Brexiters swear that the EU is undemocratic, complaining that “We can’t throw them out’”, as if the EU were a Federal State like the USA – by the way, even there the President is elected indirectly through an electoral ‘college’ of votes from its states – not directly. But the EU is not a federal state, and Brexiters would be even more furious if it were !
They forget that there are European Parliament (EP) elections taking place every 5yrs, and that this law-making body is renewed by competive elections between party groups. These in turn have internally elected leaders.
As to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected by the party groups in the European Parliament. Just because Juncker was not the UK government’s favourite, does not make his election any less democratic.
As to the UK’s unelected House of Lords – that is the main blot on British democracy despite its recent active scrutiny. By contrast, the EU’s “upper chamber” equivalent, the Council of Ministers, is made up of Cabinet members from the member states’ elected Governments, and is has co-decision over law-making with the EP parliament.
The EU also has formal consultation organs that the UK lacks: consultative bodies such as the Economic and Social Committee (ESC) and the Committee of the Regions. Even if they are only advisory, pressure groups of citizens can access these to make demands).
As to political culture, the political style of the EU is more democratic in the sense that it doesn’t have the British macho-style, point-scoring slanging matches that pass for debate in the House of Commons. The EU moves by negotiation and consensus-seeking, instead of our adversarial style (which requires a professional deafness to the opponents’ arguments), leading to over-dominance by the majority.
In addition, the EU has a European Council composed of heads of all national governments including the UK who agree an overall strategy for the EU. Consensus-seeking among independent governments means that in the EU, decisions are taken through much larger majorities (such as unanimity or qualified majority voting) to pass binding agreements, compared to the UK where a simple majority of a few seats over 325 is required.
As to ‘accountability’ the holy grail of democracies in the last decades, it is in fact effected by EU’s area of supranational law, which means that the EU makes itself stick to rules once agreed by its independent members. This legal effectiveness contrasts with countries where parliaments pass laws that don’t get implemented, a huge frustration for domestic campaigners. Arguably it is more democratic to have strong laws to implement agreements, otherwise gains for ordinary people can be kicked into the long grass when governments fail to issue the Regulations to implement them in practice.
In the EU, poor implementation by a member-state can be easily appealed against, and is frequently challenged by ordinary citizens, with the European Court of Justice enforcing EU law in its judgements. And even the EU Treaty has “direct effect” meaning the whole of it is applicable to all citizens, and they can take their own governments to court for failing to implement beneficial Treaty provisions. This , arguably, is a more reliable form of accountability.
In addition, the EU has strong controls over its complicated spending arrangements. A powerful Court of Auditors has been critical of the many small errors and mismatches in the money administered jointly with the member states (80% of spending). But after scrutinising the Commission finances with a toothcomb, the Court of Auditors has given it its seal of approval, called a “Discharge”, every year for the last 8 years. Note that the UK equivalent, the National Audit Office, it sometimes very critical of the quality of the financial information it receives from our governments.
Lastly, the small point about the UK’s lack of a written Constitution. Constutions set out what is the fundamental contract or bargain between a state with its citizens in terms of rights and duties. In the view of many, it is key in a democracy for all citizens to know what their rights are and what they are obligated to do for their country, and what the limits of government action is. We don’t have a Constitutional court either, one to which citizens can appeal, as the UK ‘s ‘Judicial Review’ is very limited.
This is why politics textbooks and exam questions have for decades quoted Lord Hailsham’s description of the British system is an “elective dictatorship”, a parliamentary dictatorship by a slim majority by a governing party with a slim percentage of the popular vote. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it should not happen at all.
Dr. Monica Threlfall, Reader in European Politics, London Metropolitan University. Queries to [email protected]