One of the striking aspects of the current crisis in the EU, which, as we all know, shows no sign of abating, is that trying to follow who is participating in decision making on it is quite problematic. Once we get beyond the EU leaders who are, obviously, in the spotlight, we are left with vague labels for very important political arrangements that may well be the future institutions of the EU. We hear proposals that the IMF should participate in enforcing and monitoring the new eurozone rules on national budgets for example. Apart from my sincere amazement that Europeans (and at least one vocal advocate in the Dutch press in the last week) are ready to outsource control of national budgets to an (otherwise perfectly capable) organization whose participation and voting rules are under reconstructions and whose strongest members in the future may not be Europeans, I am also left wondering whether the new decision making constructions are going to be transparent at all. The NRC of 8 November, for example, informs us that the ministers of finance are being sidelined in crisis decision making and the European Council – the heads of state and government are getting more powerful again. And then, what about the Euro Working Group? The Financial Times mentions them as ‘finance ministry technocrats’ . The NRC’s correspondent Caroline de Gruyter tells us that they are high level civil servants from the eurozone countries and Commission officials, led by the Italian Vittorio Grilli. But if we take on board her suggestion that they are the only ones who really understand what is going on in the financial markets, it would be nice to know who represents the member states there, beyond the little bits and pieces of information that we get now. After all, Europeans spent decades working out the institutional structure of the European Commission and the number of Commissioners, in treaties, debates, the constitutional convention, not to mention countless textbooks and articles. Presumably because we are concerned about nameless bureaucrats and technocrats taking political decisions on our behalf. With all respect for the difficult decisions the members of the EWG may be taking, it is still important at least to know who they are, if they will be the new technocrats making – well, preparing – political decisions on our behalf.
On a more general note, the new forms – and fora – of governance which are emerging during the crisis seem to replace many of the functions which the European Commission has been fulfilling, successfully, during decades of European integration. The advantages of the Commission have been that it was created to monitor bargains which the member states have found difficult to reach and keep. This appears to be exactly what we are looking for in the new arrangements – a watchdog. The Commission is also a body that can be subject to some democratic scrutiny through the European Parliament, unlike many of the Council working groups. And it represents all the member states, including small ones – something that cannot be said about some of the new intergovernmental discussion and decision making configurations led by the largest member states. The reason why I am returning to these well known textbook examples of what the Commission does is that mistrust in the EU, for example in the Netherlands, has led to a kind of willful ignorance of its institutions that encourages the use of ad hoc arrangements which are less known and transparent than what we already have.