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Herman! It's me, it's Cathy, I've come home, whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh, let me in at your position of Europe's first High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
November 20, 2009 12:34 AM   Subscribe

Europe finally has a president. And a foreign policy chief.

As predicted, the little-known Flemish Christian Democrat Herman Van Rompuy (vɑn rɔmpœy, in case you were wondering) took the presidency, thanks to backing from Sarko and Merkel. Baroness Ashton, another relative unknown was chosen for the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, to provide a centre-left counterpoint to the centre-right President, when Merkel balked at the alternative, (an Italian ex-communist who has expressed pro-Palestine leanings). So following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty which paved the way for these appointments, Europe has chosen low-profile, quietly diligent and relatively inexperienced leaders, over the more controversial alternative. It doesn't look good for Turkey's chances of joining the EU, at least.
posted by creeky (91 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I got the sense that many in North America were hoping that the EU would choose a more popularly-identifiable European for the presidency. Someone like Tony Blair, or Beethoven.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:54 AM on November 20, 2009 [22 favorites]


The British aristocracy has been carefully interbred for centuries to develop the chinless post-humans that now walk among us.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:14 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Funny, I don't remember voting.
posted by Phanx at 1:14 AM on November 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


Thank god it wasn't Tony Blair. Ugh.
posted by delmoi at 1:22 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty
Unlike the Henri hand-ball furore, that was a contest where the Irish were forced to take multiple replays, though in both cases the fix was in for the continental opposition.
posted by Abiezer at 1:25 AM on November 20, 2009 [6 favorites]


Ashton is not an aristocrat by any measure. Unelected political hack; my advice to US is don't call europe (not that you would anyway).
posted by zemblamatic at 1:32 AM on November 20, 2009


Phanx, to be fair, you didn't vote for Gordon Brown either. (My mother did in Fife. Or didn't, knowing my mother.) But you probably voted Lib Dem or Labour, and our pro-EU national government passed the Lisbon Treaty, resulting in these posts, and the national governments took a hard look at the them and said "we're not having our national sovereignty threatened by a strong EU leader" and, well, here we are. I'm quite pleased. I mean, it's not as dramatic as Obama, but that's not comparing like with like.
posted by alasdair at 1:34 AM on November 20, 2009


The British aristocracy has been carefully interbred for centuries to develop the chinless post-humans that now walk among us.

She's a life peer.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 1:34 AM on November 20, 2009


The British aristocracy has been carefully interbred for centuries to develop the chinless post-humans that now walk among us.

Or, as in this instance, given a title within the last ten years for the purposes of giving her a government role desite her being unelected.
posted by vbfg at 1:34 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yup, if Lisbon has been in mid December I'm certain we would have gotten the replay.
posted by Damienmce at 1:35 AM on November 20, 2009


although I for one welcome our new Belgian overlords.
posted by Damienmce at 1:41 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


The British aristocracy has been carefully interbred for centuries to develop the chinless post-humans that now walk among us.

She's a life peer.

She also seems like one of the good guys, if a quick glance at her Wikipedia page is anything to go by. Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Social Work Training Council, Business in the Community working to tackle inequality, Employers’ Forum on Disability, National Council for One Parent Families, LGBT association Stonewall's "Politician of the Year."

Sure, she has no foreign policy experience, and maybe she's no oil-painting, but I found that "chinless post-human" comment a bit mean.
posted by creeky at 1:45 AM on November 20, 2009 [9 favorites]


I'm quite warming to Van Rompuy already...


Since then, he has become best known for his camping holidays and his Flemish-Dutch language haikus, a form of Japanese poetry. One verse marks his increasing baldness: "Hair blows in the wind/after years there is still wind/sadly no more hair."
posted by Damienmce at 2:01 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Cathy Ashton: 10 things you may not need to know ...

... #9: "A full-size Dalek stands in the corner of her sitting room."
posted by Auden at 2:14 AM on November 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


Blair DC
The rainy state of Blair.
Blair Irving.

It wouldn't have worked.
posted by vbfg at 2:15 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


She also seems like one of the good guys

I don't give a flying fuck whether she's the previously unacknowledged love child of Gandhi and Mother Theresa. So far as I can see, she's never in her puff been elected for so much as a Parish Council. Now she's my representative on the world stage. How the fuck does that happen? There is a serious democratic deficit in the EU that becomes more and more of an issue as more powers accrue to it. I am actually in favour of the European project, but not in it's current incarnation.
Tony Benn's five questions for the powerful: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?" These do not provide comforting answers when applied to the European Commission. We can't get rid of these people, even if we wanted to. The various national politician are making themselves an Elysian Fields of political bureaucracy in Europe in which they can gambol with abandon when vanquished from the democratic arena in their own home states.
posted by Jakey at 2:22 AM on November 20, 2009 [17 favorites]


tony blair antichrist . . . . . . 52,000 results
tony blair war criminal. . . . 980,000 results
posted by Kiwi at 2:24 AM on November 20, 2009


herman van rompuy wikipedia . . . . . 13,400 results
posted by Kiwi at 2:28 AM on November 20, 2009


So is Tony Blair more the antichrist than Van Rompuy is Wikipedia? That is the question.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:47 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]




We can't get rid of these people, even if we wanted to.

You elect your MEP, and the European Parliament has the power to get rid of them. They effectively did it, in 1999. I absolutely agree that it's not a satisfactory system, but I don't see a satisfactory 100% democratic alternative, either.

posted by creeky at 3:05 AM on November 20, 2009


creeky, from the same wikipedia page you linked to...It also exposed the situation that neither Parliament, nor the President, could force the resignation of an individual Commissioner as they could only be 'recalled' by national governments. Paris refused to recall Cresson, who refused to resign of her own accord, which sparked the need for a mass resignation.

The European Parliament had to utilise the pressure of public opinion to force the resignations of the Santer Commission. They didn't, and still don't, have the authority to get rid of Commission members.
I also think that you're making the perfect the enemy of the good by saying there's no 100% democratic alternative to the current system. Of course there's not, but we could approach 100% a hell of a lot closer than we currently do. During the post-Maastricht years of increasing centralisation of executve powers, there has been no effort made to address the democratisation of these same powers.
posted by Jakey at 3:17 AM on November 20, 2009


The British aristocracy has been carefully interbred for centuries to develop the chinless post-humans that now walk among us.

Europe does need someone more conventionally attractive for such a prominent position. Maybe we can help them out by arranging a trade--we get Cathy Ashton, and they can have their pick of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

No refunds. No takebacks. Offer valid anytime, anywhere.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:28 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


EU foreign affairs supremo

Is the word supremo really part of her job title? Because if it is, that is AWESOME!!!
posted by chillmost at 3:33 AM on November 20, 2009


jakey, good point. You're right.
posted by creeky at 3:34 AM on November 20, 2009


People, people - this isn't about democracy. Let me explain.

The EU was established by the Treaty of Maastricht on 1 November 1993 upon the foundations of the pre-existing European Economic Community. The European Economic Community (EEC) (also referred to as simply the European Community, or the Common Market in the English-speaking world) was an international organisation that existed between 1958 and 1993 which was created to bring about economic integration (including a single market) between Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It was enlarged later to include six additional states and, from 1967, its institutions also governed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom) under the term European Communities.

Get that? Economic integration. Coal and steel. This thing is about giving business a simplified market to operate in. Nobody talked about people or democracy, and the European Parliament is only there to allow you to think that you do have something to say.

You don't. They don't give a fuck about you. It's for the companies!

It's just that the way this promotion of one of them to the position of Grand PoohahPresident has been handled makes all this very visible for a change.
posted by DreamerFi at 3:45 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


National Thank Fuck it Wasn't Tony Blair Day.

Have a good one people.
posted by fire&wings at 3:45 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


DreamerFi, don't you think there might be good reasons that European countries in the mid-20th Century might want to encourage economic trade, a single market, cross-border institutions and the like? Particularly France and Gemany? I was with you up until the "it's all about the companies!" bit.

Because, to be clear, this has shown where power in the EU really lies: in the elected, democratic, national governments, who rejected a powerful unelected president - which would be bad, right? - in favour of what is basically an administrator - which is good, right? Less powerful BECAUSE less democratic. Subsidiarity for all!
posted by alasdair at 4:26 AM on November 20, 2009


There seems to be a lot of ostentatious cynicism about this. The EU is a vast and cumbersome organization of half a billion people in 27 member states, all with their own interests and priorities. These positions are imperfect compromises. The people filling them are the least offensive lowest common denominators.

But having a permanent full-time chairman/president, instead of a 6-month rotation of a national leader for whom it's a secondary priority? That's a sensible idea.

Having a single spokeswoman who can negotiate with on behalf of the EU with other major powers like the US, Russia and China? That's another sensible idea.

It's not perfect. But it's a lot more sensible than keeping going with the old arrangements: they were designed for six nations, and were creaking under the strain of twenty-seven.

Let them get on with their jobs, and see how they actually do.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:27 AM on November 20, 2009 [6 favorites]


I wonder if Van Rompuy only got the job because of his line on Turkey? I disagree with his reasons for disallowing Turkey, but I do agree that the country shouldn't be a member. That Merkel and Sarkozy would promote a line contrary to the UK's position is a relief, as I don't feel the UK has the best interests of Europe in mind. Given that the next UK government has already destroyed its influence in the EU, maybe a question like the candidacy of Turkey will get resolved.

These do not provide comforting answers when applied to the European Commission. We can't get rid of these people, even if we wanted to. The various national politician are making themselves an Elysian Fields of political bureaucracy in Europe in which they can gambol with abandon when vanquished from the democratic arena in their own home states.

I agree with you, but just want to point out that the alternative of democratic legitimacy is something state governments are afraid of. I think more democracy is needed, but we have to be sure that we don't aim fire at the EU itself, because I - like you - am pretty much behind this project overall. It's the state governments that are the problem here, and I think the Lisbon Treaty is a step forward in diminishing their power.
posted by Sova at 4:58 AM on November 20, 2009


"Let them get on with their jobs, and see how they actually do."

I'm not European so perhaps I have entirely the wrong perspective on this, but isn't the problem that "how they actually do" has already reached an objectionable state from the word go: Assuming representative powers without democratic election.

I'm all in favor of giving the beleaguered civil servants more of a break, but I don't think it's especially ostentatious to have objections to "having a permanent full-time chairman/president... a single spokeswoman who can negotiate with on behalf of the EU..." be an unelected position. The democratic component of any representative government is one of the reasons -- and the primary means by which -- we as people grant such a thing legitimacy.

But then maybe that's too American a view for practical Europeans.
posted by majick at 5:06 AM on November 20, 2009


I was hoping for Zaphod Beeblebrox.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:07 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Let them get on with their jobs, and see how they actually do."

For the record, they seem to me to be competent individuals, and I actually think they're likely to do a decent job. But that isn't the point. The point is how they got those jobs. If I can't get rid of them, they're not accountable to me. If they're not accountable to me, they cannot be trusted to represent my interests.
What happens if, say, Berlusconi gets one of those jobs? Do you want him running around the world feeling arses and miming humping Mrs Obama when her back's turned, and all as your designated representative? Let them get on with their jobs would seem like a less palatable option then. I should know - as a UK citizen, I've had Phil the Greek doing exactly this on my behalf for the last half century or so.
posted by Jakey at 5:19 AM on November 20, 2009


Actually, strike that last remark.

I should know - as a UK subject, I've had Phil the Greek doing exactly this on my behalf for the last half century or so. I would be happy to be an EU citizen, but I have no wish to be an EU subject.
posted by Jakey at 5:21 AM on November 20, 2009


After hearing about Ms. Vike-Freiberga the other day, I kind of wish she'd been the surprise choice.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:25 AM on November 20, 2009


Europe's first foreign affairs chief is a Baroness? Way to break those stereotypes Europe.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:57 AM on November 20, 2009


I disagree with his reasons for disallowing Turkey, but I do agree that the country shouldn't be a member.

Er... why shouldn't Turkey be a member? Throwing the net as wide as possible seems like a great idea to me. Although my vision os an ideal EU leans more towards wide and shallow - free movement of goods, labour and capital, and not much else - maybe you're more an "ever-closer integration" type?
posted by Leon at 5:58 AM on November 20, 2009


There seems to be a lot of ostentatious cynicism about this. The EU is a vast and cumbersome organization of half a billion people in 27 member states, all with their own interests and priorities.

The US is a vast and cumbersome organization of a third of a billion people in 50 member states, all with their own interests and priorities.

And yet we manage to elect our government.

What I like best abut the EU is how viscerally it demonstrates to Europeans how frigging difficult it is to craft policy for an enormous geographic area with a huge population with wildly differing views and priorities. So at least we have something to point to when, say, the Dutch criticize US policy from their tiny (twice the size of New Jersey), utterly homogeneous micro-nation.

That, and the fact that you don't have to change money anymore, which is awesome.
posted by rusty at 6:03 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


DreamerFi, don't you think there might be good reasons that European countries in the mid-20th Century might want to encourage economic trade, a single market, cross-border institutions and the like?

Of course there are good reasons, I don't think I said otherwise.

Just don't pretend you're doing continent-wide democracy when you do so.
posted by DreamerFi at 6:11 AM on November 20, 2009


Too bad it wasn't Tony Blair.
posted by caddis at 6:22 AM on November 20, 2009


Europe's first foreign affairs chief is a Baroness? Way to break those stereotypes Europe.

As was stated earlier: she's a life peer. She earned her title; she didn't inherit it.
posted by creeky at 6:30 AM on November 20, 2009


Nice troll, caddis.
posted by salmacis at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2009


I disagree with his reasons for disallowing Turkey, but I do agree that the country shouldn't be a member.

Er... why shouldn't Turkey be a member? Throwing the net as wide as possible seems like a great idea to me. Although my vision os an ideal EU leans more towards wide and shallow - free movement of goods, labour and capital, and not much else - maybe you're more an "ever-closer integration" type?


Pretty much, yeah. I mean, van Rompuy's reasons (at least one of them) was that Europe is "christian", and I definitely don't agree with that as fair or sufficient to reject them. We're already economically quite integrated with Turkey, and that benefits us, but I don't see what we're going to get from being politically integrated.

I think at least in the short term, their actions over Cyprus and Kurdistan have been reprehensible, and even though things have improved slightly, we should expect much more. I also don't believe that the EU should get involved in Middle Eastern politics as an active participant (rather than helping negotiations), which we couldn't avoid if Turkey were a member. In the longer term, the membership of Turkey would alter the internal politics of the EU, as it would be the second (or even first) largest member by population. I understand if you see that change as something positive, but I don't, and I think we've already seen ideas how other new members (such as in eastern Europe) have given the UK an opportunity to kick up shit.

I suppose it is just an essentially different view of what the EU is going to be for - which is something we as citizens really need to figure out. I would like it to be a full federal union eventually, as I don't consider there to be a good reason for continuing with the nation-state system we've relied on up til recently. Anyway, it's an interesting time, and I most like a quote I read somewhere about the European Coal and Steel Community, which goes something like this, "In looking to prevent the past, they hit upon an idea far ahead of its time."
posted by Sova at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Among the joy that Tony Blair didn't get this, let's not forget that Mandelson almost certainly wanted the Foreign Affairs post and didn't get it. This is bad primarily because it means he is going to keep trying to return Britain to the digital dark ages over at the Information desk.

(He'd be a Lord, of course, also, and certainly earned it.)
posted by DNye at 6:49 AM on November 20, 2009


rusty, I think you might be being misled by the term "President". It's actually "President of the European Council". The European Council is one of three branches of European government, the one that represents the member states of the EU (the others are the European Commission and the European Parliament).

The President of the European has no executive powers. All he does is call and chair meetings of the council representing the member states.

So, since his job is to represent the interests of the member states, it doesn't seem that unreasonable to me that he's selected by the (democratically elected) leaders of the member states. If he was independently elected in an EU-wide poll, he'd have a different allegiance altogether.

Basically there's a heads-we-win-tails-you-lose talking point game amongst the Europhobes. First they complained the European Commission and European Parliament were getting too powerful compared to the member states. In response, the EU strengthened the role of the European Council which represents the member states. So now the Europhobes have turned round and complained "OMG he's selected by the member states not directly elected it's undemocratic..."
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:50 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


There seems to be a lot of ostentatious cynicism about this. The EU is a vast and cumbersome organization of half a billion people in 27 member states, all with their own interests and priorities.

The US is a vast and cumbersome organization of a third of a billion people in 50 member states, all with their own interests and priorities.


The US has had a hundred and fifty years of power centralization, including a full-scale civil war, and started out with a (compared to the EU) remarkably powerful federal system. The EU is less than half a century old, with a federal system which has comparatively little power. If we'd stuck with the Articles of Confederation you might have more of an argument.

I do agree with your point on European perspectives, however. I had to constantly re-iterate to my Austrian students how much larger the US is than Austria - you could fit their entire national population into New York City alone several times over. It's just not intuitively obvious for people who have traditionally lived in states that you can cross in a couple days at most with a good rail system.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:51 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


We're already economically quite integrated with Turkey, and that benefits us, but I don't see what we're going to get from being politically integrated.

Free trade, cultural cross-pollination, and, if we make the carrot big enough, an improved human rights record in Turkey. But the argument about the "shallow, broad EU" was settled a generation ago, so I'm just wishing for horses, really.
posted by Leon at 6:56 AM on November 20, 2009


It's not a troll. I think it is important that Turkey join the EU and Tony Blair in this position would make it happen. The only reason not to have Blair is if you want the position to be toothless. That was obviously the intent with the current choice.
posted by caddis at 7:03 AM on November 20, 2009


Nobody really needs a president. The balance of power works nicely when lawmakers craft a bill and the people ratify it by popular vote, presumably during the elections.
posted by Brian B. at 7:05 AM on November 20, 2009


Let's see all you mockers mock the Baroness when she shows up in a black leather catsuit and a floor-length cape and chokes you with her Force powers in front of your friends.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:07 AM on November 20, 2009


President of European Council = Secretary General of United Nations

blah blah blah.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:12 AM on November 20, 2009


The US has two major parties so there will only ever be two, maybe three, credible contenders in a presidential election. The EU has dozens. If the election of the president of the EU Council was put to a full democratic vote, the contender from the country with the largest population would win every time. Each country having votes put forward by their representatives seems a lot fairer and more manageable to me, especially for a mostly toothless position.
Berlusconi will never be made president. What would be in it for him?
posted by minifigs at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2009


If the election of the president of the EU Council was put to a full democratic vote, the contender from the country with the largest population would win every time [...] a mostly toothless position.

If a contender can't be fairly elected, and the position is toothless, then why bother having it at all?
posted by Leon at 7:38 AM on November 20, 2009


Because there are some responsibilities associated with it and the old system of a rotating six month presidency was ineffectual.
Also, mostly toothless. Mostly
posted by minifigs at 7:44 AM on November 20, 2009


Trying to put this in US-friendly terms is tricky.

There's no real analogy for the European Council in the US as far as I know. Imagine a national body comprising all the State Governors. They meet occasionally, and used to be chaired in rotation by one of the Governors themselves. But recent chairmen have been too busy managing their own state's affairs to concentrate on it, so instead there will now be two permanent officers. One of these officers they're calling a "President", but he can only chair and call meetings of this body. He doesn't have any executive powers, those belong to a different body altogether, as do legislative powers.

I don't think it would be that unreasonable for the Governors to choose these officers amongst themselves. Having them directly elected across the US would mean a kind of overlap with the other branches of government, whereas the point is to counterbalance them.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:10 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


For a second, I thought it was a Foreign Policy Chef.
posted by snofoam at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2009


If that was the case I don't think anyone would have voted for a Brit...
posted by patricio at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2009


Having a single spokeswoman who can negotiate with on behalf of the EU with other major powers like the US, Russia and China? That's another sensible idea.

I'm very pro-Europe, but this gives me chills. If people are going to be negotiating on our behalf and in our names, I want us to have more of a say in who those people are than effectively none at all. Like Jakey says, what if they gave this to Berlusconi? If this project is going to succeed, it has to be legitimate, and this isn't.
posted by bonaldi at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2009


The articles of confederation were terrible for the US, which is why we threw them out, but it took us 12 years to get to the US Constitution.
posted by garlic at 8:34 AM on November 20, 2009


If that was the case I don't think anyone would have voted for a Brit...

Ha ha ha ha ha, because Britons can't cook. So droll.
posted by Lleyam at 8:35 AM on November 20, 2009


Theophile Escargot, actually, the institutions of the EU (EC back then) were modelled with more than an eye on the US constitution. The rough parallel would be:

Council - Senate
Parliament - Congress
Commission - executive
Court of Justice - Supreme Court

Of course, there are two main differences:

a) The Council is made up of the national governments, whereas senators are directly elected. But this highlights the fact that the EU is not a federal state like the US: the national governments remain sovereign and they certainly aren't going to give up the reins of the whole contraption. For those who are against further integration, to use this "democratic deficit" as a talking point is supremely disingeneous (as is putting much emphasis on the fact that much Council work is behind closed doors: do you seriously think that there's no backroom dealing going on in the US Senate, or any other legislative chamber for that matter? Boy, do I have a bridge to sell you.) Still, even in some federal countries there is a similar setup: in Germany, the heads of the regional governments sit themselves in the "Bundesrat".

b) There is no election for president of the Commission. But then, the POTUS actually isn't directly elected either (remember 2000?). As in many European countries, the cabinet/Commission is voted on (as a block) by the Council and the Parliament. Brits make a lot of noise about the fact that the Commissioners are "unelected", because in Britain only members of parliament may sit in the cabinet. But this a very peculiar British quirk (indeed, in some countries like Holland MPs actually have to leave their seats if they want to enter the cabinet). And furthermore, as the examples of Lord Mandelson and Baroness Ashton herself show, the rule can be easily circumvented by the PM by handing out a life peerage to someone that he badly wants to get in the Cabinet (which highlights the fact that Brits, with their unelected House of Lords as part of their parliament, are in a bad position to complain about any "democratic deficit" in the EU).

In any case, the outcome of all of this was easily predictable to anyone but the Brits. That the president of the Council was intended to be just a chairman was quite clear from the job description in the Lisbon Treaty.
posted by Skeptic at 8:38 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


US Senators used to be appointed by state governments.
posted by garlic at 8:44 AM on November 20, 2009


In any case, the outcome of all of this was easily predictable to anyone but the Brits. That the president of the Council was intended to be just a chairman was quite clear from the job description in the Lisbon Treaty.

I think it was easily predictable to us, too. But we like to make a proper old fuss about things, gives us something to moan about other than the rubbish weather (oh, and the appalling food).

My personal sense of it is that, in the main, people don't care too much about the EU -- unless there's a good old whinge to be had. I'm looking at you Daily Fail.
posted by Lleyam at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2009


(which highlights the fact that Brits, with their unelected House of Lords as part of their parliament, are in a bad position to complain about any "democratic deficit" in the EU).

Nice Tu Quoque, but seems to me that this actually puts the Brits in a much better position to complain and warn about the democratic deficit, given that they've had so much experience of how bad a system you get with sinecures and unelected politicians all over the place.
posted by bonaldi at 9:05 AM on November 20, 2009


Nice Tu Quoque, but seems to me that this actually puts the Brits in a much better position to complain and warn about the democratic deficit, given that they've had so much experience of how bad a system you get with sinecures and unelected politicians all over the place.

I think that he was referencing those Brits who tend to look down upon the "undemocratic" nature of the EU, rather than those who consider their own system's undemocratic elements as a useful warning to others.

I personally think that having a few less-democratic (and in some cases downright undemocratic) systems can be of some use - as minifigs pointed out above, in a purely democratic system the bigger countries would stomp the smaller ones in Brussels - although I think the EU has sort of gone overboard, and not just out of reasonable caution.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:36 AM on November 20, 2009


Yes, as per bonaldi, as a British subject I'm already burdened with our flawed domestic institutions; now because of them apparently I have no right to object to being rail-roaded unasked into a further set of distant undemocratic bodies established to primarily serve interests other than my own.
Of course, Britons might have been better informed about the contents and consequences of the Lisbon Treaty if it had ever been the subject of a full national debate and vote too.
If the response is that I seek to raise my voice at home, I'd have to do that in a democracy-deficient first-past-the-post system where I'm asked to prioritise this issue above all domestic ones, as the anti-EU parties with any hope of power are of the right and I'm not (I'm an internationalist too, fwiw, but not on these terms). The Labour Party promised a referendum in their 2005 manifesto but didn't provide it.
posted by Abiezer at 9:39 AM on November 20, 2009


TheophileEscargot, AdamCSnider, garlic: You all make good points. I confess that I do not know very much about the structure of the EU, so this has been interesting. It does seem like, if you project out a ways, the EU is trying to pull the same balancing act the very early US was, federalizing states that thought of themselves as fully sovereign entities. Here, it took quite a while and one incredibly vicious Civil War to even approximately settle the balance of powers between the federal government and the states. And even today, that balance is still a moving target, albeit one moving in only one direction.

Am I wrong in feeling like the EU is headed down, and indeed is pretty much required to follow, the same path, and that someday there will be an issue like slavery was in the US that two blocs of states simply cannot agree on? And... then what? A pan-European civil war would be a very ugly thing indeed.
posted by rusty at 9:40 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course, she's a life peer - you can tell by the title. Baronesses by marriage are called "Lady...", and there are only a very few ancient baronies that can go to women by birth.

Really, don't people learn the proper forms of titles and addresses these days? I knew this would happen if we allowed the unpropertied to vote.
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Plus it was so much easier reaching out to a broad cross-section of the electorate in Old Sarum
posted by Abiezer at 10:01 AM on November 20, 2009


Could the people complaining that these positions were unelected (and in particular
that the USA could serve as a model for the EU as regards democracy) please explain
this list to me?

Colin Powell? Condoleezza Rice? Robert Gates? You can argue that these were the best people for the job but they held positions of massively more responsibility than either of these EU jobs and none have held an elected post.
posted by Omission at 10:16 AM on November 20, 2009


As it happens, I will be in Belgium in three days. I'll have a word with this guy and straighten all this shit out.
posted by Skot at 10:30 AM on November 20, 2009


One issue with democratizing the EU further, of course, is that this would help it to become more of the state-like entity that some people on this thread already seem to think it is. And it could certainly be argued that this would reduce the democratic autonomy of the average European — by giving them the right to vote for the leaders of Europe, but increasing the authority over them of a much bigger, more distant body, and making each voter a smaller fish in a bigger pond.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like Jakey says, what if they gave this to Berlusconi?

I'll admit to not understanding this statement. Berlusconi was popularly elected.

It would seem that guys like him and Bush would be an effective argument against this position being popularly elected because those are the types of clowns you get.

Sign me up for the quiet haiku-writing guy who would never win an election of the masses.
posted by vacapinta at 11:02 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not so much this or that figure head that concerns me as the powers of the European Court of Justice and its imposition of anti-worker decisions over local collective bargaining, stipulations in the old Constitution/new Treaty about 'liberalisation' of public services and "flexicurity" and so on.
posted by Abiezer at 11:22 AM on November 20, 2009


One issue with democratizing the EU further, of course, is that this would help it to become more of the state-like entity that some people on this thread already seem to think it is. And it could certainly be argued that this would reduce the democratic autonomy of the average European — by giving them the right to vote for the leaders of Europe, but increasing the authority over them of a much bigger, more distant body, and making each voter a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

This is a very good point, and I had never thought of it in this way. When I read comments above arguing that, well, if the US has 50 states and can elect a leader why can't the EU my internal voice started spluttering that the EU and the US cannot be compared in this manner. But when I stop to think about it, it's not at all clear that the two aren't similar. I can't quite formulate the clinching argument in my head that would show someone unfamiliar with our system that these are two different models. Perhaps the difference lies in each of the states' feelings of nationhood (but then what about Wales or Catalonia?), or the difference in political or legal culture across the different states? I don't know. I would call the US 'a country' but never the EU.

I don't think anyone from the UK will ever be able to do anything about the democratic deficit: while I think that the political structures of the EU are opaque and confusing and that there is a very unhappy collision between our laws and the sources of law and regulation from the EU I could never support a party in this country that took a critical stance to the EU. The Eurosceptic Tories or UKIP don't have one argument of quality between them.
posted by calico at 12:04 PM on November 20, 2009


(Apologies in advance for a rather lengthy comment ahead -- if you make it all the way through you will be rewarded with a video of Silvio Berlusconi comparing someone to a Nazi camp leader.)

I am honestly amazed at the degree to which discussions about the EU, no offence meant but especially those that involve a significant number of Americans, largely omit the the notion of language. This thread, where the word has been completely absent so far aside from a reference to haikus, is a case in point.

I believe that one of the main reasons that most comparisons between the EU and the US are fundamentally flawed is that virtually all communication concerning a national election in America is conducted in English: sure, I've seen the "Soy Barack Obama y yo apruebo este mensaje" ads, and I'm aware of the existence of non-English media in the US, but come on, it's really just a drop in an ocean impact-wise when it comes to, say, electing a president.

Europe, you must understand, is the battlefield of history. Not to suggest that other parts of the world haven't seen linguistic or armed conflict of course, but Europe is really just a tiny, cramped peninsula where dozens of tribes have tried to carve out their own little space for themselves for as long as we can remember.

Contrary to the United States, Europe is not at all founded upon any sort of comprehensive plan or original idea. In this light, it's a bloody miracle that something like the European Union even exists at all.

(The nature and interpretation of the "American idea" is of course a matter of constant debate, but no-one will disagree with the notion that the country was started with a piece of paper that said people should have a right to liberty, etc.)

Americans like to say that a national US election is really fifty discrete ones, much like the elections for the European Parliament are conducted state by state, and while this is true in principle, the practical ramifications are in many ways very different: I'm Dutch, and I know the names of maybe a handful of my MEPs, and even then I'm only aware of because the elections are a recent memory, because I followed them on Twitter during the campaign and maybe still do, or because they were well-known figures in national politics before they went to Brussels (for the Netherlands at least, this last type is surprisingly rare).

And that's just my own country. I really don't know who the Czech Commissioner is, and will probably never hear about them unless they kill and eat a baby right there in Wenceslas Square with a camera trained on them.

Compare: when the independent senator from Connecticut says he may not support a health care reform proposal, you'll read about it in the papers in New Mexico. When a congressman from New York compares a town hall attendee to a table, it gets shown on Anderson Cooper. And most crucially: Anderson Cooper is the same in all 50 states.

This is the point in the discussion where an American may helpfully suggest a "solution" in the form of integrating the discourse by either 1) internationalizing campaigns, debates and elections or 2) reducing the number of languages, often to one, often English.

Anyone with any understanding of the deeply entangled relationship between language and identity will see the obvious infeasibility of the latter suggestion. But imagine the practical implications of the first one: what are we going to do, a televised debate in 23 languages? "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" doesn't quite have the same impact on an opponent if they need to wait five seconds for the translation. Hell, Dutch media had a hard enough time translating "yes we can" (which really is somewhat problematic, by the way).

(For an illustration of a European "Bentsen moment", see this exchange where Berlusconi (then rotating President of the Council) sarcastically offers German MEP Schultz a film role as a Nazi concentration camp supervisor.)

So in summary, a federal-style election will not be on the horizon any time soon, there is no "solution" to the language "problem" if you can call it that, and the EU -- they don't call it sui generis for nothing -- is a miracle, if a deeply flawed one.

Most of us will agree that some form of internationalization of policy and/or trade is beneficial for Europeans, and while we may disagree over the form and execution the EU serves at least partly to achieve this goal.

I personally do believe that the EU should be more democratic and that, in spite of the very real obstacles laid out above, the discourse needs to be more international and should reach and involve vastly more people.

"President" is a misnomer, and so is "minister of foreign affairs" or even "secretary of state", which terms I've heard to describe the post of High Rep for Foreign Affairs.

We didn't elect them. And they don't rule us. They are simply products of this unique experiment built on compromise, compromise and more compromise, and serve merely to answer Henry Kissinger's famous question, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?".
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:09 PM on November 20, 2009 [14 favorites]


Ha. Quite right - it's odd, it's almost as if the huge differences in language and culture within the EU are so obvious that you think people making the comparison with the US must have already taken that into account.
posted by calico at 12:29 PM on November 20, 2009


goodnewsfortheinsane: My point was mainly that the EU appears to be shaping up into a more federalized model. When the US started as a distinct entity, the states very much thought of themselves as sovereign in the "distinct nation" sense. And that makes sense when you consider that all the people in them were coming from a European context.

I see what you're saying, and it is one way to look at it. Maybe the language barrier really is insurmountable. But I have to argue with "Americans like to say that a national US election is really fifty discrete ones, much like the elections for the European Parliament are conducted state by state, and while this is true in principle..."

There is only one national US election: President. That's it. The rest of our federal government is the Supreme Court (not elected), Congress, and the Senate. Senators are elected at the state level. Representatives are elected at the sub-state congressional district level. It's probably easy, from a long distance, to view these as basically "the US electing its national government nationally," but in fact they are always local elections, and they are always won or lost on local issues. And that focus on the states carries right on through the governing process. National parties set the general agenda, but on almost every issue the specifics of a representative's state geography, society, and economy will trump the party's national interests, if there's a conflict.

There may well be a homogeneous national media here, but those New Mexicans reading about Holy Joe Leiberman's latest outrage can't do jack shit about it. Perhaps in the Netherlands (and no offense meant in my swipe at the Dutch earlier -- it was a random choice) you don't watch Spanish TV, or hear about what their representatives are doing. But if you did, you'd be able to do just as much about it as I can about the ideas of a senator from Connecticut.

The language differences are not trivial by any means, and might themselves simply prevent the kind of federalism we have in the US from forming. But I would say, don't underestimate the extent to which US elections are strictly local, in a way that really and truly does map onto an alliance of countries idea.

We didn't elect them. And they don't rule us.

Not now, no. And the latter is the reason the former doesn't matter to you that much. But it's hard to sit here in the US, knowing anything about the history of this country and the gradual but inexorable power-absorption of the Federal government, and not think I can see the first glimmers of that in the EU. It would be worth, at the least, considering what you'll do if and when you realize that you've reached the point where they actually do rule you.
posted by rusty at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2009


Nobody is fucking up Turkeys chances of join the EU as much as Turkey is, with ridiculous stunts link charging people for "insulting Turkishness".
posted by Artw at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


As it happens, I will be in Belgium in three days. I'll have a word with this guy and straighten all this shit out.

Oh noble bald man
Such quiet diplomacy
Still, unelected
posted by rokusan at 1:12 PM on November 20, 2009


rusty - but each of those local elections are for representatives of the same two parties, right? An equivalent in Europe would have to compare across results from Socialistisk Folkepart (Denmark), Parti Socialiste (France), Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Germany), the Labour party (UK), Panellinio Sosialistikó Kínima (Greece) or Partido Socialista (Portugal) - just to take the 'socialist' parties. And the reason I put quotes round socialist is because there are wide differences across those parties on what 'socialist' actually means or what an electorate can expect from a socialist party
posted by calico at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Phew, thank God, for a while there I was worried Tony Blair would have to stop bringing peace to the Middle East
posted by IanMorr at 1:24 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Like Jakey says, what if they gave this to Berlusconi?

I'll admit to not understanding this statement. Berlusconi was popularly elected.


The issue is that after his national electorate become tired of his antics, Mr. Berlusconi goes to Brussels as an apointee and gets to inflict acute embarrassment on all of Europe with little likelihood of censure and almost zero likelihood of foced removal. This particular character arc has been played out many times already in the EU, and is only going to become more frequent.
posted by Jakey at 2:02 PM on November 20, 2009


...largely omit the the notion of language. This thread, where the word has been completely absent so far aside from a reference to haikus, is a case in point.

It's funny, I was thinking about the language problem in a slightly different way. Part of the problem that people, even in Europe, have when groking the EU as a concept is that our political language is very much tied into the nation-state system.

"President" and "foreign secretary" really aren't accurate names for those positions. But, we're stuck with those words because there isn't really a useful alternative - at least in English.

I think the fact that the EU as an institution beyond the nation-state is being hashed out, painfully and slowly as it may be, is immensely valuable. The political language is just barely starting to develop as a result of the institutions, processes and debates.

I also think that the real change will be noticeable when a political vernacular develops around those institutions, without all the baggage that comes with nation-state political language.
posted by generichuman at 2:32 PM on November 20, 2009


calico: Yes but... I mean, presumably working multinational party alliances would form, pretty much instantly. I think the US attitude toward party is also pretty different than the EU attitude toward party. With only two, you tend to look more at the person than their party. Party matters, but a lot goes on in the primaries, when the candidates are of the same party. And with only two, the voting blocs tend to be much more fluid. We don't (generally) elect a party, we elect people from a party. The party is a guideline, but actual policies vary a lot between members of the same party.

I guess that would all depend more on whether it was a Parliamentary system or one like ours. For all that I dislike about our system, the fact that it isn't Parliamentary is in its favor, I think. With only two very broad parties, there's a lot less voting-the-party and a lot more voting the person.
posted by rusty at 2:40 PM on November 20, 2009


What I particularly enjoyed about the appointment of the President and High Representative was that the deal was done at a working dinner. Or, to be more precise, during talks following a working dinner. Which means that there is a reasonable chance that this was, quite literally, a backroom deal done over port and cigars. It's always fun when you get a stereotype fulfilled quite so clearly.

And for those who think it's impossible to get all of Europe to vote on a single coherent issue - we manage it every year, don't we?
posted by ZsigE at 3:28 PM on November 20, 2009


Look, the EU did propose a constitution that would have simplified the system and brought it closer to a federalized one in some key ways. That constitution failed at the polls (in a couple of countries, where each EU member held an absolute veto).

The Lisbon Treaty was simply a way to find the most important parts of the constitution proposal and work them into the existing EU structure. One of the key aspects that was carried forward was the legal definition of the EU as an entity capable of signing treaties. In international relations terms that's huge.

I have little doubt that the long-term end-point for Europe is an integrated, federalized state, with perhaps a significant degree of autonomy greater than US states have. But it may not get there for another two or six decades. Right now, we just have to savor the 60 years of progress since the European Steel and Coal Community got the ball rolling. Sixty years in which major powers had to shed their colonial empires, endure and overcome Cold War division, and implement a continent-wide currency.

In that context it's a bit silly to saddle a painful and painfully slow process with yet more are-we-there-yets. No, of course not, but the progress that has been made with this move is substantial and will still take a period of adjustment.
posted by dhartung at 3:35 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


In that context it's a bit silly to saddle a painful and painfully slow process with yet more are-we-there-yets. No, of course not, but the progress that has been made with this move is substantial and will still take a period of adjustment.

As one of the more vocal dissenters in the discussion so far, I have to say that I agree with your general sentiments. The EU is a remarkable institution, and the resulting peace in a continent that has been at war constantly for most of recorded history means that it's worthy of being cut some slack. But you have to keep pushing for the democratisation, or it will never happen.
The issue for me and everyone else in the UK is that there's no real nuanced political debate on the EU here, so it's difficult to express anything more subtle than "I <3 EU" or "I H8 EU" at the ballot box. I think the next international situation may bring some focus to this topic if the UK follows its interventionist, pro-American tendencies in opposition to the consensus EU position.
posted by Jakey at 4:13 PM on November 20, 2009


Apologies for my late return to this thread.

There is only one national US election: President.

Right you are, rusty, I am aware of this and I should have specified it.

Perhaps in the Netherlands [...] you don't watch Spanish TV [...] But if you did, you'd be able to do just as much about it as I can about the ideas of a senator from Connecticut.

Fair enough. I was focusing mainly on the matter of discourse: i.e., Spanish MEPs are virtually isolated from Dutch ones in the public debate, while in the US if a Pennsylvania congressman gets caught DUI chances are you'd hear about it in Oregon. Not so much for the Greek MEP in the Netherlands, I'd argue, unless there's a significantly juicier story there beyond the alcohol. This is anecdotal, of course, and I may be wrong. But based on my experience, this is what I believe.

But you are right: all politics is local, US and EU alike. Sometimes I wish this would be more of a conventional wisdom thing here as it is Stateside.

Lastly, I blissfully glossed over your "swipe at the Dutch" the first time around, but now that you mention it I feel compelled to note that your assessment of "micro-nation" is, while a matter of semantic debate, in my view only valid if you consider Australia to be the same; after all, the two countries have roughly comparable population numbers, area be damned. Greenland isn't exactly a major player in world politics, is all I'm saying.

But your description "utterly homogeneous" belies a fundamental misunderstanding of Dutch demographics: I can't expect you to follow Dutch media, but at the very least a scanning of relevant threads on this very here site seems recommendable.

Beyond that, no offence taken, but I would suggest a closer reading of the relevant numbers.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:59 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I know, I know. But I didn't expect the Spanish Dutch Inquisition to be here. :-)

By "micro-nation" I meant that your country, for example, is geographically a little less than half the size of my state. And my state is only the 39th largest in the US. You've also got 13 times the population (of Maine) squeezed in there. By "utterly homogeneous" I meant that, while I'm well aware of the social upheavals going on right now in the Netherlands, those upheavals are going on precisely because (to probably way over-simplify it) there's such a sharp line between Dutch and Other. 80% ethnic Dutch, 20% other. The US is 74% "white" and 26% "non-white." But those two categories are not comparable to the Netherlands either, where both categories include an enormous range of cultural and geographic heritage.

These differences often come into play in conversations I get into with Europeans about, for example, transportation policy. Think about the differences between the utility and economics of trains there and cars here. That's the thing -- area can't be damned. I mean, it can, and often is, but it can't be ignored. And I was comparing Dutch policy with US policy there. Your nation, of 16-something million, half the size of the state of Maine, compared with the entire 300 million person, 3.8 million square mile United States. The vast disparity there, I think, is what Europeans often don't quite get when we get into debating politics. Yes, both are sovereign nations, but not in the same way, really at all.

It would be useful, in general, to think of the US as a really centralized EU, where all the member nations speak the same language. But somewhat bigger. All I really wanted to say was that I'm glad there's finally such a comparison to be made. I think it helps explain a lot that Europeans, and usually I, don't like or find confusing about America.

And a final note -- I don't get the sense that a lot of Americans really grasp just how big this country is either. Third largest by population, fourth largest by land area. And if I were to guess why we don't tend to go around thinking of our country as mind-blowingly big and diverse and unwieldy, it's probably because we all live in a state, and tend to think of ourselves as state residents first, Americans second. States make it manageable. I wouldn't think that would be any different for Europeans.
posted by rusty at 10:35 PM on November 20, 2009


Great, there's a big eurothread just when I can't access the tubes.

At least the President's a poet.
posted by ersatz at 2:20 PM on November 23, 2009


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