Sunday 29 June 2008

EU elites – Who are they?

All the masters of strategy from Sun Tzu onwards have underlined the crucial importance of knowing your enemy. In my continuing effort to guide anti-EU campaigners towards less nebulous and more stringent thinking, the time has come to look at their favourite enemy, the ‘EU elite(s)’.

First, we have to deconstruct the concept. Who are the ‘EU elites’?

Here is my attempt:

1) We have the national heads of state or government (meeting in the European Council).

2) Then we have the national government ministers (who convene in different Council configurations) and the Council machinery with its different functions (negotiating, legislating, executing, administering, monitoring).

3) The national parliaments, elected by the citizens, each hold their own government accountable for its share in EU dealings and they hold the keys to ratification of the ground rules (treaties), constituting the dominant part of the (in my view contrived) double legitimacy of the European Union.

4) The European Parliament, directly elected by the EU citizens, at the present time co-legislator, along with the Council in most of the matters pertaining to the ‘Community pillar, but effectively excluded from the crucial decisions (setting the ground rules, electing the government, setting the main course of policies, levying taxes, deciding on the long term budget, making the fundamental decisions on foreign, security and defence policy, as well as parts of justice and home affairs and agricultural policy to name a few significant sectoral deficiencies).

5) The European Commission, with rights to propose legislation in ‘Community’ matters and with powers to execute and administer these (civil service), subject to varying degrees of Council and EP monitoring. The Commission is excluded from roughly the same policy areas as the European Parliament, with the notable exception that it executes the common agricultural policy, as defined by the Council (member states).

6) The European Court of Justice, which interprets the Treaty establishing the European Community and the secondary legislation based on it (since the Court is excluded from much of the Treaty on European Union).


The Court of Justice has undoubtedly advanced the aims of the treaties by landmark rulings on voids and interpretative difficulties, but it has also set limits to community action. On balance, the Court has acted according to the objectives of the treaties, sometimes beyond a literal interpretation.

The Lisbon Treaty proposes measures concerning the appointment of judges, who at the present time are effectively appointed by their respective governments, but I fail to see the merits of the anti-EU critique of ‘unelected judges’ or any constructive alternatives.

If ‘unelected judges’ are bad, how should the judges be elected? It is not enough to smear; clean-up measures should be offered.


The Commission has the (near) monopoly of proposals in its given fields of activity, and it executes the policies delegated to it under the watchful eye of the Council (and the European Parliament), but the Commission does not rule Europe.

From reading some of the more uneducated blogs, one could get the impression that the Commission is the lawmaker of the European Union.

Is there a viable alternative to a fairly objective guardian of the treaty provisions on the internal market, competition, external trade and other common policy areas? What would it be?


The directly elected European Parliament is part equal legislator, part minor partner, in community matters. The Lisbon Treaty would extend the ordinary legislative procedure (co-decision), but stil leave crucial areas of EU matters outside effective parliamentary scrutiny.

As I see it, the problem is not overwhelming EP power, but its severe limitations. EU level democratic legitimacy and accountability require profound reform to give the citizens of the European Union the decisive powers: to elect and to replace the officeholders and to set the course for the EU in all matters within its competence.

This means that the EU would get a real executive (government), responsible to the European Parliament (ultimately with two chambers).

The new European Union would be approved by a pan-EU referendum, requiring a double majority, of citizens and states.

The states where the populations vote against their own electoral powers and a more effective union, would remain outside the new structures, at their own level of comfort and factual incompetence (dressed up as sovereignty).


But today, the dominant EU players are the first three, mentioned above: the national leaders, the national governments and the national parliaments, as well as their creatures, the European Council and the Council.

Are these really ‘EU elites’, when in reality they are national or intergovernmental (at the expense of citizens’ more direct influence)?

The concept, as in use by anti-EU propagandists, seems to be either a fallacy or an exercise in disinformation.

The modest Treaty of Lisbon would do little to change that. More reform is needed, not less.

Ralf Grahn


  1. Spend time in Brussels. Special number plates for EU employees. No parking fines. Don't pay tax. Chocolates and blow jobs provided by the state. Take it from there.

  2. "From reading some of the more uneducated blogs, one could get the impression that the Commission is the lawmaker of the European Union."

    So true. I always wonder how people got the impression that the Commission is that strong at all.

    I'd not name them "elite" in the first place, because therefore I'd have to believe that I am not part of an elite myself. But the word "elite" seems to mean something different in the European Union - as you pointed it out.

  3. Tapestry,

    Do you propose abolishing diplomatic immunities and privileges globally, or only for the treaty based European Union?

    Perhaps your 'free nations' need no international relations whatsoever(?)

    European Union Law Blog,

    Nothing can force people to learn about the European Union (especially if they have their eyes and ears shut, but their mouths wide open), but everybody should be offered a chance; a work you accomplish with flair on your own blog.

  4. Going back to "titles", I think the word "elite" is misleading and shouldn't be used. It implies they are somehow "superior" and worthy of the positions they hold. When the impression we get is that for the most part, they are greedy and corrupt bunch of self-serving crooks and shysters. And when the new EU Justice Minster is a convicted fraudster, what else are we to think??
    Really, Ralf, how can we take this lot seriously:

    Or this lot either:

  5. I have spent a lot of time in Brussels living with local people. They all know the score. EU employee means untouchable.

  6. JO and Tapestry,

    Sadly,neither of you answers the questions, posed or implied.

    Basically, every feature of the European Union is a creation of national political leaders, by unanimous agreement. They are the core 'EU elite', like it or not.

    If you resist their creation, don't you see any connection between the lack of accountability and the fundamentally intergovernmental structure of the EU?

    Does rejecting the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty make the European Union, which has not disappeared, a happier place under the Treaty of Nice?

  7. Some interesting ideas here.

    The elites – those minorities of people who wield state power – are national. The EU has evolved primarily out of a national dynamic between elites and peoples. Perhaps it would be better expressed as the EU’s elites.

    The institution with most importance in the EU is Coreper – the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which meets once or twice a week. This body is run by civil servants, not elected politicians.

    The other Council structures tend to discipline ministers and leaders into the outlook of mandarins offering the opportunity for politicians to conduct politics as if it was diplomacy (that is bureaucratically in relation to other elites rather than democratically in relation to voters). Diplomacy and the bureaucratic, secretive and undemocratic, rules and practices that it entails are not a sound basis for the conduct of public authority.

    Sir Stephen Wall’s Stranger in Europe is a fascinating elite account of Britain’s role in the EU showing that that policy has been more or less continuous for 25 years – because it is the policy of Whitehall. In the UK, the EU is bound up with the Crown and the existence of powerful government institutions that are more or less independent of democratic accountability. In Britain, and across the EU, this sphere of officialdom has become ever more important to statecraft.

    This is perhaps the point you miss most. The rise of the EU has followed an unprecedented political convergence across Europe and historical decline in mass politics (right and left). One of the defining features of “centrist”, pro-EU politics, is the out sourcing of authority to new bodies and agencies, with strong tendency to bureaucratisation and juridification of life.

    This process has often been incremental and divorced, even entirely independent or behind the back, of the playing out of national politics. Much of the petty officialdom we face in our daily lives, both in Britain and elsewhere, is part of this broader trend which is the context for the EU. The technocratic outlook is what our rulers across the EU all have in common.

    I always try and make the point that the potency of the EU question is that it confronts issues both at home and abroad. Challenging the EU means taking a close look at national political traditions or current practice. In the UK and elsewhere, the democratic case against the EU has much in common with republican or other radical critiques of the State. The EU question is constitutional in the true sense of the word: it is about the nature of politics.

    As an internationalist I think that in this kind of analysis we might find much in common, as Britons, as Europeans, as citizens. In referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland there was one unifying feature: that the entire national political establishment backed an argument and their peoples did not.

    You asked if Europe would be a better place under Nice or Lisbon. This rather missies the political point. If Lisbon is forced on Europeans (there has certainly been much dishonesty and evasion to avoid referendums) what does that say?

  8. Bruno,

    Thank you for your valuable input. The additions about Coreper and officialdom - the Sir Humphreys of this world - are relevant, but perhaps better dealt with separately.

    National referendums, in my view, are not well adapted to solving difficult political questions of European dimensions; instead I prefer the permanent basis of representative democracy.

  9. "Basically, every feature of the European Union is a creation of national political leaders, by unanimous agreement. They are the core 'EU elite', like it or not."

    That's exactly what I'm thinking.

  10. Basically, every feature of the European Union is a creation of national political leaders, by unanimous agreement. They are the core 'EU elite', like it or not.

    exactly - and without the agreement of their people, for the most part. Until you ask the people if they agree with the loss of the national level, as you call it, and they agree, the EU is a dead man walking.

    Do I care if it disintegrates?

    It would be the happiest day of my life. We could start to organise and run our society in a civilised manner once more, and get rid of the corruption and privilege and poltiical stupidity that has invaded our workplaces, our relationships and our families.

    The state has become the enemy. I fear the EU far more than any terrorist.

  11. It's a pity the opponents of the EU have succeeded in giving the term 'EU elite(s)' such a dubious name. The term can be vague, but also quite useful on many occasions.

    For example, I find it quite unproblematic to say 'the EU elites that were responsible for the preparation of the Treaty of Lisbon'. In this case the concept encompasses not only the official representatives in the IGC, but also other persons who directly wielded power in the process. Concerning the power-related aspect of the term ('elite' implying a powerful group of people above others), I think the author in this case could use the word to remind us of how only few hundred people really had any influence in the treaty process.

    It's also possible to use the term in a far wider sociological meaning, including e.g. the economic decision-makers who are strong proponents of economic integration and directly benefit from it, but in these contexts a more accurate explication is needed.

  12. It is a bit sad that the article scratches only along the surface. It talks about general institutional issues while it wants to explain who is elite (and who is not).

    Bruno went exactly the right way in pointing out to Coreper because this is where you can find real people, not just abstract conceptions of institutions.

    For me, EU elites are people with a pro-European orientation holding positions where they can actively influence pro-integrationist agendas and/or decisions. Those EU elites are to be found as well among member states, in the Court, the Commission but also in the Council secretariat. Not everyone in the Commission is an EU elite, but some officials with access to influential fora (e.g. in the comitology, member states' ministries etc.) can use this access for pro-Europe agenda setting or to link positively minded officials and experts from the member states.

    EU elites are therefore those actors who hold positions where they can exploit the complexity of EU policy making for their political goals, especially with respect to other actors who lack the necessary oversight.

  13. Julien Frisch,

    Sorry for the belated reply.

    You could say that there are engineers interested in a whole machine, and those who look at a certain cogwheel.

    There are architects who do city planning, and there are interior decorators.

    You could have read the post as an attempt to look at the crucial decisions giving the European Union and the results from that. This was the context.

    The important cogs you mention can be studied and should be studied, but this was not the object of this exercise.

  14. What I wanted to say is that while you look at the machine (or the most important machines) my feeling is that the term "EU elite" does match with these institutions. EU elites are rather those cogs that are able to construct links between the parts of the EU machine.

    In this sense, a large part of what is called "EU elites" is in fact an invisible ('nebulous') group of actors. Because of them the machines keeps on going and because of them member states wheels are turning into similar directions.

    Maybe member states and their governments take the formal decisions, but if large parts of these decisions are prepared by other actors than these governments, governments just appear as the "elites" while in fact they are following the paths others have paved for them.

    So it is not about city planning or interior architects but about the question: Is the planner/the architect the elite or his assistant who does most of the work behind the scenes while his boss is discussing with partners? Or, in the cog picture: Isn't the size of the cog quite important for the speed the wheel can achieve?

  15. Julien Frisch,

    You are absolutely right in that important cogs are worthy objects of study in the EU (as in other organisations).

    I have looked at the treaty level, amendmening the treaties, the areas left to intergovernmental cooperation (CFSP, CSDP) and the 'sensitive' areas where the member states' governments have kept all or almost all of the playing cards (roughly, the special legislative procedure and other decisions outside equal parliamentary contribution).

    From my chosen viewpoint the description still holds true.


Due deluge of spam comments no more comments are accepted.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.