The European Union must have a closer link to national politics if it is to retain its legitimacy



Post by Professor Anand Menon. Originally posted on LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog on 19 June 2014.

National governments are still involved in negotiations over nominating a candidate for the next President of the European Commission. Anand Menon writes that while much of this debate has focused on the merits of individual candidates such as Jean-Claude Juncker, the real issue is a structural one concerning the future of the European Parliament. He argues that, whichever candidate is nominated, the European Parliament is no longer fit for purpose as a mechanism for legitimising the EU. Only by forging a stronger link between the Union and politics at the national level can the EU’s democratic legitimacy be ensured.

Many conclusions can be drawn from the European elections. One, however, stands out as the most significant. When it comes to ensuring the democratic legitimacy of the European Union, the European Parliament is simply not fit for purpose. At a time when the EU more obviously shapes the economic fortunes of its citizens than ever before, this situation is unsustainable. The future of European integration depends on it being linked more directly to national democratic politics.

This time was meant to be different. Because the European elections were to directly affect the choice of European Commission President, its proponents argued they represented the dawn of a new era of ‘normal,’ partisan EU politics. The European Parliament, as ever, leveraged its powers, nominating candidates for the Commission post in an attempt to foster clear contestation between competing individuals.

Yet nothing changed. As ever, most European voters chose simply not to participate. The vast majority of those who did had no idea about the Presidential candidates their votes were supporting. Many simply chose to use the election to protest against a variety of irritants ranging from mainstream politics to immigration, to the impact of globalisation.

No one has come out of this process well. Not the national governments who, over time, have created this constitutional mess with their willingness to increase the powers of a parliament neither they nor their voters respect. Nor the EP itself, which has used the elections to attempt a naked power grab spuriously legitimised in the name of ‘democracy’. The much-vaunted (if little watched) televised debates between the Presidential candidates revealed merely how little they disagree on, united as they are by a desire simply to drive integration forward.

Nor has either side distinguished itself following the elections. To argue that Jean-Claude Juncker enjoys a genuine democratic mandate is to wilfully ignore the intentions of the voters. Yet to claim opposition to him is based on an assessment of his credentials is equally disingenuous. The idea, frequently expressed, that Juncker is too much of a backroom dealmaker loses all credibility when the head of the notoriously secretive and profoundly undemocratic IMF is touted as an alternative.

We confront a choice between unpalatable alternatives. Member states could accept Juncker, thus appointing a candidate beholden to the Parliament, and creating political problems for David Cameron. Alternatively, they could select an alternative candidate, sparking an angry confrontation with a Parliament whose approval is needed for the European Commission to take office. In so doing, they would underline their contempt for the (albeit imperfect) mechanisms of representative democracy at the EU level.

The nub of the problem is not about this or that candidate. It is structural. In attempting to enhance its own powers, the EP is acting like parliaments have throughout history. In defending their prerogatives, the member states are acting like normal nation states.

The victim of the clash is the legitimacy of the EU system. Absent a European demos, whose emergence national politicians are understandably reluctant to encourage, the EP is incapable of providing such legitimacy. Absent a means of providing accountability for their collective decisions at the European level, so too are national governments.

For many years, this did not matter. The EU dealt largely with trade and regulation and had no competence over those issues that voters really care about – taxation, welfare, health and education. The Eurozone crisis has changed all this. Decisions taken in Brussels shape the fiscal policy of member states to a degree unimaginable only a few years ago. The EU has, in other words, become politically highly salient.

Consequently, the democratic malaise afflicting European governance is unsustainable. Member states rely on the EU to achieve key policy objectives. A gradual erosion of support for the Union threatens their ability to deliver these. Seeking democratic legitimacy via empowerment of the European Parliament has been repeatedly tried and has failed.

The only alternative is to link the EU more closely with national political processes. This is not to say that these latter are perfect. Far from it. But they do engage citizens in debates over partisan politics to a far greater extent than do European elections. Politicians stand or fall on their records in office, and if those records included active participation in generating EU decisions, these too would be the object of greater democratic scrutiny.

Moreover, direct involvement in EU policy making would change the behaviour of national politicians. As things stand, many of these choose simply to carp from the sidelines, blaming the EU for difficult decisions whilst failing to suggest alternatives. Having a direct say over these decisions would mean putting up or shutting up. The cheap shot at Brussels would no longer be a rational political strategy for national parliamentarians directly involved in the EU legislative process.

Redesigning the system to ensure such involvement will not be easy. There are various competing schemes out there, and ultimately, it will involve treaty change, which many governments are currently desperate to avoid. In the interim, greater use of the yellow card procedure introduced by the Lisbon treaty, and more effective scrutiny of EU legislation through the relevant committees in national parliaments would represent a good start.

The crucial point is that something needs to be done. The two levels of European politics are mutually dependent. Member states need the EU to achieve policy outcomes they could not accomplish alone. The Union depends on these member states in order to function. The methods used to ensure democratic legitimacy must reflect this interdependence, linking national politics directly with the EU and engaging national publics in a way the current system simply fails to do. The alternative is to see the Union lose all legitimacy, undermining its ability to act at the very moment when member states need it most.

Originally posted on LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog on 19 June 2014.

Who Killed Mrs X? The Global Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance

Post by Professor Jonathan Grant and Jirka Taylor. Originally posted on The RAND Blog on 18 September 2013.

When Sir Alexander Fleming accepted the Nobel Prize in 1945 for the discovery of penicillin he predicted the advent of antimicrobial resistance through a hypothetical illustration: “Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies”.

As we enter the adolescence of the 21st century, Mrs. Xs are dying daily. In Europe, drug-resistant bacteria are responsible for 25,000 deaths a year, with related healthcare costs and productivity losses of €1.5 billion ($2 billion); over half a million people worldwide have drug resistant tuberculosis; in the United States, about 15 per cent of pneumococcal isolates are resistant to penicillin. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, since their development, antimicrobial drugs have added around 20 years to our life expectancy — 20 years that we are in danger of losing.

Although widely used, the term “antibiotics” is a misnomer. Strictly speaking antibiotics only occur naturally and, as the vast majority of pharmaceuticals are manmade, we should describe them collectively as antimicrobials specifying the type of microbe that they intend to affect — antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal. Today 35 million courses of antimicrobial drugs are prescribed annually by family doctors in England and millions of additional doses are given in hospitals each day, with prophylactic use of antibacterials before surgery now a routine precaution for many types of operation.

But the antimicrobial drugs are no longer working as they once did. The bugs that they are supposed to attack are becoming increasingly resistant. Microbes follow the same rules of evolution as we do. Through reproduction and natural selection the fittest survive. The problem for us is that the “fittest” means the most resistant. Unlike humans microbes breed in days, not decades, thus amplifying Darwinian patterns of evolution.

The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, highlighted this threat in a recent book, The Drugs Don’t Work. In the book Dame Sally and her co-authors, including Jonathan Grant, set out a “Microbial Manifesto” to address the threat of antimicrobial resistance. Three areas of action are identified. The first is the need to improve personal hygiene, behaviour and awareness. It is shocking to learn that only 1 in 20 people wash their hands for long enough to kill off all infectious bugs after going to the toilet. Given that each human has between 2 and 10 million bacteria between fingertip and elbow, and that some of these are infectious, then improved basic personal hygiene would reduce the demand for antimicrobial drugs. A similar antisocial behaviour is to demand antibacterial drugs from your doctor when you have a viral infection: they don’t work, waste a scarce resource, and contribute to resistance. Despite this, studies in Europe and the United States have consistently shown that the majority of people think that antibacterial drugs are effective in treating the common cold and influenza.

The second area of action is to incentivise innovation. No new class of antibacterial drug has been developed since 1987. This is not too surprising as it costs over $1.5b to develop a successful drug and the market for antibacterial drugs does not justify this level of investment. The returns are likely to be larger for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, than infectious disease — partly as medicines are prescribed over a longer period (sometimes for the lifetime of the patient). There is also a concern that if a new antibacterial agent was developed its use would be regulated, given the problem of resistance. In other words we want the new drugs, but don’t want to use them. There are a number of approaches to address this failure to innovate that can be structured around the “four Ps” of partnerships, prices, prizes and patents. Product development partnerships between the public and private sector could reduce the costs of research and development. Advanced market commitments where governments or foundations could promise to purchase a given quantity of a new antimicrobial drug at a price agreed in advance may provide an incentive for the private sector to re-invest in R&D. A prize fund could help promote the need for new drugs and provide early financial reward and revenues for a successful inventor. Finally, extending the patent life of new classes of antimicrobial drugs would extend its revenue stream. Some of these ideas are already being tried but we need to radically scale-up their use.

The third area of action requires an international agreement that: controls the use of antimicrobials; provides technical and financial assistance to poor and low-income countries in balancing access to essential drugs with action to curb resistance; monitors the emergence of drug-resistant microbes; and establishes systems to ensure compliance with the agreement. An analogous example would be the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into force in 2005 “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke”. The treaty’s provisions include rules that govern the production, sale, distribution, advertisement and taxation of tobacco. A similar approach is needed to address antimicrobial resistance.

We live in a time when there are many global threats — (in)security, terrorism, population ageing, and climate change. Antimicrobial resistance is a clear and present danger that needs to be added to this list. As with all these threats, a nuanced, multifaceted, evidence-driven and coordinated response is required. If we do nothing then within a generation the risk of catching an infection while having a routine operations such as a hip-replacement may be too dangerous to contemplate.

Originally posted on The RAND Blog on 18 September 2013.