Making social science accessible

27 Apr 2016



“The EU’s current institutions have serious failings and are undemocratic” (Leave)


“The EU has a better level of democratic scrutiny than any other international body: the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, World Bank etc.” (Remain)

Discussions about democracy are essentially about yardsticks. Depending on what you look at, and compare against, you will get different answers. And in that sense, both arguments are correct.

The reason is that people don’t agree on what ‘democracy’ is. We know it is about people being involved in how they are governed, but there are many different ways to turn that into reality.

‘Democracy’ means different things to different people

To take the most obvious example, when we talk about democracies, we often mean representative democracies, where we elect people to represent our views and make decisions on our behalf.

That’s very different from a direct democratic approach where, like in the EU referendum, many or all decisions are taken by the population at large.

While we might accept Abraham Lincoln’s famous formulation of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, we seldom agree even on whom ‘the people’ might be.

For some, ‘the people’ means an ethnic, linguistic and cultural community. But it’s also possible to argue that what ties “the people” together is accepting a set of rules, where culture is less important than participation in community life.

Moreovoer, democratic standards may depend on the issue at hand. Do the same standards apply for regulations about selling fresh fruit as for organising the use of military force, or building a system of social security?

These questions confront all countries. The UK monarchy and a partly-hereditary House of Lords would strike some as ‘undemocratic’ compared to elected heads of state or upper chambers.

 The EU has more democratic controls than a typical international organisation…

All democracies limit the power that any person or institution wields, but do so in different ways.

The EU is an international organisation, like the United Nations or NATO, founded on treaties between its member countries.

The political leaders of those countries decide on the EU’s political agenda, and national ministers are the main decision-makers when it comes to policies.

However, the EU far surpasses other international organisations in its democratic control, just as it reaches into far more areas of public policy than its counterparts elsewhere:

  • EU citizens directly elect the members of the European Parliament. Its approval is generally needed for new EU laws. These elections also then shape the choice of European Commission President, who needs to have the approval of the Parliament;
  • Citizens can ask for specific new laws to be considered by the EU, through a European Citizens’ Initiative, although this has not resulted in any new laws to date;
  • Member countries have accepted that the EU creates a set of legal rights, not only for states, but also for EU citizens, which they can rely on in court (‘direct effect’) and which cannot be overridden by those states (‘supremacy’ or precedence).

…but it’s not a typical international organisation

However, precisely because of the extent of these rights and processes, many observers question whether the EU should be judged by the yardstick of a state. The EU court says that the treaties in effect constitute a ‘constitutional charter’. The scope of EU activities distinguish it from other international bodies, which have limited areas of responsibility.

Compared to a country, the EU has democratic shortcomings

Seen in this light, a number of key democratic shortcomings can be identified, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellows Sara Hagemann and Simon Usherwood:

  • The European Council and the Council of Ministers (the two bodies where member countries meet) still hold many sessions in private or only make some records public, which makes it difficult to know who has said what, or how individual countries have voted;
  • Implementation of EU laws still often happens under the opaque ‘comitology’ system, although it has been changed recently;
  • The European Parliament lacks some of the powers normally associated with national parliaments. It cannot formally propose new laws or raise taxes;
  • There is no clear alternation of power. While different groups might gain more seats in the European Parliament, this is not necessarily matched by similar changes in the ‘executive’ branches of the EU – the European Commission, and the governments in the Council;
  • Perhaps most significantly, most EU citizens do not identify strongly with the EU, so some will argue that it doesn’t have the legitimacy that national systems enjoy.

There are still questions about the right balance to strike

There is a tension that might be obvious from this list. The obvious remedies would imply a considerable strengthening of EU powers, making it look even more like a state.

This dilemma is clearest with the increasing powers given to the European Parliament – which has nonetheless seen declining turnout for elections.

In the absence of a shared European community of the kind found within countries, it might not be possible – even if it is desirable – to build a system that unifies people like many nation states have done. But this does not of itself mean that some form of democracy is impossible.

Dr Hagemann and Usherwood say that the question is how to get the best balance in a system which seeks to address the needs of both states and peoples in Europe, especially within an EU that handles both mundane technical regulations and highly political questions.


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