Is this democracy? 28 EU commissioners veto 2 million strong petition

Carolyn Moynihan
30 May 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Given five years of record unemployment and austerity budgets in Europe, elections for the European Parliament, held last week, were always expected to produce victories for the populist parties that reject the EU and its political values. But the scale of their success - parties described as "far right" gained about one-sixth of the seats in the Strasbourg-based assembly, and a couple polled better than their own governing parties at home -- has given a jolt to the European establishment. Tens of millions of people are fed up with Big Europe.

Among the disenchanted, none are more angry this week than the organisers of One of Us , a petition that gathered two million signatures from people across the EU, only to have it rejected by the European Commission , the EU's executive body. The petition had nothing to do with the issues that appeared to drive the Eurosceptic vote - the euro, immigration and loss of national sovereignty. It was a disinterested effort to protect human life by banning EU funding of research that destroys embryos, and excluding any financing of abortion from development aid.

The Commission, however, has treated it like a campaign to turn refugees back at the borders of Europe.

In a press release summarising its reply to the petitioners the Commission says that "embryonic stem cells are unique and offer the potential for life-saving treatments, with clinical trials underway" (as, with much more success , is the case with ethically acceptable adult stem cell trials) and that the development programme in question is aimed at reducing maternal mortality, and achieving universal access to reproductive health - by means of "effective family-planning services" that prevent the need for abortion.

In other words: "Our aims are noble and humanitarian and yours are obscurantist and obstructive."

It claims that it keeps the EU rules prohibiting funding of research which destroys human embryos because it doesn't set out to fund such things; its intention is to fund research on therapies for conditions like Parkinson's Disease or diabetes, and if some of these happen to use hESCs, well, the commission did not fund the way they were obtained. At least, this seems to be the gist of its wording - an attempt to invoke the principle of double effect.

In other words: "That's our argument and we're sticking to it."

The One of Us committee is not impressed. In fact, they are furious that this collection of 28 people, having already exercised its power to approve the citizen initiative, thinks it can also veto its progress to the EU legislature, thus thwarting the democratic participation of two million people - the biggest exercise of its kind in the history of the EU - and rendering the citizen initiative mechanism meaningless.

In its own press release One of Us calls the Commission's veto "illegitimate and anti-democratic," and its response to the petitioners "hypocritical and disdainful", comprising "thirty pages of self-satisfaction with its own policy". It adds: "The Commission wishes to continue financing non ethical and outdated biotechnological practices, as well as abortion in developing countries, including countries where this is prohibited by criminal law."

Its high-handed behaviour is all the more galling because, as another organisation, European Dignity Watch , points out the petition had a generally good reception when it had a public hearing at the European Parliament in April. The different committees (commissions, committees, wheels within wheels, yes, this is the EU system) that vetted the petition reported that it was sound and in accord with European law, and there "was also broad support from MEPs from almost all political groups represented in Parliament."

All of which goes to show that you don't have to be a neo-Nazi or even a Eurosceptic (and the petitioners are not or they would hardly bother with the effort to use the EU structures) to be frustrated with a European elite that seems to be deaf to popular sentiment, closeted in committee rooms in Brussels and Strasbourg pursuing its own agenda.

In an editorial today The Economist suggests that there are two solutions to Europe's problems: "economic prosperity and increased democracy, which basically means returning power to the states and institutions that voters trust."

Of the two, the second is more fundamental. The founding fathers of the European project could never have imagined that their goal of "ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe" would one day make it necessary for ordinary Europeans to petition their political representatives to stop supporting attacks on human life - let alone have their request thrown out.

The One of Us citizens' committee has not given up on the democratic process. They are likely to appeal the European Commission's decision to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which, they say, acknowledges respect for human life from conception.

In the meantime the newly elected parliament, for all the disdain its Eurosceptic members invite from the old guard, offers a new opportunities. It will appoint a new Commission - one that those trying to protect fundamental values and rights hope will be both more ethical and more democratic. One proof of that would be a parliamentary debate on whether European money should be spent on embryo research and abortions.