A great EU stitch-up that demeans democracy

It's not often that the front pages of the Daily Mail and the Guardian have identical headlines. Still, both newspapers are right: it is a great EU stitch-up, this back-room installation of favoured placemen. Saying so doesn't make you rightwing or leftwing; it makes you a democrat.

You might expect me, as a Conservative, to object to the appointment of Labour's Baroness Ashton. And, while Herman Van Rompuy is frequently described as "centre-right", he is a Belgian Christian Democrat which, other than on some moral issues, puts him to the left of Labour.

But my objection isn't to these particular candidates. It's to a racket that concentrates power and freezes out the voters. Hillary Clinton calls Baroness Ashton her counterpart. All right, then, let's compare the way the two polities choose their leaders. Barack Obama got to be president of 300 million Americans following an exhaustive (and exhausting) series of primaries and ballots. By the end of the campaign, voters knew exactly what they were getting. Herman Van Rompuy, by contrast, was selected at a private dinner as everyone's third choice: the candidate whom no one knew anything against.

I've often wondered why Guardian readers don't get more agitated about Euro-elitism. The proudest boast of the British left, down the ages, was that it took power away from a remote caste and dispersed it more widely. This was the creed that inspired the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes; the motive that lay behind religious toleration, the extension of the franchise, universal education, appointments by competitive examination, equality for gay people.

Yet, when it comes to the EU, a surprising number of people who, in any other context, would consider themselves progressives, line up behind the most anti-democratic project in the western world. Van Rompuy and Ashton are precisely the kind of unelected office-holders that an earlier generation of radicals would have railed against.

Consider their careers. Van Rompuy owes his position to his mastery of Belgium's labyrinthine coalition trade-offs. A brilliant back-room operator, he went so far as to change the locks of the parliamentary chamber last year in order to prevent Flemish MPs meeting there.

As for Lady Ashton, she has never once taken the trouble to get herself elected to anything. A former chairman of a health authority, she went on to work for a quango before being appointed a life peer. She then steered the Lisbon treaty through the upper house without conceding the referendum that all three parties had promised in their manifestos.

She became a European commissioner not because of any special aptitude, but because Gordon Brown was determined to avoid a byelection, and so couldn't send an MP. And she owes her latest promotion, again, not to any particular expertise in foreign affairs but because it was generally felt that Labour ought to be compensated over Tony Blair not getting the presidency.

Every chapter of that story negates the democratic principle. Every page would have had Wilkes and Paine howling about arbitrary government.

I have nothing against the baroness. My problem is with the system that elevated her, a system that heaps power in the hands of officials who are invulnerable to public opinion; a system that gives unelected commissioners a monopoly of the right to initiate legislation; a system that swats aside referendum results when they go the "wrong" way.

Opposing such a system doesn't make you anti-Europe; it makes you pro-democracy. Anyone who believes in representative government should be outraged by what happened on Thursday: a lifelong quangocrat was appointed in secret to a post created by a treaty that we never got the chance to vote for.

Were the radicals wrong? Are we better off being governed by a self-perpetuating elite? What fools our fathers were if this be true.

Daniel Hannan, a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999.