Just how democratic is the EU?
PUBLISHED: 13:00 22 March 2018
The old jibe that the EU is undemocratic just doesn't bear up to scrutiny, says MALCOLM TURNER. It is high time this myth was debunked.
“But the EU’s not democratic, is it? Juncker and that other bloke, nobody voted for them.” The unfamiliar face in the pub who has engaged me in a Brexit conversation smiles and waits for me to agree. I want to point out that the EU is almost obsessively democratic, sometimes to the point of impotence, but I fall back on the easier ploy of attacking to defend.
“How democratic is a hereditary head of state,” I parry, “never mind an unelected second chamber, and a prime minister who was only elected by Tories in Maidenhead, a town which also voted to remain in the EU?” The smile instantly turns to a glare as he picks up his pint and turns to another conversation. I too am unhappy with my reply, I feel I should have defended the EU rather than attack the UK, but one of the problems with democracy (all democracy) is that it’s complicated.
In 1947, Churchill famously said, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” This came a year after the Zurich speech in which he first proposed a United States of Europe. Given the challenges of governing any country in a genuinely democratic way, it must be infinitely more difficult to part-govern 28. The EU has always had to balance genuine democracy with the ability to get things done. Nonetheless, it passes most democratic tests with a good report card.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index has Great Britain at 14th among the shockingly few countries considered to be full democracies – a mere 19 out of 167. In addition to Britain, ten other EU members make the top list: Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Finland, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Malta and Spain.
The list also includes Switzerland, Norway and Iceland who are not EU members but are closely aligned with the EU and accept many EU regulations. Interestingly, only five non-European countries make the list and the USA isn’t one of them. From this we can conclude that EU membership or alignment does not make a country any less democratic.
But how democratic is the EU itself? Let’s look first at the most criticised of its procedures: the way it fills its top jobs: the presidents of the European parliament, European Commission and European Council. Yes, there are three of them – a common misconception is that the EU has a single president, and therein lies a large part of the problem, few people understand how power is shared across those posts and fewer still how the office holders are selected. Let’s look at them in ascending order of importance:
The Presidency of the Council of the European Union often causes confusion, but shouldn’t, because this presidency is held by a country and not an individual. The Council of the EU (as opposed to the more important EU Council) is the upper house of the EU legislature which rotates among the member states of the EU every six months. It chairs meetings of the Council and sets agendas. The presidency is currently held by Bulgaria.
Only the EU parliament can pass EU legislation. The President of the EU parliament is elected by MEPs for a two-and-a-half-year term, meaning two elections per parliamentary term. The two largest political groups in the EU parliament, the European People’s Party and Party of European Socialists have a tradition of alternating the two terms between them. This process is often criticised or called ‘undemocratic,’ but it ensures that the victor can command a majority in the EU parliament. The current President is Antonio Tajani. Did I hear you say you’ve never heard of him? Don’t worry, he’s little more than a senior MEP who presides over debates.
The EU Council is made up from the elected political leaders of member states. Originally an informal summit, it was beefed up in 2009, but still isn’t as powerful as it sounds. It only meets twice a year and cannot pass or even initiate legislation. They elect, by qualified majority voting, a President who becomes their public face and the current one is Donald Tusk. They also nominate the President of the EU Commission.
The most powerful EU figure by far, is the President of the EU Commission (the EU’s Civil Service), who is nominated by the European Council. The Council votes, by qualified majority, for a nominee for the post of President, taking account of the latest European elections. Their proposal is then put before the EU parliament which must approve or veto the appointment as well as the nominee’s team. Why so powerful? Because the European Commission is the sole initiator of legislation. All the European Council can do is give the Commission a helpful nudge twice per year. The current President of the EU Commission is Jean-Claude Juncker.
Conclusion? The process for choosing presidents is probably as democratic is it can be without becoming impossibly complicated or creating lame duck presidents. Perhaps the only way it could be made more democratic would be to have presidents directly elected in a Europe-wide popular vote. But that would create two dangers: winners of a popular vote would often lack the support of a sizeable number of MEPs or the Commission, making it impossible for them to get legislation through parliament; and such elections might also fall prey to populists from the far right or far left.
The second danger is the most troubling, one big advantage of the present system is that populists, isolationists, nationalists and nativists don’t get to first base which means, not surprisingly, they are among the EU’s fiercest critics. Other critics, nonetheless, including Tony Blair, have called for a directly-elected president.
And the European parliament itself? How democratic is that? Its 751 MEPS represent the second-largest democratic electorate in the world (after the parliament of India) and the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world (375 million eligible voters in 2009). The seats are distributed according to ‘degressive proportionality’, ie, the larger the state, the more citizens are represented per MEP.
As a result, Maltese and Luxembourgish voters have roughly ten times more influence per voter than citizens of the six largest countries. The current parliament was elected in 2014 and will face new elections in 2019. Germany has 96 seats – one seat for 843,000 inhabitants – while Malta has six seats – one for every 70,000.
EU rules mean that all MEPs must be elected by proportional representation (PR), but member states can choose which form of PR they prefer. The UK, bizarrely, uses two different systems: Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote while England, Wales and Scotland use party lists. There are currently 73 UK MEPs of whom more than a quarter belong to UKIP.
For all these tiresome facts, Brexiteers including Nigel Farage and Priti Patel regularly accuse EU leaders of being unelected and the fiction persists that the EU is a largely undemocratic cabal where back room deals are concocted and secretly forced through by France and Germany.
It may be some while before we debunk this stubborn Brexit myth. Alas, it may also be responsible for a more insidious problem – voters’ indifference. The real challenge is that voter turnout in EU elections has been falling steadily since the 1970s and now sits at little more than 40% in most European countries, less in the UK. Apathy is likely to undermine democracy in the EU more corrosively than any defect in voting systems.
Could I, with a stronger will, have got these points across to the man in the pub? Probably not: one of several reasons why the Remain cause has many hard battles to come.
• Malcolm Turner is a writer; his novel, The Honourable Member (2017), is a satire on fame and political power