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.

The Story Of A Town Council: Democracy In Action

I was reminded of this story by a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday.

I used to live on a road that was a mix of residential housing, factories and offices. Almost across the road was a sizeable factory that closed a few years after I moved in. For many years it lay derelict, a waste of useful land and a loss of jobs to the town.

It wasn’t even as useful as another disused factory on the same road, which was discovered to be a cannabis farm.

One day I discovered that there was planning permission requested to bulldoze the site and build a data centre. The intricacies of planning permission meant that although this factory was almost across the road from us, and the construction traffic would pass our house, as would the staff when built, we weren’t informed. I discovered the plans by accident; however people on a street that overlooked to site were informed, even though they never needed to travel along our road. I’ll come back to these residents shortly.

So I downloaded the plans from the local district council’s web side and was impressed. The plans outlined a fantastic glass and steel state-of-the-art data centre that would employ 25-50 people. There were details about acoustic predictions of the chillers, how they would minimise the local impact of production and projections of traffic to-and-from the site. I had some questions about the acoustic predictions, especially when operating the backup generators, so I thought I’d attend the Town Council public meeting that was scheduled to discuss it.

This brings me back to the residents of the adjacent road. The way I found out about this planned data centre was a flyer put through my door from a residents’ association from the adjacent road: they were raising attention as they wanted to prevent the project going ahead. This was astonishing for a number of reasons:

– They weren’t affected by construction traffic
– They weren’t affected by the employees driving to-and-from work
– They weren’t affected by the sight of a derelict factory on their road

So I attended the Town Council meeting to hear the case put and how the decision would be made; a large number of the adjacent road’s residents attended too. Unusually for a council meeting they allowed the chair of this residents’ association to speak. He gave a short speech outlining their objections and was supported by angry shouts from his associates. The council briefly discussed this, led by the local councillor, followed by the chairperson calling for a vote.

I’m sure that you can imagine the result. They voted against it: a new hi-tech business in the area; local employment; and the removal of an unsightly derelict factory. These objections were led by a group that had no direct impact by the new building: typical of many special interest groups.

This just supports my distain for democracy, tyranny of the majority. As David Friedman has highlighted many times before, governments take from the taxpayer and give to vocal special interests. This was an even worse case where the council takes business rates and a share of local council taxes, but is actually limiting its own tax base by protectionism. It was preventing new business establishing just to keep a very small vocal set of voters happy, who have virtually no direct interest.

Democracy stinks.

After the vote had been taken and recorded the following conversation happened:

Chair: “So what is a data centre?”
[lengthy pause]
Councillor: “Er, I think it’s where computer companies store hard disks…”

Amazing. Democracy in action.

Democracy, Parliament And The Market

Just a few thoughts on this topic, sparked by a comment on Twitter today…


Why parliamentary democracy? Why not participative democracy? Why not have electorate vote on every decision now we have technology to help?

Well how do you balance competing views? How do you stop everyone just instantly voting for more money for all and bankrupting the country?

How do you stop all in class A from getting their self-interest schemes funded by all in class B, as happens now?

Maybe only people paying tax can vote? Maybe they could have votes proportional to the amount they’re willing to pay in tax – one tax pound = one vote? A voluntary subscription? And it becomes truly participative. Then no vested interest group can tax another group, people only spend on schemes that they want and are prepared to contribute towards, in the proportion they want: they have to prioritise. And if they want to raise money now to spend against their future tax deposits, then why not? But it would have to be guaranteed with a mortgage against their assets to ensure they pay back the borrowed monies in the future. No one could borrow more than the assets they have (or the lender is willing to risk against those mortgageable assets).

Hang on, if we’re going to let our citizens spend their taxes on the projects they want to contribute towards then why bother having the intermediary of government? Why not let the people choose these services without tax, but directly? What a great idea? Let’s call it the market?