Gavan Reilly's Portfolio writings, ramblings, mumblings

Ballot box blues

Catherine Ashton’s appointment to a key EU position is a blow to the concept of democracy, writes Gavan Reilly

This correspondent, it would appear, spectacularly misjudged the mood of the nation’s leaders when confidently predicting an easy appointment to the European Commission for Pat Cox on these pages two weeks ago.

Thankfully, I didn’t manage to put my neck any further on the line, and pick a candidate for either of the two big continental jobs that were up for appointment at last week’s EU summit in Brussels.

While it wasn’t unthinkable that the name of Herman Van Rompuy would emerge for the top job of President of the European Council, the chances of plucking Catherine Ashton’s name from the ether to be the EU’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – a European foreign minister in all but styling – were beyond slim.

AshtonCatherine Ashton – or, more formally, The Baroness Ashton of Upholland – is a 53-year-old former Leader of the House of Lords and, until this week, one of the most anonymous members of the European Commission, having succeeded Peter Mandelson as Trade Commissioner last October. Given a lifetime seat in the House of Lords in 1999, Ashton has previously worked with bodies such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (of which she was a vice-chair) and the National Council for One Parent Families (vice-president).

After being made a peer, Ashton had been three-times appointed to the British equivalent of a junior ministry, before being promoted to the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords, where insiders report her playing no small role in the safe passage of the Lisbon Treaty.

Ashton’s CV certainly reads impressively, and she is evidently thought very highly of by both Gordon Brown, who spent substantial political currency in securing her appointment, and by his fellow European leaders who have entrusted her with a new, untried, ill-defined and potent position. There would seem to be little fault with Ashton, whose record is almost exemplary, but for one significant flaw.

Catherine Ashton, now arguably the second most powerful politician in Europe and one of the most powerful women in the world, has never – never – been elected to public office.

In principle, the project and work of the European Union is a noble endeavour; after twice being ripped apart by bloody and brutal war, the nations of Europe entered into community with the dream of harmonising relations between its powers and striving for a peaceful future for its citizens. While its work in latter years might be deemed to waver slightly from this goal, the concept of the EU is a fair and admirable one.

The main problem with the European Union, as it has evolved, is that far too little power within it rests with elected officials. Commissioners, while usually public figures in their home country, are not formally elected to their European positions; the President of the European Commission (currently Jose Manuel Barroso) is given tremendous representative clout for somebody with whom the public have no electoral relationship; and the members of the European Parliament, modelled as a continental legislature, have little or no ability to actually legislate, acting merely as light artillery in political battles between the leadership of the parliamentary groups. This problem was one of the key areas implicitly recognised in the Lisbon Treaty as requiring reform.

The EU might try to portray itself as being a democratic entity, where everyone with power has been given a mandate of some sort and is thus accountable to those who appoint them. In reality, though, the European Union’s chains of command are just as convoluted as its bureaucracy. Sure, members of the Court of Auditors (to pluck a random example) may be elected, but they’ll have been nominated by people who might not have faced a ballot box in years, or who themselves were appointed by equally tenuously-mandated officials.

Distilled to its most basic facet, democracy is a system of government either carried out by the people or by representatives acting on their behalf. Indeed, one of the most persistent arguments against continuing EU expansion – and against the Lisbon Treaty – was the cementing and augmenting of positions which were not directly elected by the Union’s citizens, such as the positions Van Rompuy and Ashton are soon to hold.

It could be argued that the reason European reform has taken so long is that the people of Europe have fundamental concerns about having hardened Eurocrats exert power over them without at least having a chance to approve them at the ballot box first.

This brings me to the core problem with Catherine Ashton: it is regrettable, but sadly tolerable, that members of the European Commission – where the EU wields its greatest power – are not directly elected to their positions, and that the members of the European Parliament are relatively impotent in their ability to legislate at a continental level. At the very least, though, appointments to the Commission are usually taken from the cabinets of each member state; in Van Rompuy’s case, while it’s unfortunate that most of Europe will never have voted for him, he was at least the head of government of one of the member states.

Ashton flies in the face of this though: not only has she not been elected to her position in the British cabinet, but she has never faced the court of public opinion as an elected official of any sort. The entirety of the power she has held over her public life has been without public endorsement, and this rotten system has now given her unspeakable power on the greatest world stage.

Churchill once remarked that democracy was “the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It would seem that over fifty years later, sadly not much has changed.