Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. Adolf Hitler
Facts have been thin on the ground in the UK post the referendum result. Some newspapers, like the Express, read like they are straight out of a banana republic (though thankfully they’ve been forced to withdraw some of their most abject anti-EU propaganda). One lie continuously repeated by leavers is that the EU is an undemocratic organisation packed with faceless bureaucrats. I want to explore that in a post today.
The above description is a bit odd, particularly from the perspective of a country with first past the post elections and an unelected second chamber of parliament. But regardless, how does the EU work? Here are the institutions in all their glory together with an explanation of what they do and how they all fit together. Fitting together is key, because what you’ll see below is that the aggregated whole is very democratic, but individual pieces of the puzzle can be made to look odd in isolation (which is the favourite trick of those suggesting the EU lacks democracy). Hopefully by the end of this post you can begin to see from the below that descriptions provided by your local kippers are wildly off the mark…
1. EU Parliament
The European parliament is not democratic? It is considerably more democratic than the UK parliament by virtue of being directly elected by way of proportional representation. Its powers are extensive: just as the UK parliament does, members review and pass legislation and have the power to block the Commission’s budget. In fact the parliament has the power to force the commission to resign, which they’ve never had to exercise because the time it became relevant the commission resigned before they could be pushed. The critique often raised is that the parliament has no power to initiate legislation and while that’s true it’s a twisting of the truth to use that to attack EU democracy, as we’ll see below.
2. EU Commission
The commission are faceless bureaucrats? The President of the Commission is proposed by national leaders in the European Council, taking account of the results of the European Parliament elections. He or she needs the support of a majority of members of the European Parliament in order to be elected. Commissioners are nominated based on suggestions from the EU countries. The list of nominees has to be approved by national leaders in the European Council. Parliament then votes on whether to accept the nominees as a team. Finally, they are appointed by the European Council, by a qualified majority. A little known fact is that Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, was a highly regarded employee of the European Commission (as well as later being a MEP in his time).
The Commission’s main roles are to:
- propose legislation which is then adopted by the co-legislators, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers; but note the relationship with the European Council which sets the policies on which legislation is based and the European citizens initiative.
- enforce European law (where necessary with the help of the ECJ);
- set a objectives and priorities for action and work towards delivering them;
- manage and implement EU policies and the budget;
- represent the Union outside Europe (negotiating trade agreements between the EU and other countries, for example).
European citizens’ initiative
A European citizens’ initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states. How exactly is it undemocratic for people to initiate laws directly?
3. EU Council of Ministers
The U.K. has no influence? In the Council of Ministers, elected government ministers from each EU country meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws, and coordinate policies. Together with the European Parliament , the Council of Ministers is the main decision-making body of the EU. The Council of Ministers: (i) negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission; (ii) Coordinates EU countries’ policies; (iii) develops the EU’s foreign & security policy; (iii) concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations; (iv) adopts the annual EU budget jointly with the European Parliament. The UK has an excellent record of achieving its desired outcome in the Council of Ministers: the British government has voted ‘No’ to EU proposals on 56 occasions, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘Yes’ to legislative proposals 2,466 times since 1999. Just pointing out how many times the UK government ‘lost’ is hence a misleading picture of the UK’s influence. This body is often confused with the European Council (see below).
4. The European Council
What about elected national leaders, aren’t they sidelined by the commission? The European Council defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities. It is not one of the EU’s legislating institutions, so does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. Instead it sets the EU’s policy agenda, identifying issues of concern and actions to take. It is comprised of the directly elected heads of state or government of the 28 EU member states, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission. On each issue it deals with, the European Council can either: (i) require the European Commission to make a proposal to address it; or (ii) pass it on to the EU Council of Ministers to deal with. So it can been seen that the source of the proposals made by the commission isn’t their own whims – their priorities are set by the EU heads of government.
5. The European Court of Justice
The ECJ is biased against the UK? The Court of Justice interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. It is not the same thing as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a separate organisation which is independent of the EU. If the UK left the EU tomorrow, it would still be part of the ECHR.
The ECJ can also be used by individuals, companies or organisations to take action against an EU institution, if they feel it has somehow infringed their rights. It is politically neutral, just like the UK courts and the judges are appointed from member states.
Here are some examples of ECJ decisions helpful to the UK or UK citizens:
• Cowan v Trésor Public (Case 186/87): the ECJ held that a victim of a violent attack when visiting Paris as a tourist, was entitled to the same compensation from the French Government as a French citizen.
• Ministre de l’Economie v De Ruyter (Case C-623/13): the ECJ held that British owners of homes in France were wrongly taxed by the French government and would get their money back.
• Commission v France (Case C-1/00): the ECJ held that France was obliged to end its unlawful ban on imports of British beef after the BSE crisis.
• Commission v UK (Case C-308/14) The ECJ backed Britain’s right to refuse to pay family welfare benefits to unemployed EU migrants who have been in Britain for less than five years.
• Dano v Jobcenter Leipzig (Case C-333/13) The ECJ ruled that Member States are able to refuse to grant social benefits to benefit tourists.
• Commission v Spain (Case C-12/00): the ECJ found against Spanish legislation prohibiting confectionary from being marketed as “chocolate” if they contained vegetable fats other than cocoa butter (as UK chocolate often does).
• Commission v France: (Case C-265/95): the ECJ held that France was obliged to take steps to stop demonstrations by French farmers against imported agricultural products.
• UK v European Central Bank (Case T-496/11): the General Court of the EU struck down discriminatory treatment by the ECB of UK clearing houses. The benefit of this case will be lost if the UK leaves the EU, meaning the loss of tens of thousands of UK jobs.
Another of the EU institutions with relevance to the UK is the European Central Bank (ECB), being is the central bank of the euro area located in Frankfurt. Although the Bank of England remains the UK’s central bank, the ECB and Bank of England worked together on 24 June to provide liquidity to support the markets following the disruption caused by the referendum result, something that helped avoid a political crisis becoming a financial one.
Any contention that the UK’s position in the EU is undemocratic or anti British is a distortion of the true position at best and at worst abject lies.
Compare the position to the UK where the House of Commons is elected by the inherently less democratic first past the post system (disenfranchising people living in “safe” constituencies) and the House of Lords is largely appointed.
Sometimes, what your friends might tell you or what you might read in the papers isn’t the truth. Press coverage of the EU has been designed for years to blame the EU for things that have gone wrong, often to disguise UK government failures. We’ve all too often accepted the simple, but incorrect answer and ignored or failed to understand the complex answer that lies behind it.
The EU is not a perfect democracy. No country or organisation represents a perfect democracy. The UK is certainly not a perfect example of a democracy by any means, but I don’t believe we should address that by breaking up the UK. If the EU doesn’t do what you want, reform it to make it better.