Author: Andrés Morales Interiano
The creation of the European Union (EU) has lead to much debate on its functioning processes and representation of the EU citizens. It is an organism that deals with large quantities of money and affects both directly and indirectly the ordinary lives of its population. This happens primarily through the policies they adopt and to whom they are directed. One of the greatest debates is how they deal with its fund intended for the development of the region (European Commission, 2015b).
The author of this paper would like to focus on the principles governing the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and the decision-making process of the Cohesion Policy and its funds. The ESIF are a major part EU budget, and its citizens have to right to know how it is handled (European Commission, 2014b). It is important to see if this process is done in a democratic and transparent way for the benefit of the EU citizens.
In order to do this, an explanation of Cohesion Policy will be given. Then the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘transparency’ will be defined, followed by a description of the decision-making process. Finishing the paper, the author will try to evaluate the effect in the EU society and with the conclusions, present a summary of the points and a short evaluation of the decision-making process in an attempt to answer the initial question, if this process is, in the field of Cohesion Policy, transparent and democratic?
Cohesion Policy and Its Key Principles
Cohesion Policy (CP), also known as the Regional Policy of the European Union (EU), is an investment policy that ‘targets all regions and cities in the European Union in order to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth, sustainable development, and improve citizens’ quality of life’ (European Commission, 2015c). This policy consists of several funds, which are included in the ESIF, the three main funds are: the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund (CF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). Two other funds are included in the ESIF: the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).
The goal of CP and its funds is mainly to eliminate disparities in the EU countries, in other words, to help the less developed countries and regions to catch up with the more developed ones in economic, social, and territorial topics (European Commission, 2015c). The EU intends to create more equal opportunities and a higher sustainable development across its member states. Therefore, for CP for 2014-2020, the EU has budgeted over €350 billion, about a third of the total EU budget, a slight increase from the budget set between 2007-2013 (European Commission, 2014a).
According to the European Commission (EC), there are four key principles that underpin CP: Concentration, Programming, Partnership, and Additionality (European Commission, 2014b). Under “Partnership”, it is specified that all the programmes be developed through collective processes, which involve authorities at regional and local levels, including social partners and organisations from civil society. This is applied ‘to all stages of the programming process, from design, through management and implementation to monitoring and evaluation’ (European Commission, 2014b). It is important to keep in mind that these principles also follow the general principle of the EU of subsidiarity which ‘determines when the EU is competent to legislate, and contributes to decisions being taken as closely as possible to the citizen’ (EUR-Lex, 2015). The aim is to bring the EU citizens closer to the EU itself, taking actions at local levels when necessary.
For the purposes of this paper, the author would like to focus in this last principle and the decision-making process of the CP and its funds. As mentioned previously, it is important to evaluate if this process is made for the benefit of the EU citizens.
Democracy and Transparency
In order to evaluate if the decision-making process in the EU, with regards to CP, is democratic and transparent, it is important to quickly define these terms. Because it is in accordance to the publications of the EU, and it includes a concrete definition, the first concept of democracy has been taken from U.S. Department of State as ‘a form of government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all adult citizens, directly or indirectly through their freely elected representatives’ (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2011, p.3). This, in turn, implies many other concepts and forms to define, however, the author has decided to keep this definition and mention that in accordance to the EU, what is actually being used is a ‘representative democracy’, ‘in which the citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programmes for the public good’ (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2011, p.4).
There are many principles governing the modern democratic rule: Citizen Participation, Equality, Political Tolerance, Accountability, Transparency, Regular, free, and fair Elections, Economic Freedom, Control of the abuts of Powers (Separation of Powers), Bill of Rights (i.e. Constitution), a Culture of accepting the results of the elections, Human Rights, Multi-part System, Neutrality of State Institutions, and a Rule of Law (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2011).
As mentioned, above, transparency is one of the important principles for a Democracy. Although there are many definitions, the author of this paper has used the following for its completeness: ‘the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender’ (Schnackenberg and Tomlison, 2014, p. 6). This implies that when ‘transparency’ is mentioned, it has to do with objective information, without a different intention than to inform the public. Secondly, the public not only has to receive information but must also evaluate the quality of this information and its veracity. In other words, the public has to perceive that the information is being shared clearly and accurately, trusting its source. Thirdly, the information shared has to be done intentionally and publicly by the sender itself. Therefore, when there are ‘information leakages’, this would not constitute a transparent communication.
In accordance with the last part, elected officials (and other non-elected representatives) in a democracy must be accountable for their actions. This means that they have to inform what they have done and answer to the citizens of the decision and actions (or inactions) taken during their public terms. There can be rewards or punishes by the citizenship to the officials depending on their performances (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2011). ‘Good accountability’ is seen when there is accountability relationships on all levels; when there exists elements of transparency, democracy, and legal constraint; when it is made in an economic, efficient, and effective way; and when there is an absence of accountability deficit or overload (Damien, 2103) (Damien, 2015).
Decision-Making Process in the EU for CP
For the purposes of the paper, it is important to give an overview on how the EU functions internally. The EU is ‘a hybrid and unique intergovernmental and supranational organization’ (CIA, 2015) which includes 28 member states and covers a population of over 500 million people. There are included 7 principal decision-making bodies: The European Parliament (EP), The European Council, the Council of the European Union, The European Commission (EC), The Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the Court of Auditors (CIA, 2015).
The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered in force in 2009, has brought some changes to the decision-making process in the EU, with the intent to make it more democratic and available for the citizens (European Commission, 2009). With the example of CP, the process is then described as the following:
The EC is supposed to defend the general interest of the EU and are not able to accept instructions from national governments. It is the “government” or the driving force EU. There are 28 Commisioners, one from each EU country and belonging to specific teams separated by topics. They make the proposals, for example, the budget to be used in CP. They are also the guardians of the treaties that have been accorded. The Commissioners are responsible for the policy implementation, somewhat acting like an executive power in a national government, and also the financial support for these policies. They have international dimension with agreements with other regions. Therefore, the Commissioners have the Right of initiative (European Commission, 2015) (CIA, 2015).
The Council of the EU (or Council of Ministers) is one of the three main institutions of the EU (along with the EC and the EP). It is composed of national government ministers from each of the 28 member states. Ministers represent the interests of their own democratically accountable governments. The Council and the EC consider, negotiate, amend, and adopt EU legislation, normally proposed by the Commission. That is the ordinary legislative procedure (formerly ‘Codecision’, renamed by the Lisbon Treaty (European Commission, 2009)) (European Commission, 2014b).
Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the Council and the EC are on equal footing. If they reach agreement, they can adopt legislation at first reading. If not, there is a second reading. If following they still cannot agree, a conciliation committee is convened. Since 1999, 67% of ordinary procedure files have been included in the first reading, 24% in the second reading and 9% in third (Council of the EU, 2015a). Inside the Council, in order to make a decision regarding CP, the majority of the members have to be present (15 out of 28). There are three types of voting procedures, simple majority, qualified majority, and unanimity. For the ordinary legislative procedure, a qualified majority is reached if two conditions are met: 55% of the member states vote in favour (16/28), and the proposal has to be supported by member states representing at least 65% of the EU population (Council of the EU, 2015b).
All the work of the Council is prepared or coordinated by the permanent representative committee, also known as COREPER. It is made up of member state representatives. In addition, the council has more than 150 working parties and committees who also help. COREPER makes sure that the national interests are taken into account in the policy making. Usually, they are the link between the national governments and the Council of the EU (Council of the EU, 2015a).
Along with the Council, the EP constitutes the Legislative Branch of the EU. The EP represents the people of the EU, and its members are the only ones elected democratically by EU citizens; 751 are seats allocated among member states roughly in proportion to population size; the members elected by proportional representation to serve 5-year terms. Currently they cannot vote on 1/3 of the laws, they cannot initiate laws, and they can only vote yes or no on the drafts proposed. It also controls EC and its president, and can even force them to resign (CIA, 2015).
Thus far, the only democratically elected body mentioned is the EP. Although the Council is helped by COREPER, they are not directly representing the will of the citizens, but of the interests of the governments. On the other hand, being the EU a supranational organisation, it tends to separate more from the individual in comparison to how a local government would, even though it is governed by the principle of subsidiarity. Once the proposals of the EC are approved, in the case of ESIF, the EC is to work with EU countries in partnership agreements in order to present drafts of Operational Programmes. Further on, the EC approves these Programmes and monitors its remaining process executed by the member states of the EU as specific projects (European Commission, 2014a).
It is important to mention that this has been solely the decision-making process of the policies and its funds. There are many actors behind this process that influence these decisions. There are formal institutions from regional and national governments. Also, political parties, both national and at the EU level are present, and furthermore, Regional Committees and other Representations in Brussels. Other non-offical institutions also influence, for example: trade Unions, NGOs, the Media, and individual citizens. However, these are all actors that can influence by expressing their interests before and the actual decision-making process occurs. Therefore, in order to have the citizens’ interests represented in the policies, much lobbying and negotiations have to take place (Nesti and Valentini, 2010).
Effects and Conclusions
Noticing that the decision-making process of the EU for CP is done mainly on official and supranational levels, it is hard to say it is entirely democratic. Furthermore, using the previously mentioned definition, and taking into account that the power has been given to ‘elected representatives’, the author sees a lack of these in the decision-making organs of the EU. Although the EP is directly elected by the EU citizens, this is only one of the three bodies deciding on CP. Additionally, the EP is not given much power in regards to the policies, it can only vote positively or negatively on the already elaborated proposals by the EC.
Going back to the way the EU functions, and seeing that it is a ‘supranational’ organism, the representation of the citizens’ can be decreased in the higher levels. If already national government representatives can act on personal interests (and not on the public good), the officials they appoint for the EU (i.e. for the Council of Ministers) are even further from the interest of the public. Inferentially, the higher the officials are, the further away they are from the public’s interest, and therefore, the less representative and democratic they are.
Although the focus of this paper is on the decision-making process, it is important to mention that there are other processes that include a higher participation of the EU citizenship, for example in the negotiation and lobbying. This participation eventually influences on the proposals taken to and made by the EC, therefore their interests can be represented here. However, this is also another process with great limitations on the participation of the general public.
With regards to ‘transparency’, the author of this paper does find that this principle is met in many levels. Through personal research, the author was able to find clearly and perceptively accurate information on all the decision-making process. However, this was done through much effort and time. In consequence, much of the EU public might not be able to find this information for various reasons. Firstly, this information was found online and for academic reasons. Many citizens might not have the means, the access, or the intent to find this information. However, this is not something of which the sender can be held accountable for, but instead, it should be in the interest of the receiver to find this information. Nevertheless, the EU could increase their efforts in publishing this information and educate its citizens in order for them to search more of this information. Democracy also includes active participation by its citizens.
The author finishes this paper bringing to attention an initiative that the EU is already working on in order to improve its communication with the public, which is the European Transparency Initiative (ETI). This has definitely helped in the transparency issue, indirectly increasing its democratic process. The Lisbon Treaty is also an attempt to make the decision-making process more democratic, however there is always the issue of supranational representation. ‘Transparency, together with increased openness and accessibility, is a step towards enforcing European legitimacy and democracy’ (Katsarova, 2008, p. 7).
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-  The author of this paper would like to mention that the paper focuses solely on the decision-making process. Although the negotiations and lobbying and implementation of programmes processes exist and are mentioned, the analysis is based on the decision-making process for CP.
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