Is the EU democratic?

As London and Brussels struggle to agree a Brexit deal, The Week takes a look at the structure of the bloc

As London and Brussels struggle to agree a Brexit deal, The Week takes a look at the structure of the bloc
(Image credit: Daniel Leal/Getty Images)

The run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum saw the launch of a campaign that many commentators claim used immigration scare stories and xenophobia to persuade voters to quit the European Union.

Vote Leave allegedly “relied on racism” to appeal to the British public’s inherent prejudices, as Martin Shaw wrote in The Guardian last year. Regardless of such accusations, the anti-EU campaign secured a 52% to 48% victory in the Brexit vote, under the snappy slogan “Take Back Control”.

This slogan appears to have struck a chord with the many Leave voters who believe the EU represents a democratic vacuum. Leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage repeatedly refers to EU politicians as “unelected bureaucrats”, while the Vote Leave campaign website describes the institution as “undemocratic”.

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With a no-deal Brexit now looming as UK-EU trade tensions grow, The Week takes a look at the inner workings of the bloc.

How is the EU structured?

The EU is comprised of a number of institutions that work together but have very different functions.

First is the European Council. “The EU’s broad priorities are set by the European Council, which brings together national and EU-level leaders,” says the official EU website. Or to put it another way, the council is a collection of leaders who were democratically elected within their own borders.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, is the only directly elected EU body, with representatives, or MEPs, apportioned by each member state’s population. The Parliament is unusual in that it cannot propose legislation, but EU laws cannot pass without its direct approval. The current president of the Parliament is Italian politician David Sassoli, who was chosen by MEPs.

The most controversial institution of the EU is the European Commission. This is the executive branch, meaning it submits proposals for new legislation to the Parliament and the Council, implements EU policy and administers the budget. Most crucially, the commissioners are not elected but are instead nominated by member countries, each of which gets one representative.

During his final appearance in the European Parliament in Brussels in January, Nigel Farage told his fellow MEPs that “if we want trade, friendship, cooperation, reciprocity, we don’t need a European Commission”.

He added: “It isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic and it puts in that front row, it gives people power without accountability – people who cannot be held to account by the electorate.”

The EU defends this set-up on its website by pointing out that all EU laws handed down by the Commission can “only be approved by democratically elected politicians” in the Parliament, which “also endorses new Commissions, holds the Commission to account and can even force the Commission to resign in a so called ‘motion of censure’”.

So is the EU democratic?

As the UK in a Changing Europe think tank notes, “‘democracy’ means different things to different people” - so there are no easy answers to this question.

“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,” says the independent research organisation.

“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.”

And although the EU is an “international organisation, like the United Nations or Nato, founded on treaties between its member countries”, the bloc “far surpasses other international organisations in its democratic control” and “reaches into far more areas of public policy than its counterparts elsewhere”.

Given the conflicting interpretations of what democracy means and how far the EU’s powers should extend, the think-tank concludes that “there are still questions about the right balance to strike”.

To some commentators, the question of EU democracy hinges more on accountability than representation. Writing for the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, historian Pippa Catterall suggests that the idea of the EU being undemocratic may stem from its functional differences to national governments.

Large swathes of the EU are effectively appointed by a voting populace - a decidedly democratic facet of the institution.

But “because it remains fundamentally an international organisation, it does not have a ‘government’ which can be voted out by the disgruntled,” says Catterall, a professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster. “Its parliament makes laws and holds confirmation hearings on appointees, but those appointees are placed there by horse-trading between the member states, rather than directly.

“In that sense, the EU’s organisation falls some way between that of an international organisation (which few people expect to be democratic), and that of a state. However, the more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, the more it has become judged by the normative expectations of how democratic the former rather than the latter are.”

Transparency is another key issue in perceptions about whether the EU is democratic.

In an article on The Conversation, Alan Butt Philip, a former Reader in European integration at the University of Bath, writes: “The elected governments of the member states are not keen to grant access to debates in the Council, which are held behind closed doors – and where most important decisions are made. These meetings can’t be watched online and minutes are not made public. Not even representatives of the European Parliament can attend.

“This is difficult to square with the claim of being democratic.”

So is the EU undemocratic? It depends on both which lens we view the question through, and the standard to which we hold the EU.

FullFact concludes that “compared to a country, the EU has democratic shortcomings”, but adds that the most “obvious remedies would imply a considerable strengthening of EU powers, making it look even more like a state”.

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