Defending the European Parliament

by Henry on March 10, 2009

Gideon Rachman links to the Economist’s new ‘Charlemagne’ EU affairs blog which is indeed quite good. Even if you don’t agree with its take, it’s funny, well written and states its prejudices quite clearly up front. It’s also written by only one person, so that the “Free Exchange” problem of individuals pursuing personal gripes under cover of anonymity doesn’t arise. But one of the reasons why Gideon says he likes the blog is that it

shares my low opinion of the European Parliament. Describing it as a “student union with better expenses” is about right

See further Charlemagne here

In atmosphere, it combines pomposity with an obsession with perks, a touch of venality (there is much laziness, and sneaky claiming of unjustified expenses), all under a smothering blanket of moral superiority. Nothing excites members so much as their own power and status, and scoring points off national governments or the European Commission, the EU’s turbo-charged civil service. Like a student union with better expenses, it spends inordinate time on subjects which fall outside its legal mandate, like foreign policy, and its views often resemble those of a student union too, in their shrill lack of realism. One national diplomat in Brussels emerged from a recent tussle with the parliament, gasping with irritation: “That place is one big fucking NGO.” But the biggest problem I have is with its claims to democratic legitimacy. In truth, the place is packed with placemen and women, many elected on regional list systems in which party patronage is far more important than support from mere voters, when it comes to being re-elected. Even devoted Europhiles despair about this system.

And Gideon here.

Vaclav Klaus is a difficult man. Vain, boorish, a “climate-change denier”, a Eurosceptic. But I couldn’t help cheering when I read the FT’s account of his address to the European Parliament, whcih was given late last week. The parliament is a horribly pompous and pampered body – and the Czech president really stuck it to them. He observed, correctly, that the parliament completely marginalises those who dissent from the politically-approved view of the necessity of ever-deeper European integration. … My sympathy for Klaus was only increased, when I saw the FT quoting two of the most insufferably pious and self-important British MEPs – Graham Watson and Richard Corbett – condemning him. Watson claimed that Klaus’s address was “astonishing”. Corbett called the speech “embarrassing.”

So, there’s certainly something to the suggestion that the European Parliament has more than its share of venal arrangements, expense-padding and Members (especially French and Italian) who can’t be arsed to show up in Brussels and Strasbourg. But complaints about the self-importance and amour-propre of MEPs seem to me to really miss the point. First, the European Parliament actually does a lot of work and does it pretty well. A lot of it is dull-sounding stuff relating to technical standards and the like, but boring work of this kind is exactly how markets are made and maintained. If you want to have a single market, you need standards, and the Parliament makes sure that there is at least some democratic oversight of what these standards involve. When I did interviews with senior staff people at the Council, member state representatives etc a few years ago in Brussels, they were pretty well unanimous in saying that they had been terrified that the Parliament was going to screw things up when it gained new powers in the Maastricht Treaty, but that it had actually done extraordinarily well, usually improved legislation with its amendments and so on.

Second, and more importantly, there is a lot more to the European Union these days than market building. In particular, there is a lot of cooperation on ‘justice and home affairs’ issues, much of it taking place in not-for-public discussion meetings between Interior/JHA ministry officials, and much of it frankly dubious. But because this stuff is happening at the European rather than member state level, national parliaments find it difficult or impossible to keep track of what is going on. The European Parliament has limited powers in this area (it will get much more if the Treaty is finally passed), but has been pushing these powers as far as it can and a bit further to try to figure out what is happening, to warn of the nasty consequences and so on.

So yes indeed, Graham Watson and Richard Corbett are professional pains in the arse. But I’m bloody glad that they are pains in the arse – because they are pains in the arse on the side of the angels. They consistently push issues that liberals like Gideon should (and I imagine, do, when they think about it rationally) really care about. Watson has used his committee powers as a bully pulpit on human rights, dubious forms of cross-border information exchange, extraordinary rendition and so on. Corbett’s professional pain-in-the-arsery (and in particular, his ne pasaran in the not-very-exciting-in-itself ONP saga) is one of the major reasons why the Parliament, when and if it gets a say on Justice and Home Affairs issues, will be actually be able to push back against the member states. It is unsurprising that an institution such as the Parliament, which is still relatively new, is touchy about its powers and prerogatives, and inclined to employ pompous rhetoric as a kind of defensive shield. But you don’t have to be a Euro-federalist to believe that Europeans are a lot better off with the Parliament than they would be without it.

{ 22 comments }

1

Pete 03.10.09 at 3:56 pm

Anyone who thinks the Parliament is bad should see the Council …

2

Tim Worstall 03.10.09 at 5:21 pm

“A lot of it is dull-sounding stuff relating to technical standards and the like, but boring work of this kind is exactly how markets are made and maintained.”

Erm, I realise that I’m far more rabidly eurosceptic than most but really. You don’t need a Parliament to decide technical standards, you don’t even need the law. If the producers, wholesalers and retailers of bananas get together to create a set of standards for what is a Class I, a Class II and so on to make their trading easier that’s just fine. I cannot see the need for invoking the criminal law (which is what the EU does in this area) to insist that all bananas sold for human consumption will be “free of excessive curvature”. It is in fact a criminal offence to sell one so excessively curved, in the UK punishable by up to 6 months in jail and or a £5,000 fine.

I would add that these “technical standards” have to be passed not just by the EU Parliament but by all of the national ones and all of the devolved ones as well. Seriously, I just cannot see that the declaration that carrots are defined as a fruit, jams and jellies for the making of, is something worth of either the legislature’s or the criminal law’s time.

I’ve been working with weird and wonderful metals for many years now and we are quite happy about and quite capable of determining our own classifications and standards as to what is this grade and that grade of each metal. Producers, wholesalers and consumers are quite capable of determining that Sc for halide production should be less than 1ppm Zr, that Sc2O3 for Al alloys should be less than 1 ppm Th, that Mo should be less than 0.1% W by weight. These aren’t things that should trouble a Parliament at all. And the fact that my area of the metals trade is indeed a global market shows that you don’t in fact need the politicians to do the standards setting.

Short version: Burke’s little platoons can set technical standards for markets.

3

Alex 03.10.09 at 5:35 pm

Which is why the entire world uses some proprietary telephony standard that “just emerged from the little platoons”, huh, rather than that evil eurosocialist GSM?

Seriously, do you not feel any embarrassment that your entire body of ideology and practice ended up in a smoking hole in RBS headquarters and your opinions have not changed one bit?

4

Henry 03.10.09 at 5:43 pm

ummm Tim, but the problem rather obviously is that:

(1) Burke’s little platoons have often (not always, but often), historically been enlisted in different national armies which have used standards to bog down the other side in trench warfare. I don’t know metals standards in particular – but this is a commonplace.

(2) And that when Burke’s platoons can reach an amicable ceasefire, there is no necessary reason to believe that they will do so on terms that are congenial to non-combatants in the general public. If you want to argue that market forces can do so on their own, of course, that is your right, but the history of consumer standards does, I believe, offer a fair amount of contrary evidence to this position.

And as an aside, the banana curvature story, while a staple of the British popular press, is a bit of a chimera. There is and has been no requirement in EU law that overly curvy bananas be criminalized (indeed, the EU cannot ‘invoke’ criminal law on this kind of thing by definition). Instead, the EU has transposed as its own set of standards for common market purposes, the standards from the Codex Alimentarius, without _any rules whatsoever_ stating that excessively curvey bananas be banned from human consumption (it does stipulate, following the Codex, that they be identified as belonging to an inferior class). It may be that the UK has transposed this into national legislation by banning certain bananas (I doubt it, but I am not familiar with the details of UK consumer regulation on this point). Even if so, that is a problem of the national government’s, not the EU’s. My understanding is that what EU rules there are on bananas are being scrapped, precisely because of British tabloid nonsense. My understanding is also that there are a lot of mutterings that this is likely to see the re-introduction of strict – and diverging – standards on the national level, leading to market fragmentation etc etc.

5

The Raven 03.10.09 at 5:45 pm

Tim, that’s nonsense. We’ve had it in the USA, and the public always gets short-changed, usually on safety. And anyone who thinks the European Parliament is such bad news doesn’t know the US Senate very well. You guys seem to have forgotten how to do really corrupt at the Federal level. Krawk!

6

Henry 03.10.09 at 5:46 pm

And as a second aside – metals are a quite different animal than consumer goods, as presumably the final consumers in the metal-bashing industry have sufficient technical knowledge themselves to judge tolerances etc. And my very strong suspicion is that the EU, as it usually does, leaves the definition of standards to the relevant technical organizations (EU structures only step in when there is a political issue of some sort, which appears quite unlikely to be the case here).

7

ejh 03.10.09 at 6:04 pm

When they were building the railways, the railway companies, passengers and freight customers all sat down and mutually agreed which was the right gauge for the tracks. And that’s how railways came to have a standard gauge without any interference from government.

8

P O'Neill 03.10.09 at 7:35 pm

The topic merits reminding of how Klaus got Irish MEP Brian Crowley to make a complete fool of himself, unless of course he already was one.

9

J. Carter Wood 03.10.09 at 9:48 pm

And that’s how railways came to have a standard gauge without any interference from government.

Except for the ‘interference’ of a Royal Commission, in the case of Britain, to end something known as the ‘gauge war’ in the mid-nineteenth century.

And things didn’t always go that smoothly elsewhere either.

10

Righteous Bubba 03.10.09 at 10:04 pm

I figured the railway thing was a joke.

11

bh 03.10.09 at 10:19 pm

Seriously, do you not feel any embarrassment that your entire body of ideology and practice ended up in a smoking hole in RBS headquarters and your opinions have not changed one bit?

I’ve really been struck by how, for a lot of libertarians, the canon of aphorisms and just-so stories has stayed hermetically sealed from recent events. Because, you know, these are principles we’re talking about here.

12

Nix 03.10.09 at 11:00 pm

Indeed. I recently spent some time arguing with one hard-Republican libertarian who was convinced that Obama would appoint a ‘peacenik’ SecDef and ally with Iran (!). When it was pointed out that Obama had, in fact, retained the Bush administration’s SecDef, he retorted that this was only a cover and that the peacenik would be appointed in time.

Note that this excellent line of argument is subject-independent: it can be used to sweep any of those inconvenient ‘fact’ things that one wishes to sweep, entirely out of the way, and the only way it can be countered is by bald assertion, until they invent time travel.

13

ejh 03.11.09 at 7:28 am

I figured the railway thing was a joke.

I should perhaps have known better than to use irony on the internet.

In relation to one of the quotes in the OP, party and regional list systems are a joke. It’s a particular joke that somebody can actually be turned down by the electorate but then actually enter the European Parliament because the person who was above them in the list, and was elected, resigns their seat. (Declaration of interest: I know and do not like an individual who benefitted from this rule.)

To my mind the European Parliament and much enthusiasm for it has a lot of the paternalist approach about it – we’ll go off and decide what’s best for you and there’s not too much you can do about it. The persistent practice of holding second votes every time it doesn’t go the “right” way is particularly questionable and what its supporters never grasp is that in this way they get themselves and the European Parliament a certain reputation, for treating democracy just as a rubber-stamp process. It’s a pretty distant form of democracy and it seems to like it this way, and complaining that it’s maligned in the rightwing press, however true, is only half the story.

14

J. Carter Wood 03.11.09 at 8:56 am

I should perhaps have known better than to use irony on the internet.

Many apologies, ejh.

I have perhaps run across too many un-ironic deployments of similar arguments to have recognised your intent. (And I was taken in by your perfect mimicry of such arguments’ tone and content)

I had also just finished writing a short rant about Atlas Shrugged, so the railway reference might have triggered some subconscious suppression of my irony detector….

15

Hoover 03.11.09 at 10:19 am

Parliament works hard, and deals with a lot of mundane issues. Fine. But all things being equal that doesn’t equate to achieving good results.

Meanwhile Charlemagne’s complaint that “the biggest problem I have is with its claims to democratic legitimacy” goes unaddressed in Henry’s post.

And even if Graham Watson stands at a bully pulpit denouncing assaults on “human rights, dubious forms of cross-border information exchange, extraordinary rendition and so on”, what has this bullying actually achieved?

We are, after all, to have our criminal records databases linked up. Rendition did happen. Air passenger lists are indeed being shared. We will have biometric passports.

Complaining about “venality” is missing the point, according to Henry. OK, so what is the point? It seems to be that the Parliament are pushing certain issues, particularly in JHA where national parliaments can’t keep an eye on what’s going on.

But “pushing” issues is not good enough, by any reasonable standard. I want to know about results, and they don’t seem terribly impressive to me.

16

Alex 03.11.09 at 10:36 am

Errr, winning on the telecoms package that would have instituted EU-wide packet filtering for the sake of the record industry. For example. Killing the proposal to introduce software patents in the EU. For example.

Anyway, come to think of it, there are a small group of key industries that have turnover of more than $1 trillion; food, utilities, pharmaceuticals, telecoms/IT, armaments, and I believe, the illegal drugs trade. I note that all of them except for one have a very significant chunk of government or quasi-government enforced standardisation. Food – Codex and similar things, folk aren’t keen on melamine. Utilities/energy – yup. Pharma – the whole business model is obsessed with patents, and drugs are always subject to fairly rigorous regulation. Telecoms – tell me about it. Armaments – NATO standards, they even invented POSIX.

Cocaine dealers? Well, they ain’t much for standardisation, even if they did formerly have an industry association down in Colombia. But I think that’s an example that strengthens my point.

17

Tim Worstall 03.11.09 at 10:49 am

“Seriously, do you not feel any embarrassment that your entire body of ideology and practice ended up in a smoking hole in RBS headquarters and your opinions have not changed one bit?”

I’m not sure why the “revelation” that banking systems without deposit protection schemes are liable to runs (and a useful description of the current problems is that the shadow banking system and that part of it dependent upon wholesale rather than retail deposits did not have such a deposit protection scheme) should change my views of the correct legislative manner of addressing the composition of compotes.

That it is legal to add apple geranium leaves to jams and jellies made from quince but it is illegal to do so to jams and jellies made from gooseberries of kumquats doesn’t, as far as I can see, have very much to do with the banking system.

“historically been enlisted in different national armies which have used standards to bog down the other side”

Such regulation by politicians is never used to favour the incumbents with the power and money to lobby the politicians then? Recent revelations in the House of Lords would seem to argue otherwise.

Note that I am not arguing that the EP is uniquely wrong in this. Rather that politics isn’t the way to deal with such standards setting.

“And as a second aside – metals are a quite different animal than consumer goods, as presumably the final consumers in the metal-bashing industry have sufficient technical knowledge themselves to judge tolerances etc.”

The contention is that consumers are such fools that they cannot spot a banana of such excessive curvature that they do not wish to purchase it?

18

Zamfir 03.11.09 at 11:11 am

Note that I am not arguing that the EP is uniquely wrong in this. Rather that politics isn’t the way to deal with such standards setting.

Then why are you complaining about it in an EP thread? Compared to most national versions, the EU’s standard setting practices seem quite capable and sensible.

Your point seems to be “If there is a political issue, we should make it a non-political by doing it the way Tim Worstall likes it”

19

Henry 03.11.09 at 12:44 pm

Tim – as noted above the banana story is mostly bogus. Not quite up there with the hydrogenated offal-tubes, but close.

20

Alex 03.11.09 at 2:31 pm

I’m not sure why the “revelation” that banking systems without deposit protection schemes are liable to runs

You’ve got the wrong bank. RBS isn’t Northern Rock. It blew up through stupidly buying a Dutch bank at the very top of the bubble (remember, in Worstallistan there is no such thing – you believe in the EMH after all) which had stupidly bought a vast quantity of mortgages at the very top of a housing bubble (remember, in Worstallistan there is no such thing – you believe in the EMH after all) and stupidly written insurance on a whole lot more bubbly mortgages and loans against the possibility that it (and Tim Worstall) was wrong, thus doubling down on the bet.

Further, of course, the banking system with deposit protection is liable to runs; we had one, which in a world where the rational expectations hypothesis was true (like Tim Worstall’s) wouldn’t have happened. You should indeed be embarrassed to be arguing that something that indubitably happened couldn’t happen.

21

bert 03.11.09 at 3:02 pm

Worstall, it’s odd to argue for a laissez faire approach to technical regulation by citing Burke’s praise for long-established tradition.
I’m sure Henry’s quote from Adam Smith (http://crookedtimber.org/2009/03/10/dead-to-your-brethren/) isn’t a direct response, but it could serve as one. If you (re)read him, you’ll find Smith is full of stuff like that.
Of course you start your comments by talking about bendy bananas, so why am I bothering. Had that Simon Heffer in the back of the cab once. Very clever man.

22

bert 03.12.09 at 3:32 am

Spookily on cue, Amartya Sen in the FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8f2829fa-0daf-11de-8ea3-0000779fd2ac.html

Although it strikes me that beneath the habitual anti-regulatory huffing, Worstall isn’t into market purism either. In his case the deviant pleasures of Volk and Echtheit tempt him from the path. He spurns the brisk, pragmatic, successful Thatcher who signed the Single European Act and embraces the downfall Thatcher whose europsychosis has tortured the Tories ever since.

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