, any political side recognizes the need for European answers, as trying to solve such supranational issues with national solutions would be even more ridiculous. All we need is courage, rather than rhetorical medicines.

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