EU referendum—4: Is the EU democratic?
A difficult question. If, like me, you would argue that the UK’s parliamentary system, including our electoral practice, isn’t democratic, then the EU is certainly less so. [For the UK, I would prefer a term such as ‘ecclesiastocracy’, a word I have just made up and meaning rule by an elected assembly, from the Greek, ekklēsiastēs, ‘member of an assembly’, rather than ‘democracy’, which means rule by the people (Greek, dēmos, ‘the people’ + –kratia, ‘power, rule’).]
The EU has a complex legislative process (over-complex, surely).
There is the European Commission [*1] (all quotations in purple from Wikipedia):
The European Commission (EC) is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. Commissioners swear an oath… to be completely independent in carrying out their duties during their mandate.
The Commission operates as a cabinet government, with 28 members of the Commission [who between them have about 23,000 European civil servants to do their bidding]. There is one member per member state, though members are bound to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state. One of the 28 is the Commission President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. [The parliament consists of elected members, see below.]
It’s not clear here what “elected” means, if the person has already been proposed. Perhaps it is just “ratified” and one assumes that if the members of their European parliament take against a proposed president, they can refuse to elect him or her.
The Council then appoints the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament.
Note that, apart from the boss, the president, the other commissioners are not individually voted on by the parliament, so there is strong whiff of a stitch up here.
Then there is the European Parliament [*2]:
The European Parliament (EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council) and the European Commission, it exercises the legislative function of the EU…
Although the European Parliament has legislative power that the Council and Commission do not possess, it does not formally possess legislative initiative, as most national parliaments of European Union member states do.
What “it does not formally possess legislative initiative” means is that, unlike the parliamentary systems of the UK and most, or all, of the member states, the parliament essentially takes proposed legislation form the commission and, on the whole, enacts it; whereas, of course, in the UK and elsewhere, parliament determines the legislation (or more precisely the ruling party, by virtue of its majority, determines it) and the civil service has to get on with it and make it work.
Finally, for now, there is the European Council [*3]:
The Council of the European Union… is part of the essentially bicameral EU legislature (the other legislative body being the European Parliament) and represents the executive governments of the EU’s member states. …
Its decisions are made by qualified majority voting in most areas, unanimity in others. Usually where it operates unanimously, it only needs to consult the Parliament. However, in most areas the ordinary legislative procedure applies meaning both Council and Parliament share legislative and budgetary powers equally, meaning both have to agree for a proposal to pass. In a few limited areas the Council may initiate new EU law itself.
So, rather approximately:
- the EU parliament equates to the UK house of commons
- the EU council equates to the UK house of lords
- the EU commission equates to the UK civil service,
with the main difference being that the EU commission primarily dictates to the EU parliament, whereas the UK civil service defers to the UK parliament (both houses).
So, even if you think that the UK system is democratic, it is stretching things more than somewhat to imagine that the EU system is. There are two main areas of difficulty:
1 The way that the members of the commission comes into being lacks transparency. There are all sorts of ways that inappropriate individuals might be nominated for membership, only to be nodded through by the parliament
2 The elected representatives do not have primacy in determining what legislation is proposed, debated and voted on. It would be easy to see that a fragmented parliament, incapable of coming to sensible conclusion (it has 751 members), may become the plaything of the commission who would see its idea of what is good for the EU community as being more important than the community’s idea of what is good for it (there were 375 million eligible voters in the EU area in 2009).
If it were the case (and I doubt it is right now, but there are no physical or logical reasons why it couldn’t be) that all members of the commission (who propose legislation) were:
- team players, rather than narcissistic prima donnas only interested in the advancement of their own pet theories, and incapable of letting go of their over-weening attachment to being right
- lacking the self-aggrandisement that stains all politicians who have power, irrespective of country
- capable of rational thought and deep analytical evaluation
- deeply knowledgeable—between the 28 of them—about, and experienced in, all the fields that the EU parliament has to legislate on
- broadly acceptable to the member states which they collectively represent (one per member),
if they were all these things then I, for one, would much rather have them proposing legislation than a bunch of politicians, all of them self-serving, ignorant and weak. In fact, let them run the show!…
… particularly if there were some sort of vision for the EU, some sort of plan, relatively precise for the near future, rather less so for the longer term, that we all bought into; some broad, purposefully vague but agreed plan against which proposed legislation could be evaluated. Now, to expect politicians to do this is clearly beyond the bounds of reality even though it is something every business should do and, actually, many do manage. The fact that the commission hasn’t done it, or, as far as I know, suggested it, is deeply depressing. In fact, many businesses have much tighter plans than this and they are all the better for it.
♦ Is the EU democratic? No. (But remember that I do not believe the UK is democratic either.)
♦ Is the EU theoretically capable of being democratic? Yes, in the sense that the UK is democratic.
♦ Is the EU going to become democratic within a generation, in reality? No. It seems that concept of the European Union is one with potential. But it will be eternally crippled by the weak, ignorant, self-serving politicians who run it.
[*1] Wikipedia: European commision
[*2] Wikipedia: European parliament
[*3] Wikipedia: European council
> All EU referendum blogs
© Jeremy Marchant 2016 . image: Free images