The EU’s allegedly undemocratic nature has become one of the most potent arguments in the coming referendum. It is a rallying cry for Eurosceptics of right and left.
Boris Johnson has slammed the EU for being “increasingly anti-democratic”. Iain Duncan Smith, another leading Tory Eurosceptic, says he was horrified when Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier, was replaced by an administration of unelected technocrats in 2011. He told the Sunday Telegraph he raised the topic in a cabinet meeting: “I said, am I the only one here that feels distinctly uneasy about Big Brother turning around to the elected government and saying, you must go?”
Kate Hoey, one of the Labour party’s most prominent campaigners for Britain’s exit, has railed against the EU for being anti-democratic, anti-socialist and unaccountable. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister meanwhile has called the EU a “democracy-free zone” – although, unlike Hoey, he thinks Britain should stay in the union and fight for reform. Some criticisms of the EU’s democratic deficit – for example, that it is bureaucratic, untransparent and remote – are partly valid. It also lacks a demos, an electorate that thinks of itself as European. But it is a gross exaggeration to say it engineers coups against elected governments that it doesn’t like.
The European commission, a hybrid of a civil service and a government, can be bureaucratic. There are too many rules in some policy areas, some of which aren’t well thought out.
But that is true of all governments. Civil servants can be infuriating. But government would be even more amateurish if politicians took all the decisions without any experts at their side.
What’s more, the notion that the European commissioners are faceless bureaucrats is misleading. While they are not directly elected by the people, they are chosen by each of the 28 governments which in turn are elected. Almost all are politicians. Think of former British commissioners such as Peter Mandelson or Roy Jenkins.
The situation isn’t so different from the US cabinet. The secretary of state, treasury secretary and so forth are not directly elected by the people. They are appointed by the president. But few would call them bureaucrats.
It is also fair to say the EU isn’t transparent enough. The main weakness is the council of ministers, which along with the European parliament is responsible for passing laws.
The council, in which Britain has a 13% vote, is made up of ministers from the 28 member countries. That is democratic enough. But its proceedings are held behind closed doors. When it is acting as a legislative assembly, that isn’t right.
An even bigger weakness, though, is the EU’s remoteness. Though voters elect members of the European parliament, turnout in elections is low, and few people know who represents them.
There are two main solutions to this problem. The one advocated by Varoufakis, and his new pan-European reform movement, is to create a truly sovereign parliament. But most British voters would reject the idea of a more powerful European parliament. The better approach is to decentralise power and strengthen national parliaments.
David Cameron’s deal to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU did make some progress on this score. He got the other leaders to pay more attention to the principle of “subsidiarity”: decisions being taken as closely as possible to the citizen. He also secured a “red card” that will give national parliaments power to block EU laws if at least 55% of them club together – though that is, admittedly, quite a high threshold.
The most extreme critique of the EU, though, is that it has brought down elected governments. When Eurosceptics make this allegation, they typically point to three examples: Berlusconi’s departure in Italy, George Papandreou’s resignation as Greek premier at roughly the same time, and Alexis Tsipras’s inability to get rid of austerity policies after he was elected Greek prime minister last year.
Although the EU certainly played a role in each of these situations, none meets the definition of a coup.
Look first at Berlusconi. By autumn 2011, he had already lost the confidence of the Italian people because of sex and judicial scandals. Meanwhile, his coalition splintered and as a result was on a wafer-thin majority.
Then the government’s borrowing costs started rising after Berlusconi refused to implement retrenchment policies advocated by his finance minister. Italy was on the verge of bankruptcy when the premier was hounded out of office. Sure, Berlusconi also lost the confidence of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then president. But the main factor behind his resignation was that “his majority was not there any more”, says Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at Luiss university in Rome.
So yes, the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. But that doesn’t make it anti-democratic. And the solution is not to quit the EU but rather to fight to make it more decentralised, transparent and accountable. Who knows? In a generation or two it might even develop a demos.
Edited by Jack Schickler
This article was originally published in the Guardian. It is re-published here with permission
Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)