THE BLOG

Leaving the EU Over Its Democratic Deficit? You've Got to Be Kidding...

23/06/2016 08:59

Separating facts from fiction, many of the Leave campaign's arguments are easily refuted. For example, their claims on the costs of EU membership are so blatantly wrong that the UK Statistics Authority felt compelled to clarify that its data was misrepresented. The fact that this did not stop Johnson, Gove and Farage from relentlessly repeating the wrong number and putting it on billboards and their campaign bus exposes them as pathological liars.

However, there is one argument for Brexit that deserves to be taken more seriously. It is true that the European Union's political set-up raises questions on its democratic legitimacy and accountability.

Many Europeans see the EU's institutions as distant and opaque, few know their MEP or indeed any senior EU politician. Voter turnout has been falling since the first European elections in 1979, reaching only 42.6 % in the most recent edition. Ever since Southern European sovereign debt forced the EU into a permanent crisis mode, national parliaments have regularly been asked to rubber stamp highly complex rescue packages involving major financial risks for some member states and tough austerity measures for others.

As bailouts remain the prerogative of national fiscal policy, national leaders' marathon all-night summits behind closed doors in Brussels have shaped much of the Eurozone crisis management. Negotiations were usually dominated by those member states paying for the bailouts while those states on the receiving end had little choice but to acquiesce to the harsh austerity measures that these bailouts entailed. This created the image of a rather dictatorial EU - although the Union's supranational institutions that run its day to day business were barely involved.

Contrary to Brexit supporters' claims, EU policy is not made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Much like laws in the UK, legislative proposals are drafted by an independent civil service. The Commissioners running this civil service - much like national ministers run their administrations - are appointed by elected national governments and confirmed by elected Members of the European Parliament. The European Parliament can even bring down the entire EU Commission as it did in 1999 when a vote of no confidence was only avoided by the Commission's collective resignation.

In those policy areas in which member states have unanimously agreed to transfer legislative powers to the EU, the EU Commission proposes European directives and regulations. These legislative acts are then debated and amended by different iterations of the Council of Ministers as well as the European Parliament and eventually passed or rejected by them. Since the European Parliament is directly elected and as ministers in the Council represent the member states' democratically elected governments, the claim that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats is baseless. Its political system may have its flaws. But so does any other political system.

Including the UK's very own version of democracy. In the 2005 General Election, the Labour party won 35.2 % of the popular vote. Although just little more than a third of the British people voted for Tony Blair, he managed to form a government based on a stable majority. In spite of only beating the Tory party by a mere 2.8 % of the popular vote, Britain's first-past-the-post system granted Labour 157 MPs more than the Conservative party. Two years later Blair resigned, leaving the premiership to Gordon Brown who led the country for three years without having been elected.

With the exception of the 2010 Tory-liberal coalition, no post-war government has represented more than 50 % of the British population. Electoral injustice peaked in the last general election when UKIP won 12.6 % of the popular vote but only got one MP into parliament. At the same time, the Scottish National Party got 56 MPs with only 4.7 %. Hence it took a mere 25,970 SNP voters to send an MP to Westminster, whereas UKIP's only MP represents 3.8 million voters. Ironically, the European Parliament is the only assembly granting Nigel Farage and his party democratic representation.

While the electoral system is the most blatant insult to democracy, it is not the only one. In the House of Commons, MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales continue to vote on matters that affect only England, while English MPs cannot vote on policy areas devolved to national parliaments and assemblies such as health, housing, schools or policing. Meanwhile Britain's unelected upper house is full of party donors and cronies, complemented by 92 hereditary peers and 26 bishops. Most members of the House of Lords are old white men who went to the same handful of "public schools" and universities whose graduates also dominate the rest of British politics and society. Recently, a proposal asking them to share their catering with the House of Commons was rejected "because the Lords feared the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service."

Brexiteers' outrage over perceived and actual problems with EU democracy is hypocritical considering how little they care for their own Union's flaws. Even more so, as they criticize the EU for not living up to democratic standards that one might set for a federal political system while they at the same refuse and undermine any movement towards such a system.

From a democratic point of view, further strengthening the EU's supranational actors such as the parliament and reducing the role of intergovernmental negotiations would be desirable. In practice, such developments are unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future as member states are unwilling to transfer power to Brussels.

However, even in its current form the EU is far more democratic and legitimate as well as much more efficient in serving its member states and their citizens than any other form of institutionalized intergovernmental cooperation. And the alternative to participating in such intergovernmental cooperation is standing alone in a world shaped by the survival of the fittest. As the UK has long ceased to belong to those, it is clearly much better off inside the European Union - imperfect as its system of governance might be.

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