Sunday, 3 January 2016

EU - are we democratic yet?

"One of the chief complaints the Leave camp have regarding the EU is that of the 'Democratic Deficit' - that there's a huge void between the people of the UK and the European Union that somehow leaves us disenfranchised. Is this a fair assessment?"

Jean-Claude Juncker - living proof of the potency of the UK voice in the European Council

Caveat - it's is a lengthy subject which can go to infinite depths. This is just a high level fly-by in order to contrast and compare. I use the introduction of law as the dimension of comparison as it's significant and at the forefront of people's minds on this matter. There are other dimensions to this debate but appreciate that I'm writing a blog post and not a book.

It's a common complaint - the EU is undemocratic; a dictatorship run by unelected failed politicians, giving us as little say in affairs and law making as possible. Generally, people accept this to be the case but from time to time, committed Europhiles will go in to a frenzied fury at the notion that the EU gives us anything less than equivalent democratic freedoms. Being central to the referendum debate, it's worthy of investigation - but let's start first with what we mean by the term 'democracy'

Democracy - noun:

"A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives."

Specifically in the UK, we have Parliamentary Democracy.

"Parliamentary democracy, democratic form of government in which the party (or a coalition of parties) with the greatest representation in the parliament (legislature) forms the government, its leader becoming prime minister or chancellor. Executive functions are exercised by members of the parliament appointed by the prime minister to the cabinet. The parties in the minority serve in opposition to the majority and have the duty to challenge it regularly. The prime minister may be removed from power whenever he loses the confidence of a majority of the ruling party or of the parliament. Parliamentary democracy originated in Britain (see Parliament) and was adopted in several of its former colonies."

How our system works (high level)


The UK operates a bi-cameral system, with the House of Commons and the House of Lords actively taking part in UK law making and the Queen being a symbolic head of state.

The House of Commons is populated with MPs who are directly elected by the people of the UK during a national election. The House of Lords is full of hapless life peers and cronies ... no wait, The House of Lords is populated by a wide range of people from all walks of life, bringing a wealth of experience to bear.

Laws are introduced via bills which can be initiated in either house but will be read multiple times by each. Typically, laws need to be agreed by both houses - excluding those times when the Commons brute force legislation through via the Parliament act. The important thing to note here is that because the HoC is populated by democratic mandate, it has primacy whereas the HoL is limited.

It's the last point that is really important. The people we vote for are ultimately responsible for all law making. When they screw up or go wayward, we can vote them out. We can argue that the mechanism used to elect the MPs is inefficient (First Past The Post) but ultimately the power of the vote in people's hands controls who resides in the HoC.

Another model of democracy for contrast (US model)


The USA is another example of democracy in a bicameral setting in action. The United States Congress, as it's known, comprises of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The members of both these houses are directly elected. The head of state (President) however, is indirectly elected via the Electoral College. States vote and then representative electors cast votes on their behalf in the Electoral College.

Bills are proposed in the House of Representatives, discussed by committees, debated by the house, voted on and then passed through to the Senate. Similar steps are taken at this stage, at which point, assuming that the Senators shout 'Yea', the bill heads to the President. Then the President can sign off or veto the bill.

So the people of America have a say all the way through the process, able to influence the makeup of both houses and the President. I'm sure there are issues with it but it's hard to argue that democracy isn't afforded to the people of the USA.

How the EU system works (high level)

So what about the EU?

Three aspects of the EU come in to play when new legislation is made:

1 - The Commission

The Commission President is proposed by the European Council (via Qualified Majority Voting - QMV) to the European Parliament who will then vote by majority and appoint.

The remaining Commissioners are nominated by member nations in agreement with the President and then the proposed Commission is then, again, approved by the European Parliament.

The commission is the sole institution for creation of laws within the EU. None of these people hold their position by direct election.

2 - The European Parliament

The European Parliament are seen to have democratic mandate, being elected via proportional representation by the people of member states. They have their own President who they elect themselves every two and a half years.

Currently, the UK have 73 seats in the European Parliament which gives the UK as a nation 9.7% of the vote, compared to it being as high as 20% previously. Naturally this gets diluted as the EU expands.

3 - The European Council (not the Council of Europe)

The European Council comprises of the heads of state from the member nations and has a President who is elected by the Council members via QMV.

At time of writing, the UK have circa 8% of the vote here, from as high as 17% previously.

Whereas the Commission proposes legislation, it's the Council & Parliament that act as the authority in most cases (under something called ordinary legislative procedure). Here, Commission proposals go to the Parliament and the Council. Parliament can intervene and propose amendments subject to Council approval. Again, this is high level stuff and there are exceptions but it's enough to show you where the laws are born and the makeup of the institutions that pass them.

Points of note

The obvious point here is that we (the people) do not directly hire, nor can we directly fire the Commission who propose the laws. Regardless as to how you feel about the EU, it's undeniable that there is democratic void here. Yes, 'we' do as a member state nominate a Commissioner but at a national level, there is no engagement with the people about that process (or understanding by them) and there is no intent to engage. Intent being critical here. It never gets discussed, it just happens.

A democratic process is happening but not one that directly involves the people of the member states. The person that we nominate doesn't actually represent us anyway, instead they are expected to represent the EU - so it's not a form of national representation, it's appointment to a job. When it comes to the Parliament voting on the Commission, we have less than 10% input on the matter but furthermore, those MEPs are made up of 10 separate parties (at least I counted 10, certainly no less - see here: which are members of 8 different political groupings. So it's not a single national voice in effect here and we cannot expect them to vote contiguously - they're fragmented.

From that, we can conclude that it's fair for people to talk about the Commissioners as undemocratic.

But we also have to consider the role of Commission President. There is engagement with the Council, but our voice in this is small at 8%. You only have to look back to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 to see how easy it is for a nation to be marginalised (and a head of state to look completely impotent).

Again, democracy is happening here but just like the Commissioners themselves, the people are not consulted and our voice is weak, so it's fair to argue again that from the perspective of the people, this is not democratic.

I think the example of fragmentation in the Europarl given above says everything we need to know about national effectiveness in that body. 10 parties following 8 political groupings - none of which can be whipped in to a single national line. Is this the most effective form of democracy that they could give us?

And finally on the matter of European Council, it's well recorded that between 96 and 2014 we made 55 attempts to stop proposals and failed each and every time. In fairness, it's a small percentage of the overall number of votes that we made but the 100% failure rate does demonstrate the inherent weakness in the system.

Consider also that as membership grows, our voice may shrink even further. This in a union which is a diminishing market that forces us to use them as a proxy at the top tables.

So we see multiple bodies at play here. The Commission itself clearly falls short of the democratic mark. The Council is weak and Europarl fragments our meagre voice. Compared to other systems it can only be seen as a notional democracy at best.

As the laws that are made trump our own sovereignty, this arrangement makes no sense at all if we are to consider ourselves a free and independent nation. The margins of representation can only be seen to be proportional in the context of the EU being a country in itself. Then we're not a nation looking for a voice, but a state in the federation. Many of the Europhiles arguing that there is effective democracy point to the mechanism and accept the levels of representation in the federalist context, citing 'collaboration' as a sop to acceptability.

This argument becomes somewhat circular when it's pointed out that we don't need to be ruled by anybody in order to collaborate with them. That's the true sign of political maturity. Intergovernmental arrangements not supranational. At which point it's often stated that being in 'the club' and acting as a bloc of 28 means that we have more clout at tables such as the WTO. But this falls down quite quickly because outside of the bloc, we can choose when it's in our interests to collaborate and do not have to accept it when we don't.

And this is where we don't and probably won't reconcile our views with the Europhiles. They see national interests as selfish and isolationist and find it hard to accept that collaboration should be conditional. We see the EU as marginalising our global voice with the supporting mechanisms giving us poor leverage. Personally, I think that when you have your own voice and veto you probably have greater scope for making deals with allies (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours).


Even if you can argue that these are democratic mechanisms at play, it's not the same as having democratic legitimacy. To have that, the people affected would need to have been consulted (in referendum or clearly by manifesto) at the time when sovereign powers were transferred from our nation to the EU. i.e. Maastricht / Lisbon etc. If we had been consulted and supported the changes that fundamentally tipped the balance of power, that would have given them democratic legitimacy. To be clear, under the covers the intent of the 1975 referendum may well have been to establish the supremacy of EEC over UK law (supporting the political aims of the Treaty of Rome), but it was never sold to the people of the UK as such, clearly positioned as a common market for trade purposes. The official material produced during the campaign scoffed at the notion that we would lose parliamentary sovereignty.

If the politicians at the top knew what was to come, then clearly the people of the UK were mislead and the referendum cannot be used as a mandate for ongoing integration.

Right now, we're operating under a structure of governance that has no legitimacy from the perspective of the people. We have not been adequately consulted and I'd go so far as to say that our own governments have conspired to stop us having a say on the matter. One only needs to think of the Labour party manifesto from 2005 where they pledged:

"The EU now has 25 members and will continue to expand. The new Constitutional Treaty ensures the new Europe can work effectively, and that Britain keeps control of key national interests like foreign policy, taxation, social security and defence. The Treaty sets out what the EU can do and what it cannot. It strengthens the voice of national parliaments and governments in EU affairs. It is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a ‘Yes’ vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

They reneged on that pledge using a technicality. Effectively the initial proposal was rejected by France and the Netherlands and then, after undergoing revision, was then re-presented as the Lisbon treaty which allegedly contains 90% of the same content. Gordon Brown signed this off in 2007 without fulfilling his pledge and importantly, the people were side stepped.


You're free to draw you own conclusions but the upshot is clear to my mind. The EU delivers an anaemic form of democracy to the peoples of the member nations, leaving them at arms length. Worse still, the transition of powers from nations to the EU has happened under a fog of misdirection which leaves it in a position of authority without popular mandate.

1 comment:

  1. Very good post Dan. I was going to try and blog at some stage on EU institutions & lack of democracy & our inability to influence ... Now I only need put a link to this post ! Very clearly explained - thanks.