Britain faces a historic vote on Thursday: an exercise of democracy that will shape the country's future. The question of whether the EU itself has enough democratic legitimacy has been a core component of the arguments of those wishing to see the UK leave, while for the most part put to one side by those campaigning to remain. For all the fire and fury of the referendum campaign, the UK is far from the only EU member state wrestling with these important questions. Across Europe the long-term impacts of the 2008 economic crisis, the migrant crisis, national scandals and the rising pressures of globalisation have helped to drive public distrust in traditional sources of influence and authority, an emotional disconnect between the governed and the governing. As a supranational body working across 28 member states with often divergent interests and public attitudes on a huge range of issues, the EU feels this strain more than perhaps any other institution.
While the view of experts seems not to count for much in the current debate, nevertheless a recent Foreign Policy Centre publication, Europe and the people: Examining the EU's democratic legitimacy, brought together a mix of academics with a range of different views to try and shed some light on these thorny and fraught issues. The central findings are clear: public trust in the EU is in decline, but so too is trust in national governments. EU institutions do have longstanding democratic mechanisms: direct elections for the European Parliament and representatives of national governments who set the political direction of Europe through the Council and European Council while appointing the Commission to deliver on the objectives it sets. However it is clear that in themselves these mechanisms do not provide the level of connection to the public that is needed, and that further attempts to artificially create a European 'demos' by grafting additional democratic mechanisms onto EU institutions fails to meet the public mood in many states demanding greater national involvement.
An example of this 'do more' tendency is the emerging common Spitzenkandidaten process for leadership of the Commission, which led to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President. The process led to a transfer in power and influence over candidate selection away from member states to the European political groups at a time when the public mood is pushing in the opposite direction. While a handful of states paid attention during the 2014 European Parliament elections that were used to decide which party 'won' the Commission Presidency, particularly those with candidates in the race, most did not, with the major UK parties not participating at all.
For too long, and particularly in the UK, the European Parliament elections have been used to debate national issues rather than what the institution actually does. There is a need to look again at the voting system used to elect members of the European Parliament, potentially recreating local constituencies to help people know who represents them in Brussels while maintaining the required proportionality through a national top-up list.
The UK Parliament can do more within its existing powers to scrutinise what goes on in Brussels and bring MEPs and MPs together to collaborate. However the EU needs to do more to involve national parliaments at an early stage in the development of EU legislation, potentially giving them the power to suggest new laws, further strengthening the emerging yellow, orange and red card warning and blocking mechanisms for unwanted laws and enhancing the role of national parliaments in final EU decision-making. This could be supported by new mechanisms at an EU level to monitor and protect the principle of subsidiarity (that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen).
Similarly more could be done to limit the role of the European Court of Justice in reinterpreting EU legislation in relation to the core treaties rather than the meaning of directives and regulations intended by politicians. This could be done at a UK level by creating mechanisms that potentially disapply or limit the application of certain laws and judgments, following input from national parliaments or the public, with similarities to the role of the influential German Constitutional Court.
The importance of strengthening the power of nation state parliaments and institutions within the EU system is not primarily because national institutions are more trusted than European ones; indeed in most member states the data suggests the opposite is true with national politicians performing even more poorly. However citizens rightly feel they have a greater ability to directly influence decision-makers and decisions within their own borders, and this proposed change would go some way to responding to the desire for more control over decision-making.
There is a need further reform of the EU's consultation processes and stakeholder engagement. These could include reconstructing the currently opaque European Economic & Social Committee to be elected by its civil society and other members, or providing clearer, issue-based information about the policy issues at the heart of EU consultations that could be more easily disseminated by online campaigns.
There are a number of incremental steps which over time could help to improve the EU's accountability and democratic legitimacy as it wrestles with deep and wide-ranging economic, political and strategic challenges. However, without finding ways to restore trust across national political systems, they may not be enough to respond to the British and European public mood.
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