A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Get our own house in order first – by David Weber

In Europe, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

“The EU is undemocratic”, “The EU is anti-democratic”, “We have our lives dictated to by unelected EU bureaucrats”, “Nobody was given a say over the Lisbon Treaty”, “The Conservatives have now reneged upon their promise to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty”…


I’m sorry, what was that? I was just dreaming of a constructive debate about the EU, of actually looking at what we can do to improve it and engaging for once, rather than moaning incessantly about it whilst ignoring the many ways we can still influence direction.

The magic word for Eurosceptics is “undemocratic”. They simply cannot help themselves, it’s a gift of a word: everyone hates it, no-body entirely understands what they refer to by it, and it goes way beyond the normal nationalistic base of the Conservatives and appeals to all who broadly oppose the EU for very different reasons. And no-one has had the guts to take them on over it.

The fact is the democracy begins at home. Before moaning about the EU as an institution, we need to get our own house in order, and look at how we could improve democracy purely by our own, independent, action. And the answers appear to be blindingly obvious.

Before I go on, let me try and, in a very simplistic fashion, analyse the various structural elements of the EU, that people believe ought to be democratic, and consider how democratic they actually are.

First off, we can exclude the European Court of Justice fairly easily. I don’t think there are many, even among extreme Eurosceptics, who genuinely believe that justices ought to be elected.

Now, the legislature of the European Union is divided into two parts. The weaker of the two (although, allegedly, made slightly stronger by the Lisbon treaty) is the European Parliament. The European Parliament is, currently, the only directly elected institution of the European government, at least in this country. It is elected by proportional representation (which seems a reasonably democratic ideal), through a closed-list system (which doesn’t) in all regions barring Northern Ireland, in 12 separate regions of the United Kingdom (The 9 regions of England and the 3 other countries in the Union, so a degree of localism exists).

Now, these elections use an abominable system called closed-list, which incorporates pretty much every flaw known to PR. There is no individual accountability, as one can only vote for the party, not for the person. The regions are big enough in England so to dilute any concept of direct representation thoroughly, but small enough so to lead to absurdities in the system, such as the BNP gaining two seats, on a smaller swing than the Green party received for nought.

There is no possibility of transferable voting, and indicating preference between candidates and parties, as there is with STV (although this is part of the reason why STV is not true PR, as such a feature invariably leads to disproportional results). So closed-list minimises choice whilst placing parties firmly in control over the election of their preferred candidates.

Now, there is no reason why this must be the case for elections to the European Union. EU rules only specify that the system should be a form of ‘PR’, which it specifies can include the Single Transferable Vote (but, confusingly, don’t appear to set down in any detail how big the constituencies should be which would seem to indicate that the Alternate Vote can be PR, an absurdity). I think I am right in saying that the list classification could also allow the Additional Member System, further adding to the flexibility of elections to the EU. So the government could easily make the EU more accountable and democratic through abolishing closed-list and putting in its place a reasonable, accountable system of ‘PR’ or STV. Almost any reform would improve it, even through simply introducing open lists, although my preferred way would either be the introduction of STV or a change to an Additional Member System, which would introduce more direct representation and bring representatives closer to the people.

So, that’s the EU parliament out of the way, the only directly elected institution of the EU. Fine, you might say, that’s the easy part over and done with, but this hardly transforms the EU. Fair enough, I’ll admit, so I’ll move on to the other institutions and show you how wrong you are.

Secondly, we have the Council of the EU (formerly known as the Council of Ministers, and not to be confused with the European Council, or the Council of Europe [the latter not even being an institution of the EU]). This is the more powerful of the two legislative bodies, and is the principle decision-making body in the EU. It is not directly elected.

However, it is comprised of ministers of state in national governments. Which actually means that a lot of the decision taken that parties decide to conveniently “blame on Brussels” are, in fact, signed off by a collective meeting of the relevant national ministers of state. Which indicates that actually, many decisions allegedly taken by “unelected bureaucrats” are in fact taken by our secretaries of state, weighed up in the national interest, so a lot of the fuss is actually smoke and mirrors. Which means, if you really want to know how effective democratic decision-making in the EU is, it would be better to analyse the voting records of our ministers in the Council of the EU. Strangely, hardly anyone seems to do that.

The Council has a rotating presidency, which is a truly national concept of democracy, in that each country gets an equal right of participation, rather than the position being elected by majority. So much for the EU “undermining the nation state”, in key ways, it acts to preserve it in intergovernmental decision-making.

The Presidency, incidentally, also chairs the European Council, which is similar in constitutional nature to the head of state of a country, although it is a political decision-making body, unlike our own Head of State in the United Kingdom. The European Council is a meeting of the heads of state or government of all member states, which meets in summit around 4 times a year. This, however, will change with the Lisbon treaty, just to add confusion, an additional post of president will be created, separate to the rotating presidency, who chairs the European Council. The new president will not hold any national office, which strikes me as a little absurd, as he will be chairing a meeting of nothing but holders of national office.

This brings me on to the new position of the president of the European Council, which is not elected, and is often cited by Eurosceptics as the greatest evidence of increasing federalism. I say it is not elected, but it would be better to say that it does not have to be directly elected. Instead, it merely has to be elected by qualified majority vote by the European Council.

However, in practice, it would be absurdly easy to introduce democratic contribution to the election of the post — a law could simply be introduced to bind the head of government to the decision of the people in a prior election of all official candidates held in the UK. This would undoubtedly cause turmoil in the ranks of other countries contributing to the European Council, and could easily have a knock-on effect.

The same also applies to the European Commission, the embodiment of the notorious unelected bureaucrats referred to by the Eurosceptics. The Commission is roughly comparable to the government or executive of a nation state, and is not elected (similar, in fact, to our own government). Each country is responsible, however, for appointing a commissioner — so why not make the post subject to national election? What better way to reinvigorate the interests of democracy in the EU than by making commissioners accountable for their actions in office? Again, this could easily have a knock-on effect, with other countries seeking to follow suit. It would not lead to greater presidentialism, as each country contributes its own commissioner, meaning that the values of national democracy would be strengthened — and again, as with every other suggestion above, this is entirely possible unilaterally. It would require no consensual decision-making within the EU; it is a reform that could be introduced quickly and easily by the national government.

Other suggestions have been made — there is no end of ways of making MEPs more accountable to their constituents, through creating incentives to hold more regular constituency surgeries, to splitting regions up into districts which each MEP has individual responsibility for. Eurosceptics generally moan about the state of European democracy, but they singularly fail to realise that democracy, much like charity, begins at home. The EU was founded through intergovernmentalism, and it can be improved by the actions of national governments first and foremost. Unilateral action could introduce the type of dynamic agenda for European democracy that many people have longed for since the establishment of the EU — and the only thing stopping this from happening is the selfishness of national governments.


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