How I explained the EU to the King of Brobdingnag

by Daniel Hannan a Conservative MEP for South-East England

IT was when we got on to the question of parliamentary democracy that I started feeling uneasy.

We had spent half an hour ticking off our Uzbek hosts about the autocratic nature of their country, where the president has almost untrammeled powers and where the parliament is a rubber-stamping chamber.

We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves until one of the Uzbeks asked how we did things in Brussels.

With much clearing of throats and shuffling of bottoms,

we admitted that the European Parliament didn't have any legislative powers either. Euro- MPs, our chairman explained, could only debate proposals that came down from the European Commission.

It was, we had to concede, a system rather similar to that in Uzbekistan - with the difference that at least their executive had some kind of direct mandate.

As the discussion went on, I kept thinking of Gulliver's conversation with the King of Brobdingnag. Gulliver sets out to convince the gigantic monarch of the excellence of Britain's institutions: its Parliament, its law courts, its Armed Forces. But the more he speaks, the more he inadvertently reveals their shortcomings.

Like so many Gullivers, we prattled on about how the Uzbeks could learn from the EU. They had elected their president, Islam Karimov, with a fishy-looking 91 per cent of the vote. We, on the other hand, dispensed with elections altogether, and simply appointed our president, Romano Prodi. Their Uzbek judges struck us as dangerously close to the regime. But our Euro-judges were, in practice, part of the regime, making rather than interpreting the law. The Uzbeks were struggling to de-collectivise their farms. We in Europe, on the other hand, continued to operate the CAP on essentially Marxist lines. And so on, mutatis mutandis, through virtually every sphere of government activity.

As the session ended, some of the Uzbek former Communists were looking distinctly nostalgic. At first, they had not known what to make of this motley Western delegation, with its huge train of assistants and interpreters. But, by the time we finished, they seemed to have concluded that we represented the Evropeiski Soyuz's Congress of People's Deputies, and thus enjoyed the trappings rather than the reality of power. True authority, they perceived, lay with the unelected European Commission: our politburo.

Overseas delegations are a popular perk in the European Parliament. Every MEP gets to spend at least one week a year visiting a foreign assembly. Because these trips count as official parliamentary business, you can still clock in for all your allowances. The attendance register is solemnly carried round so that you can sign in each day - a reform apparently introduced after a Green Euro-MP disappeared with his secretary on the first day of a delegation, and rejoined the party only on the flight back to Brussels.

I wondered what was going through the minds of our hosts as they watched us. There they sat, proud descendants of Tamerlane, amber-skinned and impassive. If they found us impertinent, they were far too courteous to show it.

But, by the end of the meeting, I was beginning to feel that the delegation should have been the other way around: the nations of Central Asia should be sending missions to the EU, urging it to comply with the minimum democratic standards of the CIS.

You may feel that I am exaggerating. Whatever its shortcomings, surely the EU can't be compared to an ex-Soviet state?

On one level, obviously not: no one in the EU is going to be banned from travelling abroad or sent to a labour camp.

But it does not follow from this that Brussels is a guarantor of democracy. On the contrary, EU institutions were deliberately designed to be immune to public opinion. Monnet, Schuman and the other founding fathers created a highly centralised, fonctionnaire-led system, in which decisions could be driven through without worrying about opinion polls.

This deliberately undemocratic structure allowed for most of the market reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. Had every commission decision been left to politicians, subject as they are to pressure, the EU would contain many more barriers to trade than it does today.

The trouble is that many European leaders now see closer union as an end that will justify almost any means. They have repeatedly shown themselves willing to disregard election results, or to toss aside the law, in pursuit of deeper integration.

The most striking example is the EU's refusal to accept Ireland's referendum on the Nice Treaty.

But almost every month sees other, lesser, demonstrations of the same mentality. The European Court of Justice, for example, has frequently exceeded the remit of the European treaties in order to extend EU jurisdiction into new areas: trade, sex equality and working hours, inter alia.

Only two months ago, the European Parliament discussed an alarming proposal to set up state-funded, pan-European political parties. Such parties, it was suggested, should be obliged to sign up to the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights as a condition for their recognition: a qualification that would effectively disbar Euro-sceptics. Supporters of the amendment said it was aimed only at "xenophobic parties" - just as the governments of Central Asia claim that their crackdowns will affect only "fundamentalist parties".

The idea that European integration ought somehow to be above the law was most starkly illustrated when it emerged that the patriarchs of modern federalism, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, had advanced their cause using illicit donations and hidden slush funds. The reaction of most Eurocrats was to shrug off the whole scandal.

"It's not as though they were enriching themselves personally," a Belgian MEP told me at the time.

I did not doubt his sincerity. But there was something about his fervency, his sense of "Europe right or wrong", that frightened me.

The EU is a long way from evolving into a totalitarian system. But the requisite mentality may be in place.

By: Daniel Hannan a Conservative MEP for South-East England

Many thanks to Greg Lance Watkins for directing warmwell to this article.