The EU (again): How ‘Democratic’ Is It?

As you may know I don’t actually think that democracy is a good thing; at best it’s the ‘least worst’ political system as they exist currently. However I was drawn into a debate (again) recently about the European Union. The accusation was that the laws that we receive from the EU were somehow less democratic than those enacted unilaterally by the UK Government, that the EU is unrepresentative and so its laws are forced on us.

As I pointed out all legislation has to be passed by the European Parliament, where elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), such as Nigel Farage, sit. These are democratically chosen by the UK electorate, in a Proportional Representation (PR) process, so therefore more democratic than the way that Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to the UK Parliament. The European Parliament “may approve or reject a legislative proposal, or propose amendments to it.”

The argument against this process being democratic was that the European Commission alone creates the legislation, not the European Parliament, and that the Commission is ‘unelected’.

There is a Commissioner for each of the 27 member countries, elected by its own national government (which in turn is elected by its own electorate), so this is still democratic with respect to each national electorate. The Commission (the cabinet) and the President together comprise the executive of the EU. The European Parliament then has to elect the President and the Commission, so the nationally-elected MEPs vote on whether to accept the President and Commission: still democratic so far.

So the argument that the EU is ‘less representative’ can be seen to be specious: every step of the way in creating EU legislation involves a decision by the MEPs, who are elected nationally by a ‘fairer’ democratic process than our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). Yes, the Executive aren’t directly elected, but so what? Let’s compare that to the UK system, shall we?

We will ignore the anachronism that is the monarchy, for the Queen is generally regarded as only a figurehead, although constitutionally she is the final arbiter and the government acts in her name.

Within the UK we have two bodies involved in proposing and enacting legislation. The ‘lower’ house is the House of Commons: the ‘upper’ house is the House of Lords.

For the House of Commons in the UK we elect MPs via a FPTP electoral system, which is widely regarded as ‘unfairer’ than the Proportional Representation system that European Parliament elections utilise. The leader of the party that wins the most seats (usually, in a simple majority situation) becomes the Prime Minister (PM). Note that constitutionally they don’t even need to be an MP, though it’s a long time since this last happened (Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister twice between 1855 and 1865 for over 9 years).

Although the winning party leader may be elected as an MP, he is not elected directly as PM by anyone other than his own party, often years previously. So already the European Parliamentary system is more democratic.

This unelected head of government then chooses his own cabinet, which along with the PM forms the executive: this is analogous to the European Commission. They alone decide the legislation that the government introduces in each session of parliament (yes, I know there is a very limited mechanism for lone MPs to introduce their own legislation, but this is often thwarted in each parliament without the majority government support).

The elected MPs within the House of Commons then vote on this legislation proposed by the executive. If they vote for it to become law then it moves on to the unelected House Of Lords (the Lords are a collection of hereditary peers, politicians chosen by their party colleagues and Bishops – none directly chosen by the electorate). Both houses can choose to amend the legislation, although amendments can be rejected at subsequent stages.

Once both houses have ‘read’ the proposed bill three times it passes to the Queen for Royal Assent and then the government chooses when to enact it.

As can be seen very little of this legislative process is ‘democratic’ by any definition, and every single step has an analogous step in the EU legislative process. Comparison shows that the EU legislative process and its actors are, at every stage, at least as democrative and frequently more democratic than the UK process.

Ergo, by voting in European elections, you have more say in the legislation that comes from the EU than you do over that made only in the UK (if you choose to participate in democracy within the UK).

I still don’t like democracy by the way, but let’s at least make sure we’re accurate about the reasons we slate an institution.

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Immigration and Repatriation: The British Nationalists’ Solution

Today the English Defence League is featured prominently in the news due to their actions in Woolwich last night. It got me thinking about many of these ‘far-right’ groups and their anti-immigrant policies, especially repatriation. (I acknowledge that EDL don’t profess these views publicly, instead they focus on cultural assimilation and anti-Islamic policies). It also made me think of the Falklands, ownership of which has received much attention again recently with its inhabitants voting overwhelmingly to remain under British rule and protection.

The old battle cry of the anti-immigration lobby is “go home”. This is reflected by the BNP, who states it wants “firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home”. Let’s examine that concept shall we.

The 2011 Census shows 7.5 million foreign-born residents in England and Wales (out of 58 million). This excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland and is only immigrants, not those descended from immigrants. So imagine if BNP succeeded in its goal and they all left?

What if other countries did the same? Imagine those across the world, who are descended from British immigrants to their countries, choosing to come ‘home’? Let’s take a guess at percentages in a few countries who would be eligible:

  • USA: population 316m – assume 50% eligible making 158m.
  • Canada: population 35m – assume 50% eligible making 17m.
  • Australia: population 23m – assume 80% eligible making 18m
  • New Zealand: population 4m – assume 76% eligible making 3m

So that’s 196 million people who would be eligible to come here if we followed the BNP’s ridiculous repatriation policy.

And while we’re considering this line of thought – what about the Falklands? Many in Argentina lay claim to the Falklands due to its brief ownership by their country over 200 years ago. They say that the UK is a colonial power who shouldn’t be there, it should stick to Europe where it belongs, not the south Atlantic.

OK then Argentina, let’s do a deal: you can have the Falklands if you go and live there; but you have to vacate Argentina. As 97% of Argentinians are of European ancestry, mainly descended from the Spanish-speaking conquistadors who took the land from the indigenous Amerindians, they should leave too. Either colonialism should be reversed, or not: but be consistent.

The EU: to leave or not?

Yesterday I was widely criticised on Twitter by fellow libertarians for responding to the Times on-line poll that I would vote to stay in the EU (ignoring the fact for a moment that I don’t vote anyway). I’ve had accusations that I’m not a libertarian and I’m for big government, both preposterous extrapolations from one data point with no supporting evidence. Twitter is not a suitable medium to explain my current belief on the topic of EU membership, so I thought I’d write a quick post to explain my view to save me time.

Let’s start at the start: if we were voting today to join the current EU I would not support that. The EU as it stands has much to criticise, not least its ever-burgeoning budget and the evil Common Agricultural Policy that subsidises farmers in Europe at expense of European consumers and farmers in the developing world.

However, even the current manifestation of the EU does have three positive points: firstly it is a free-trade zone; secondly, it is a free-migration zone; thirdly it has been integral in removing the death penalty across Europe. As a libertarian the importance of these three aspects cannot be underestimated.

There is a fourth potential benefit, though this is difficult to prove either way so I don’t base my stance in it: many argue that the EU has prevented war in Europe since its inception. This is a contentious point but with the history of the preceding few hundred years, especially France, Germany and the UK, there is a correlation, causation being impossible to prove.

Trade*

One of the obvious benefits of EU membership is unfettered access to a huge free-trade zone. Advocates of withdrawal claim that we would still have access to the EU from outside, as others such as Norway and Switzerland, within the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). However these countries were never within the EU so had the advantages when negotiating their trade treaties. If we were to withdraw who is to say that the EU would be so generous with the UK, after all what benefit would be in it for them?; many EU countries appear to believe that the UK’s membership brings more trouble than value. Why would they not create a punitive system for us, having lost £7bn in revenue? It should be noted that EFTA states and other countries with trade agreements with EU all have to adhere to EU legislation, with no say in what those laws are. As many of the Daily Mail-brigade wrongly criticise the EU for much of our business regulations how would having less say in the design of EU legislation help us, when we would still have to abide by it?

*For more details on the implications for trade I suggest you read this excellent article in The Economist entitled Making The Break.

Cost

In 2012 the EU cost the UK taxpayer around £7bn after the infamous ‘Thatcher rebate’. The government’s total expenditure was £695bn, so it was around 1.01% of the total. In comparison we paid £48bn in debt interest and £460m to the Arts Council! While it would be nice to save the UK taxpayer £7bn there are in my opinion higher priorities to tackle first within the government’s portfolio.

Non-Representative

There is a frequent argument used against EU-membership that we have ‘foreigners imposing laws on us’. Well there are UK MEPs that are elected to the European Parliament to make these laws, ironically Nigel Farage of UKIP is one. And if you’re into ‘democracy’ they’re elected by a system that’s arguably more democratic than our First Past The Post (FPTP) domestic system.

The UK joined a free-trade zone (the ‘common market’), which was a brilliant post-war reaction to the planned economies and state socialism prevalent in the Axis powers. Although ‘we did not vote for political union’, our democratically-elected government has signed all of the same treaties (e.g. Single European Act, signed by Margaret Thatcher, Maastricht, signed by John Major and Lisbon, signed by Gordon Brown) as the other member countries.

It’s inconsistent to say “we want to be governed by a democratic government here, not a democratic government there”, when it was the democratic government here that voted for all of the powers the democratic government there has! You either back the democratic decision of the UK government or you don’t.

Euro and Cyprus

One argument thrust at me was “the EU has shown it will devastate property rights in Cyprus if it wants”. Yes it has and that’s appalling, but if you’re borrowing from the lender of very last resort then you can’t complain about the terms. Nobody forced Cyprus to join the Euro, they did their own cost-benefit analysis and thought it was advantageous for them; now they want some other countries’ taxpayers to fund their profligacy. While the ‘haircut’ inflicted upon savers in Cypriot banks is devastating for them I don’t see how this contradicts caveat emptor. Many UK investors lost millions in Icelandic banks due to their greed and lack of risk awareness, do the anarcho-capitalist think that’s wrong? I don’t.

Conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not saying the supra-state EU with its goal of political union is a good thing; it’s not, obviously. In my opinion all states are bad, but I struggle with the arguments that this particular one is any worse than our own (after all it enlisted us to every EU treaty).

What I am saying is that I have yet to be convinced that withdrawing at this stage will bring us more benefits than costs; while that may actually be the case, I’ve yet to see any convincing argument that goes beyond UKIP’s ridiculous knee-jerk colonel-blimp rhetoric.

Mine is a pragmatic stance on the cost and impact on the UK economically (and, less-so, politically); it’s game theory at the state level, if you like.

With a currently unconvincing case for a net advantage to the UK withdrawing I’d rather we were inside this particular tent at the moment.

Human Rights – Why Don’t More Libertarians Support Them?

I recently attended an event along with other supporters at Amnesty International UK’s (AIUK) London headquarters to meet staff, find out how they conduct their business and receive updates on current campaigns. As a long-time supporter of AIUK I was pleased to meet them and discuss with them their work. I have been a supporter of their organisation since I discovered them at University, when I’d purchased their annual human rights reports to use in arguments with the many socialists there.

Amnesty International is a civil liberties non-governmental organisation (NGO) that campaigns globally for human rights. As a libertarian I am naturally aligned with many of these civil libertarians’ causes. Amnesty is probably the most famous of these organisations, though another well known UK-based civil rights NGO is Liberty (originally the National Council for Civil Liberties), whose actions I also support. Both are registered charities in the UK.

While I was at Amnesty they discussed the Arms Trade Treaty that for 20 years they had been campaigning for in the United Nations. This was expected to culminate in a vote later that day; as it happened the successful resolution was passed two days later with only Syria, Iran and North Korea objecting to it. Amnesty are traditionally very careful with the policies they support, with this proposed treaty being an excellent example: it is designed to prevent arms and associated weapons’ parts being sold to nations that use them on their own people; it is not aimed at countries requiring arms for legitimate self-defence.

During my time at AIUK’s offices I suddenly wondered why more libertarians don’t support Amnesty, Liberty etc., especially as all of the libertarians with whom I discuss politics are against state aggression against the individual. Also most of them are against government funding, with charities being a positive model for providing help where needed. Yet I never see other libertarians retweeting Amnesty’s tweets or even discussing them. This made me curious about the reason for this.

I have seen many on the ‘right’ criticising Liberty for fighting extradition to countries with torture or death sentences, blaming the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the EU for imposing it on us. I have argued against this stance for two main reasons:

  • firstly, as the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), its related court and the HRA are useful mechanisms to defend the individual from aggression by the state, and so should be supported by libertarians;
  • secondly, I recognise many are against it simply as they believe it’s been ‘imposed’ on us by the EU, a ‘foreign unrepresentative body’, but it isn’t: it was adopted by the UK government in 1950 due to our membership of the Council of Europe, which is a international organisation of 47 states bound by convention and includes Russia and Turkey.

On the first point I defy any libertarian to read the Convention and find an article they disagree with; in fact they may think that some don’t go far enough (e.g. Article 15 on Derogations, which allows states to over-ride some other articles during “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”).

The HRA, Liberty and Amnesty International are all based on a central belief in human rights, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the UN. The Universal Declaration contains a good set of ‘negative’ rights although there are some ‘positive’ rights which sneaked in towards the end, which libertarians like me may disagree with. However the European Convention on Human Rights only contains the negative rights that I’m sure most libertarians would support. The fact that Liberty et al use the ECHR and HRA as a defence to protect ‘people who would do us harm’ from being sent to regimes where they face torture and possible death is a good reason to support them all. If we don’t support free speech and detest the use of state power against individuals (even those whose views we detest) then we’re not libertarians, just plain old state-loving socialists or conservatives.

On the second point this is the rhetoric used by those who want us to pull out of the European Union. While I’m not planning to debate that here, due to its irrelevancy as it has nothing to do with the EU, then let me focus on the charge that we’re ruled by “unelected faceless bureaucrats and lawyers” and that we should have “self-determination”. Well firstly, it was an elected UK government that signed us up to the Convention, so it was ‘self-determined’; secondly, I’d rather trust ‘faceless bureaucrats and lawyers’, adhering to the well-defined rules and case-law, over politically-motivated UK MPs grubbing for populist votes any time. (And I know the ECHR is nothing to do with the EU, but we cannot be part of the EU and restore the death penalty, so surely that’s a good thing too).

I know many ‘libertarian-conservatives’ claim we should create our own UK bill of rights, but as the last few governments have removed so many of our existing civil rights can we really trust them? Examples are trial by jury and habeas corpus, both enshrined within the Magna Carta, and also the right to silence and double jeopardy. I don’t trust our government, elected locally or not, to look out for us; in fact they have less reason to do so as they have more to gain by subjugating us further.

So my challenge to libertarians is why don’t you support civil liberties and their defenders if you really consider yourself libertarian? And if you are libertarian then why not support Amnesty International or Liberty in their fight for our civil rights?

Addendum

Following publication of this piece @knkhtims posted this excellent response Why This Libertarian Doesn’t Support ‘Liberty’ or Amnesty International.