Sunday

29th May 2016

Opinion

Democracy - what's the alternative?

  • "Democracy is difficult to build and secure. It takes time, effort and yes, money" (Photo: European Parliament)

It was with interest that I read the article by Derk Jan Eppink 'Two EU bodies spending money like no tomorrow.'

As President of the ALDE group in the Committee of the Regions, I am not in a position to comment on the Economic and Social Committee, but I am on the CoR. The article is riddled with inaccuracies. First of all, he claims that the CoR's budget has been increasing in an unchallenged way. I can assure readers that the CoR's budget is challenged constantly, not just by the budgetary authority, but by the members of the CoR itself, starting with the ALDE group which I lead, which has consistently demanded cuts where they were possible, efficiencies across the board, and justifications for any increases requested.

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Secondly, Mr. Eppink states that the main mandate of the CoR is to engage participation from citizens. Again he is wrong. The main purpose of the Committee of the Regions is to give a voice to local and regional authorities of Europe in the process of developing EU legislation. That is why it is an assembly of representatives who have been elected by the citizens in municipalities and regions throughout the whole Union.

Engaging participation from citizens is a task incumbent on all EU institutions and actors. The main purpose of the CoR is to provide the local and regional perspective in the development of EU laws, given that more than half of these laws must be implemented at sub-state level.

And this brings us to the very crux of the matter which underlies Mr Eppink's article: the understanding one has of democracy and how it should function.

In his novel, Animal Farm, George Orwell teaches us a great lesson, namely that democracy is fragile and vulnerable if it is left in the hands of just a few. This is so relevant, because even in today's world of hyper connectivity, it takes so much to engage people, it is such an expensive process that it is easy to decry; tempting to diminish the role of the grass roots.

Yet it is just those grass roots that are Europe's democratic strength. Ask why it is that so many cities and regions want to be part of this great enterprise and you will hear us say: Europe matters to us! And if it matters to us, then we must matter to Europe. The reality is that a large percentage of people relate more easily to their local and regional authorities and follow more attentively their decisions because of the proximity. So, to exclude these authorities from the European process is therefore to exclude those people.

Democracy is difficult to build and secure. It takes time, effort and yes, money. Is it possible to quantify the return that citizens get from the money invested in democracy? Mr Eppink seems to think so, but then we would be entitled to ask whether the influence his political group has had on EU legislation is worth the public money that is spent on the running of that group. We would be entitled to ask him to quantify that influence. But I will not ask these questions, because they stem from a concept of democracy which is wrong and a disservice to citizens.

Yes, there are efficiencies to be made in all public administrations and in all EU institutions, and ALDE will continue to push for them in the Committee of the Regions. But the truth is, far from there being too much democracy and consultation in the European Community, there is not enough.

Democracy at local, national and European level may be a nuisance, expensive and time consuming, but, to quote another great man who went by the name of Churchill: 'it is better than the alternative'!

The writer is the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group in Liverpool

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