One central claim among ‘leave’ campaigners is that the EU is undemocratic. That is yet another myth that is not debunked often enough. Our national media likes to present the EU is a grey monolithic machine. In fact, the EU not only has democratic institutions, but it strengthens and improves our own national democracy. Here is how.
EU bodies are elected
The European Parliament is directly elected, and has full legislative powers. The Council is made up of the democratically elected national governments, and legislates together with the Parliament.
The Commission, which drafts and proposes legislation, is elected by the Council, national governments, and the Parliament together. The President of the Commission is the candidate of the Parliament’s political group that won the most votes in the European elections.
The Commission can be dismissed (!) by the European Parliament through a two-third majority vote of no confidence.
The EU functions like most large democratic states
The EU is not a state, it is a new type of international actor. However, in some ways its structure is similar to that of many states.
The EU operates like any democracy that has component states or regions. The Council functions like a Senate, representing the interest of the states. The Parliament operates like a House of Representatives in the US, for example, representing the people directly.
The Commission, is formed out of a coalition-style agreement between the majority groups in the European Parliament.
The same system can be seen across Europe from Germany, to the Netherlands, Spain, or Italy.
The EU gives British citizens a voice in global affairs, and makes the UK more democratic
Once upon a time, before globalisation, nation-states could choose to be isolated from the world (and even then that was a myth). Giving citizens a vote on national affairs allowed them to determine how they would be governed.
Nowadays, large-scale global processes mean that no single state has full control of what happens to its citizens. Climate change crosses all borders, multinational corporations control trillions and operate across the world, large-scale trade deals are negotiated between groups of countries, and emerging giants large China or India set the tone in their regions. Can Britain be truly democratic if British citizens have no say in shaping the forces that affect them?
The EU is the largest and richest economy in the world. It is large enough to shape and regulate globalisation. By giving a democratic voice to British citizens on how to shape globalisation, it makes British citizens’ more meaningful, and therefore makes the UK more democratic.
The UK on its own would never be able to dictate trade terms to the US or China, but the EU can, and is doing exactly that. The EU is leading the way in the fight against climate change, and is now initiating legislation which will prevent global tax avoidance. By imposing its new Privacy Shield rules on the US, it is setting a global standard for privacy rights on the internet for all Europeans.
British democracy is far from perfect, and the EU makes it better
Some of us like to imagine that British democracy is and always has been perfect. That is very far from the truth.
In reality, the first-past-the-post electoral system means that many voters’ voice is excluded based on the constituency they live in. A government can have a majority in Parliament without having a majority of votes in any election, as is currently the case.
The UK also has an unelected House of Lords and an unelected Head of State, who is also the head of the national church, and both have unaccountable power to influence and interfere in the political process.
The UK’s democracy is based on hundreds of years of class divisions and social exclusion. As an illustration: Of the 53 British Prime Ministers to date, 19 were educated at Eton College, seven at Harrow School, and six at Westminster School. Likewise, 41 British Prime Ministers studied at Oxbridge, 11 did not go to university, and only 3 went to other universities (Edinburgh and Birmingham).
The EU provides another platform of democratic politics, which allows citizens to engage in a system which is not affected by these flaws. EU politics compensates for British inequalities, for example by distributing EU funds to communities British governments neglected, or providing social rights and protections which British governments, or at least those before Labour in 1997, refused to grant.
If the UK leaves, it will be less sovereign and less democratic
The EU is the largest economy in the world, with a common market of 500 million people, made up of common rules and standards, and freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital. EU citizens have a democratic say on those rules and standards through the European Parliament and Council.
All Brexiteers claim that if we vote to leave the EU, the UK will then thrash out a trade deal with EU, which will give us access to that market.
However, any country that wants free access to the European market, must apply its rules, including freedom of movement, and pay into its common budget. That is the case for non-EU countries like Norway, Switzerland, or Iceland, often presented as a model for us to follow.
If the UK were to leave the EU, but want access to the EU market, we would need to apply exactly the same rules and regulations, allow in the same EU immigrants, and pay a contribution, and yet, we would have no say whatsoever in the writing of those laws. We would simply need to apply them.
Far from giving us independence and sovereignty, leaving the EU would take it away.
How to improve EU democracy
The EU is not perfect, and its democracy must be strengthened and improved. The first step must be to increase citizens’ engagement in EU politics, and enable true participation by citizens in European affairs.
British and European citizens must have the media channels to know exactly what the EU is doing, and who is making what decisions at the European level. At the moment, these media channels are lacking.
Once this happens, citizens will be able to debate what shape the EU should take based on truly participatory process, and not through the influence of narrow-minded nationalist demagogues.