IS the European Union truly democratic? Here’s a quick guide to provoke your thinking which should scarcely take any time to read…
In some aspects, it would seem the European Union is thoroughly democratic: for example, the EU Parliament is elected. And many decisions are made by the Council of Ministers, the representatives of elected governments across the EU.
But delve below the surface a bit more and there are some real issues that cause concern. For example:
1. The Greek people voted 61% against financial bailout terms the EU/troika were offering in July 2015. The EU effectively ignored this and forced the Greek government, despite this popular mandate, to accept a settlement with harsher terms than those which had been rejected by the people only a few days earlier in that referendum.
The Greek electorate may have been right or wrong in their vote, wise or unwise, but their view should have been respected (even if it meant other nations ejecting them from the Euro) because when the people of a country speak in a legitimate vote then their views are sovereign. That’s how democracy works!
2. European Commissioners (one per country) who can propose legislation are unelected. That’s akin to Cabinet members in the UK not being elected by a constituency, as they are here, but simply appointed personally at the whim of the Prime Minister. Effectively it means the Commissioners are not accountable to those whose lives they impact so hugely – ie us, the voters. Can you name our current EU Commissioner? Almost certainly not. Could you get rid of him if you didn’t want him? No – there is no direct way to do this.
3. European Union regulations come into effect immediately in all member states as law and over-ride national law. These can be made (among other ways) by the European Commission (whose members, we remind ourselves, are not elected).
4. European Union directives are similar to EU regulations, and again can, among other methods, be made by the European Commission (whose members etc…). While directives differ from regulations in that the precise means of achieving a regulation’s objective are left to member states to work out in detail, that ultimate objective is not in itself negotiable and is binding.
5. The treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), sometimes called the European Constitution or the Constitutional Treaty, was completed in 2004. However the rejection of the document by French and Dutch voters in referendums in May and June 2005 brought the ratification process to an end. So, after a while, the Treaty of Lisbon was simply created to replace it. This contained many of the changes that were originally placed in the Constitutional Treaty — but because it was formulated as a set of amendments to existing treaties, and not a new treaty in and of itself (despite its title!), it neatly circumvented the need for further referendums in France and Holland, and conveniently bypassed the two rejections that had already taken place there!
6. Irish voters were nonetheless given a vote on that Treaty of Lisbon. They rejected it the first time around. So a second referendum had to be held a while later so the Irish people had a chance to get it right second time around! Opinion differs as to whether this was legitimate or not. But can one imagine a reverse scenario with a second vote being held had voters accepted it first time around, after pressure from those who had voted no? It is hard to imagine that happening. The same can be said in relation to the two Irish referendums on the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and 2002.
7. Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti (2011-2013) had been a European Commissioner and was invited to become premier of Italy despite never having run for elected office or received any kind of popular mandate. All sorts of questions surround this appointment (see footnote below for more reading on this). Similar questions also surround former Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
8. The EU as a tier of government is too far removed from the electorate through sheer size and distance to be truly accountable.
9. Constituencies for MEP elections are too big to be meaningful or to work in practice.
10. Different languages as well as separate media, TV stations and newspapers mean the EU cannot work as a single democratic system (in contrast with the USA or Russia, for example).
It is sometimes said that deficiencies in democracy in the UK mean we can overlook deficiencies in democracy in the EU. Who are Britons to talk about EU democracy, some people argue, when our own system has a number of questionable aspects? But the presence of flaws in one system should not be a reason for ignoring flaws in another! That seems a strange logic!
Summary: the EU is not nearly as democratic as it likes to look.
7. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/11/european-greece-technocrats and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8896719/Who-voted-for-you-Mario-Monti.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/what-price-the-new-democracy-goldman-sachs-conquers-europe-6264091.html, among many other news items.