Should we take the current political decision process in Britain as a warning on how not to reach a consensus when working in the modern European political sphere? Juuso Järviniemi discusses.
After the white smoke had come out on Thursday about Boris Johnson concluding a new Brexit deal in Brussels, many politicians rushed to comment that the deal is even worse for the UK than Theresa May’s was. The new solution for Northern Ireland is exceedingly complicated, and compared to Theresa May’s deal, Johnson’s rendition is noticeably less committal about maintaining high standards of regulations in the UK.
However, it’s not only the content of the deal that is questionable. The way in which the deal was concluded exposes the problems of intergovernmental politics, and serves as a case in point for those who advocate for more of European-wide decision-making to follow the federal model.
A backroom deal
Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the UK government was jealously reluctant to detail the progress of the negotiations in public. Starting all the way back in 2017, the government’s stock objection to the Parliament’s efforts to exercise scrutiny has been that oversight endangers the government’s “negotiating position”. Whatever transparency there was in the negotiations, it was usually thanks to the EU side.
The new deal under Boris Johnson took the lack of transparency to a new level. Even a keen follower of the Brexit process could have been excused for thinking that no negotiations were taking place anymore, given that the EU had long ago declared that the deal could not be renegotiated. Yet just days before the deadline, headlines began to emerge about a revised deal being close.
The revisions were cobbled together under intense time pressure, behind closed doors and apparently in the middle of the night. This draws from a long tradition of decision-making between national leaders in the European Council: every time it boggles the mind why we insist on our most important decisions being made under stress and sleep-deprivation. In ordinary daily politics, decisions touching Europeans’ lives are thankfully made in broad daylight, following a well-established process. When the European Parliament is deliberating on laws, anyone can tune in to watch live. Though there remain issues like the lack of transparency in the Council of Ministers, the standard, federal way of making EU law is by far more clear and predictable than the intergovernmental horse-trading that we’ve grown so disaffected with.
This backroom deal-making between governments nonetheless remains prevalent in certain areas of pan-European politics. For instance, informal meetings between Eurozone finance ministers in the ‘Eurogroup’ played a central role in bailouts of indebted member states, but the body’s work is notoriously opaque. One is tempted to ask why we can’t decide on the distribution of public money ‘the normal way’, that is, following the federal model.
Going back to Boris Johnson’s case, what happened after the deal’s conclusion on Thursday was not any more legitimate. The UK government sought to put the deal to a parliamentary vote just two days after it was concluded, with no economic assessment made beforehand, and no time for detailed committee debate. It’s only thanks to MPs’ determination, and the rare lack of a majority government, that the Parliament won more time for itself. This is another affliction of intergovernmental politics: when an agreement is finally made, it is typically presented to the parliament as a fait accompli – almost as “take it or leave it”. If the government had had its way, Saturday’s vote in London would have been just that: ‘our deal or no deal at all’. Under the normal conditions of a majority government, the prime minister dictates the terms and the opposition cannot do much against it.
The lack of pluralism is particularly problematic if we accept that national governments are mainly elected based on their promises concerning domestic social and economic policy. Managing the modalities of your country’s cooperation with European neighbours is, for most countries’ leaders, a side job. As we decide how Europe as a whole should be run, it seems logical to give more of the power to those who have specifically been elected for that job.
A People’s Vote?
Organisers said one million people marched on Saturday for the public to have its say on the Brexit deal in a “People’s Vote”, that is, in a referendum. At the national level, when you do need to make a major agreement intergovernmentally – think of a peace treaty, for example, it’s not unheard of to put it to the people.
Applying the same idea Europe-wide is so far a taboo, but it doesn’t need to be one. For example, imagine a new EU treaty to replace the Lisbon Treaty. In 2005, all referenda on the European Constitution were held nationally and on separate occasions, even though the constitution touched all Europeans in equal measure. If there is a major agreement that concerns Europeans, and for which we feel that an agreement in just the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers isn’t enough, why not straight up arrange an EU-wide referendum? Support from enough many nations could be declared a precondition for the agreement passing.
Just like national referenda can at their best supplement and strengthen parliamentary democracy, European referenda could on special occasions supplement the work of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The adaptability of the already well-functioning ‘European’ way of solving cross-problem borders further displays the federal model’s agility when compared to murky and sclerotic intergovernmentalism.