by Joseph Pearce
In the United States the progressive erosion of the rights of individual states and the consequent rise in the power of the federal government in Washington has caused widespread concern. It is a classic example of the usurpation of democratic function by the larger institution to the detriment of the democratic functions of the smaller. James Buchanan, the American Nobel Prize-winning economist, suggested at a conference on constitutional issues in Paris in 1989 that the United States had evolved into a single state not much different from other centralized states, and that the Founding Fathers could never have believed that the concept of federalism would degenerate to produce such a centralized leviathan.
In similar fashion, Europe in its movement towards federalism is proceeding along the same centralist lines as America. The changing role of the European Union is reflected in the changing of its name over the years. It began as the Common Market, then became the European Economic Community, then simply the European Community, and now it calls itself the European Union. The tendency towards tighter control from the centre is obvious and has been disguised over the years by what looks suspiciously like the artful and deceptive employment of Orwellian newspeak.
When Britons were asked to vote in a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should sign up to the Treaty of Rome they were told that they were simply joining a `common market’. Questions of sovereignty or political interference in domestic affairs were not an issue because, according to the pro-marketeers, they were voting only to join a free trade agreement that would have economic benefits. It is very likely that the electorate would not have voted to join if they were told that they would be signing away sovereignty and political power to a supra-national body based in Brussels. Since there have been no subsequent referenda, there is no democratic mandate for many of the developments in the quarter of a century since Britain joined.
When the Guardian lodged a case before the European Court of Justice in August 1994 complaining of the secrecy in which European decisions were taken, lawyers for the European Council of Ministers responded by stating to the judges that `there is no principle of community law which gives citizens the right to EU documents’. The lawyers went on to claim that the heads of national governments also had no right to insist on more openness in EU affairs because their declarations were `not binding on the community institutions’.
With so much closed government and high-level secrecy it was almost inevitable that the European Commission would eventually be rocked by financial scandal. In March 1999 the entire Commission was forced to resign after widespread fraud and corruption were exposed. Perhaps, with the timely reminder of Lord Acton’s words that `power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, one might have expected calls for the decentralization of power away from the Commission. Instead, less than six months later, there was a call for a massive extension of EU powers into the sphere of criminal law so that `EU offences’ such as multi-billion-dollar fraud could be tackled more efficiently. The extension of EU powers into the field of criminal law will inevitably entail harmonization of national legal procedures, signifying another step towards the European superstate. Thankfully the rejection of the centralist EU Constitution by France and the Netherlands in May and June 2005 illustrates a popular backlash against the EU macro-monster.
Similarly, a European single currency will obviously have effects far beyond the sphere of the economy. It will have to be managed centrally, which will necessitate the principal economic strategy for each member state being determined centrally. Consequently, the ability of national governments to direct economic policy in tune with the wishes of their electorates will be weakened considerably, if not actually eliminated. Although leading members of the Confederation of British Industry, which principally represents big business, called for early entry into the single currency at its annual conference in October 1999, it is significant that the Federation of Small Businesses is much less enthusiastic. The FSB has come out unequivocally against European monetary union, as its manifesto makes clear: ” The FSB is opposed to monetary union and a single currency and believes that such a move would strip the UK of a fundamental aspect of its national sovereignty.”
The fact that the CBI, the representative of big business, is far happier with developments within the European Union than is the Federation of Small Businesses is highly illuminating. It seems that big business is able to establish a modus vivendi with big government, whereas small business sees largescale government as intrusive and uncaring. Macro-economics and macro-politics can work in partnership, steamrollering the needs and aspirations of small businesses in the process. This was evident from the section on `Small Businesses and Europe’ in the FSB’s manifesto, which stressed that `the mounting burden of EU regulation has hit the small firms sector very badly’.
Clearly the macro-democracy envisaged by the European Union is diametrically opposed to any true or meaningful notion of what is democratic. The enlarged European Union of thirty states will have a population of half a billion, twice as many as the United States. It will be governed in practice, as it is now, by an unelected Commission which, if the EU’s recommendations are accepted, will be given even greater powers. Members of the European Parliament, the `democratic’ institution intended to oversee the Commission, already represent huge constituencies. Under the new proposals these constituencies will be made even larger so that a single MEP will `represent’ more than a million voters. Can such a system be called `democratic’ in any meaningful or practical sense? Is it not merely a `Democratic’ Dictatorship?
Far from relinquishing more power to an increasingly remote centre, true subsidiarity and democracy requires that many functions of society be devolved to local and regional authorities. A robust and healthy society consists of families and local communities. These are the real building blocks, the micro-models upon which wider society is built. As such, it is vital that local communities not only survive but prosper. If they are not to be swept up into ever larger conurbations, they must have access to, and control of, local amenities. For example, there should be a proliferation of small and medium-sized community hospitals capable of treating commonplace illnesses. Centralization should only be necessary for highly sophisticated and specialized medical services.
Similarly, with regard to education, there should be a proliferation of small and medium-sized schools. These should be at the heart of local communities and largely administered by them. Subsidiarity in the field of education must mean that families enjoy a large measure of control over the running of schools. Government of the education system by nationally controlled `experts’ should be replaced by government by a combination of local authorities, teachers and parents. Where the education of children is concerned parents and teachers are the real experts, not politicians or civil servants.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, politicians and civil servants beg to differ. In March 2001, the Belgian finance minister, Didier Reynders, called for an extension of power to the twelve finance ministers within the EU so that they could centrally `coordinate’ education and health spending within the euro-bloc.
These examples have been given to illustrate the genuine democratic choice facing society. On one hand there is the move towards the centrally controlled democracy of large areas. On the other there is the alternative offered by decentralized democracy. It is a choice between macro-democracies where power is distant and often serves powerful vested interests, and micro-democracies where human affairs are dealt with on a human scale. In this, as in so much else, it is a struggle between big is best and small is beautiful.
Small is Still Beautiful