Issue 268: 2021 02 25: Bother in Brussels

25 February 2021

Bother in Brussels

A deficit of democracy.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Earlier this month, The Times published an article by Peter Tiede, the chief political reporter for the German daily newspaper Bild.  It was a blistering attack on Ursula von der Leyen and the EU Commission for their vaccine procurement disaster.  His venom was fully justified, of course, but he did make one rather strange comment: their failure and their denial of blame, he said, was “music to the ears of… anti-democrats”.

This surely misses the most important point; the procurement disaster was most likely the consequence of an absence of democratic procedures and accountability at the highest levels in Brussels, so should be music to the ears of pro-democrats, to European citizens who want more democracy in the EU.

The European Commission is appointed, not elected; one commissioner is nominated by each of the EU heads of state.  The Commission’s president – the most important and powerful person in the EU – is not elected either; he or she is nominated and appointed by… well, no one seems to know quite how the president should be chosen, exactly, or by whom.  The EU parliament and the EU Council of Leaders have an unedifying fight over it every five years.  Ursula von der Leyen’s behind-closed-doors appointment in 2019 drew comparisons with President Xi’s ‘election’ by the Chinese Communist Party in their National Convention, which happened at the same time.

Appointment like this, unlike the open competitive tendering of a real election, isn’t a good way of getting the best person for the job.  It’s often claimed that a head of state sends someone to Brussels simply to get rid of a rival or an incompetent or to pay off a political debt.  Sometimes an appointment goes to a candidate who nobody particularly wants but who slips through as a compromise.  Peter Tiede made much of Ursula von der Leyen’s past failings – particularly in procurement – as Germany’s defence minister.

In theory, the EU Parliament has to approve nominations to the Commission and its presidency, but in reality this is little more than a rubber-stamp “lending a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a process often criticised for its absence” (The Economist).  In theory, the EU parliament regulates the activities of the EU Commission, but in reality the Commission operates supreme, and one event after another in recent weeks has thrown a harsh light on this independence and incompetence and lack of accountability.

Enough has been said about the vaccine procurement fiasco, but it isn’t an isolated incident.  Last month, the Commission dropped the EU’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, much to the surprise and protest of many MEPs (see Where Are You, EU?, Shaw Sheet 13 January 2021).  Since then, the EU parliament has indeed passed a vote insisting that it does still recognise Juan Guaidó in that position.  But has the Commission changed its stance?  Silence so far.

A worse foreign affairs faux pas occurred this month.  Josep Borrell, European commissioner and Europe’s foreign affairs chief (‘the EU Council’s High Representative For Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’) made an official visit to Russia in the very week that Alexei Navalny and thousands of protesters were jailed, exactly when disapproval should have dictated that he stay away.  Not a good time to honour the Kremlin with his presence.  It was a PR opportunity which Putin’s team seized with ruthless alacrity, making the most of the chance to big themselves up and humiliate the EU.  First of all it marked his visit by expelling a number of European diplomats, a calculated insult taking him completely by surprise (he only found out from Twitter).  Then it staged an aggressive and hostile press conference where Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the EU as “an unreliable partner” and manoeuvred Borrell into criticising US sanctions on Cuba and praising Russia’s Sputnik coronavirus vaccine (even though it has not yet been approved by the EU’s own Medicines Agency).  Then the Russian foreign ministry used his comments in a propaganda video attacking Navalny.  And he left Russia without once expressing public disapproval of the regime’s treatment of Navalny or the protesters.

MEPs were aghast at this humiliation.  They condemned Borrell’s apparent ineptitude and weakness, called for his resignation and for the Commission to sack him if he refused to go.  MEP and former commander of the Estonian army Riho Terras described the visit as “humiliating”, “a master class in pandering to Russia” and wrote to Ursula von der Leyen on behalf of MEPs petitioning for Borrell’s removal.  MEP and former Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Jukneviciene said that Borrell must go and that the EU’s policy on Russia must “return to reality”.  Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstad called the visit “appalling”, saying that it was “not just that Russia made a fool of the EU but that we let it happen”.

Borrell is still in place.  The Commission has announced that he (and presumably they) had “no regrets” about the visit.

But it appears that some good has come from his bullying by Moscow.  The EU Commission has finally agreed to toughen its stance against Putin’s regime for its treatment of Navalny.  Last year the EU imposed sanctions against six Russians associated with the Navalny poisoning, but it has now decided to use its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime for the first time to hit other Russian security service officials already sanctioned by the USA and the UK on human rights grounds.  Borrell and the rest of the Commission considered a list of thirty-five individuals named by Navalny’s anti-corruption group – and whittled it down to just four.  And the sanctions still have to go through what Borrell himself confessed is a “cumbersome” administrative process, and might be challenged in the EU parliament by the bloc’s eastern members.  And they will be largely symbolic, as they involve the banning of visas and the freezing of assets on four individuals who hardly ever leave Russia and hold most of their assets at home anyway.  Navalny’s senior associate Leonid Volkov, while welcoming the sanctions, regretted that “it’s too little”.  The Times said that “it highlighted the weakness of a union divided”.

In 2016, many Britons argued that the EU stood for democracy and free trade; that the EU is democracy and free trade.  Many other Britons were puzzled by this, believing that the EU was protectionist at heart and that Brussels was short on democracy.  Things are a bit clearer now.  The EU’s recent refusal to grant equivalence to the UK’s finance institutions (even though the UK has granted equivalence to EU banks), its insistence that the City must follow standards that the EU doesn’t even appear to demand from itself, has surely settled the free trade / protectionist side of the debate.  And the recent antics of the EU Commission (for a parallel, imagine a UK governed by the House of Lords, supreme over a supine House of Commons) must similarly have settled the democracy side of the debate.  Even if Peter Tiede’s puzzling “music to the ears of anti-democrats” suggests that the debate isn’t understood within the EU itself.


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