Is the EU really undemocratic?

Many assert the EU is undemocratic. How so? The EU Commission, like the UK Civil Service, may be unelected but it is accountable to the democratic institutions of the EU. All Commission proposals must be approved by the (elected) EU parliament. If UKIP’s MEPs don’t bother turning up to debates or don’t use the EU parliament to ensure the Commission’s proposals do meet our national interest then that’s hardly the EU’s fault. If the Tories deliberately isolate themselves and let the EPP group decide who’ll be the next head of the EU Commission, and in the process ensure Britons are disenfranchised from that decision, whose fault is that?  Instead we hear the same superficial and worn-out arguments for leaving the EU.

All Commission proposals can be reviewed by all national parliaments. In the UK there is a Commons Select Committee (chaired by that dyed in the wool Europhile Bill Cash MP) and a Lords Committee. They are able to scrutinise all proposed legislation, recommend amendments and request Commons debates on the proposals. Again, if our MPs and peers don’t properly scrutinise proposals or if the UK government is hiding behind the EU on policies it actually does want (or may not want but knows it must implement), that’s hardly the EU’s fault and is ours to fix. But Brexiters appear to define ability of the legislature to propose legislation as a key defining characteristic of a democracy and on that basis the EU falls short. Never mind the fact that the UK has an unelected Head of State, unelected legislative chamber, first past the post electoral system which allows governments to be formed with less than 25% of the electorate. Never mind the fact that Westminster’s private members’ bill system normally requires Executive support to get through and  even highly popular proposals can easily be blocked by one recalcitrant, filibustering MP. 

Lastly all proposals must be approved by the Council of Ministers, from the elected governments of all members. Some policy areas (eg taxation) have national vetoes, the rest QMV, specifically designed to ensure that supermajorities of states and populations must approve the proposals. If Britain fails to constructively seek allies in revising or blocking proposals it objects to, whose fault is that? If we simply turn up at the final vote without doing any preparation and then get outvoted, whose fault is that? On those occasions that the UK fails to block proposals that others want, this is known as “democracy”. It seems some BrExiter definition of Democracy is getting our way whatever anyone else thinks. However, the facts show that in the past 20 years we’ve been outvoted 72 times our of 6226 Council of Minister votes. Here’s an overview of the process:

The fact the EU implementation of its democratic system is different to the UK system is not prima facie evidence of its lack of democracy. The U.S. and French systems are quite different to ours, but we wouldn’t say they were undemocratic. Whilst it is (currently) true the EU Parliament cannot initiate legislation, in practice the UK parliament can only do this via the very hit and miss private members bill process (where bills are almost impossible to progress without government support and where any one MP can filibuster to ensure a bill fails). The executive proposes legislation, the civil service drafts it and parliament agrees, revises or disagrees. 

However, the point remains that the EU has formal democracy aplenty. The fact only 30% of UK voters turn out for EU elections may be a problem in that democracy, but they have the opportunity to participate. If UK voters can’t name their MEPs then that’s hardly the fault of the EU (for the record I once wrote to one of mine, elite public school and Oxford educated Dan Hannan, who told me I should vote for some one else: hardly a believer in representative democracy)! What is objectionable is Farage portraying a bureaucratic EU imposing sinister rules on us all, out of the blue and without any involvement or consent. That is simply untrue. The idea that the UK parliament is totally powerless and an unwilling participant to legislation imposed by the EU is absolute nonsense.

Sometimes the popular press in the UK pounces upon some pronouncement from a leader in an EU member state, particularly from (say) Angela Merkel or her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. Whether such pronouncements have merit or not, they have no chance of becoming EU policy unless and until all the above processes have been followed, leaving plenty of opportunity to block or revise. They are as entitled to pronounce on policies they wish the EU to adopt as the UK is on advocating reform of the EU and its institutions, though they have never suggested holding a referendum on their EU membership as an explicit threat if they do not get their way. Floating an idea is a long way from making a decision on whether the idea should be adopted which is even further away from agreeing an EU wide implementation that realises that idea in practice.

A charge often leveled is that the EU ignores the results of national referendums on EU treaties and has them re-run to get the “right result”. Ignoring the issue that in most referendums the electorate often punishes the incumbent government rather than answers the question on its own merit, this is an unfair representation. In all cases, the government concerned renegotiates aspects of the treaty and puts the revised terms to a second referendum (one could question the democratic legitimacy of revising a treaty that other states have already ratified, but let’s not go there). Examples include: Denmark voted against the Maastrict Treaty, supposedly because Danes wanted to keep their own currency. They (like Britain) were granted a permanent opt out and the treaty was approved. Ireland twice voted against EU treaties (Nice and Lisbon) for (it is said) a whole range of issues, though ultimately because they would no longer be getting the largess they were used to as they were  now a wealthy EU country. Nonetheless, they renegotiated terms the electorate were concerned about (their neutrality, abortion laws, number of EU commissioners etc) and put the new terms to the electorate, who approved. There  is, of course, a question of democratic legitimacy in allowing 1 state with 0.5% of the EU population blocking a treaty that the other 27 states had approved (whether or not you approve of the treaty or  of the approval process). What alternative was there? Go back to square one and start a new treaty negotiation? What’s even more amusing is that some Brexiters see a Leave outcome in the 2016 referendum as a means of strengthening the UK’s negotiating position, to get a better deal from the EU and then holding another referendum on those new terms.  That’s hardly consistent with a claim the EU is undemocratic!

Finally, let’s remember that the UK has an unelected second legislative chamber, an unelected Head of State, a justice system of unelected judges, and an unelected civil service. The funny thing is that a high proportion of those who complain about lack of democracy in the EU are quite comfortable with the situation in these UK institutions.Starting with Lloyd George in 1911, how many attempts have been made to reform the House of Lords?  Is it much closer to being democratically elected and accountable?

Here’s a flowchart of the EU decision making process:

Below is a more detailed exploration of the issues:

Geo-Strategic Reasons for EU Membership

Geo-Political Considerations

What is meant by “Leave” the EU?

Analyses of Brexit Options

EU Laws: Are they really “pointless rules and regulation”?

Reciprocity: a glass half full or half empty?

Is the EU really undemocratic?

EU Cost of Membership

Implications for exPat Brits

Will we save money by leaving? The cost of EU Membership

Some tiresome arguments from BrExit advocates

It’s such an easy decision to leave, right?

Was Cameron shafted in the renegotiations?

Commentary on Gove’s BrExit statement

Does BrExit solve the migration crisis for the UK?

Boris at the Treasury Select Committee

Is it really Project Fear?

The Trade Embargo Strawman

The Government’s pro-Remain Leaflet

Summary of Brexit Alternatives

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