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.

3 thoughts on “The EU (again): How ‘Democratic’ Is It?

  1. You have missed a fundamental difference which, whether you like democracy or not, matters a great deal. When you vote for an MP in national elections, they stand on a manifesto. Now, while it may be true that not every pledge in a manifesto makes it into law, that is at least the basis on which you choose your MP. The manifesto goes some way towards outlining what policies that MP will support in Parliament; if their party is the one that wins the most seats, then those will be the policies (broadly) pursued.

    Compare that to the EU. At what stage does anyone get any kind of a say on policy or the laws that will be enacted? The Commission is indirectly chosen, so there’s no room there for choice. It’s not as if political parties in the UK (or any other EU member state) says “we will choose Commissioners for the EU that pursue the following laws”. MEPs, likewise, may belong to a party, but those parties all get amalgamated into a bloc once in the European Parliament, and those blocs don’t have manifestos either. They simply pursue a broad ‘ideology’ of some sort. And there’s barely a cigarette paper between the two major blocs which comprise the majority of MEPs.

    So, the point is, while we may get a vote on the European Parliament, what exactly are we voting for? Even if the entire UK population voted UKIP, it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to what the EU does or the laws it decides to pass. Democracy isn’t just about casting a vote now and again – it’s about making a choice over the sorts of laws you want to see passed. In the UK, that at least exists in a nominal sense. But at the EU level? Barely at all. Without a choice over what laws a body may pass, one might just as well not have a vote at all.

  2. Pingback: A Link To The Past 12/01/2014 | In Defence of Liberty

  3. 1. You state PR is “widely regarded” as more democratic than FPTP. Presumably not by all those who voted against it in a referendum? PR is “widely” known to have drawbacks including weakened constituency linkage, and the ability of politicians to form government based on grubby backroom deals rather than a clear contract with the voters – coincidentally criticisms “widely” aimed at at the EU. Perhaps your stated dislike of democracy is why you are comfortable with these facets of PR?

    2. There’s more to democracy than a voting mechanism. You need electoral turnout, understanding and engagement – all of which are dreadful in EU elections. You also need free information (to which the EU is opposed) and non-corrupt institutions. Finally, you need politicians committed 100pc to democracy, embracing the will of the people even when they don’t like it (look up Monnet and Juncker for the rogue’s gallery).

    3. It is a nonsense to say Commissioners are democratically appointed. They are often either second-raters put out to pasture or threats sent away from domestic politics. Once in position, UK Parliament has zero oversight or influence over them. Neil Kinnock!

    4. Another ingredient for democracy is the political party. PR advocates of course ignore the important fact that parties are already coalitions – formed prior to elections. EU parties are constantly on the move; voters have no idea what alliances their party is making or what their allies stand for in their own countries. More grubby deals.

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