Hang on, the EU is undemocratic, isn’t it? I’ve read that so often and in so many places that it must be true.
Well, let’s look at the facts. There’s the European Parliament, comprised of 751 MEPs. They vote on whether to approve new legislation or not. We have 73 of those MEPs, proportional to our size. So we have representatives that we vote for (and by proportional representation, not by our antiquated first-past-the-post system). That’s democratic.
Then there’s the European Council. The national heads of government sit on that, so our representative is David Cameron. Whom we voted for, you may remember. The European Council has a powerful position, in that its function is to set the political direction and agenda of the EU; it makes top-level decisions on treaty changes and so on. Every country has a veto on the Council. So if our elected Prime Minister feels something being proposed is not in the interests of the UK, he or she can block it.
Then there’s the Council of the European Union (yes it’s a little confusing). Each meeting of the Council is made up of a minister from each national government – the minister changes depending on what’s being discussed. So we send ten senior minsters to this council to represent our interests. Our ministers from our elected government, remember. Along with Parliament, the Council votes on approving new legislation. And our ministers usually agree with the voting – we’ve been on the winning side 87% of the time. Plus on certain important issues, such as taxation and foreign policy, any country can veto proposals it doesn’t like.
So far, everything is unarguably democratic. If we elect a different national government, our representatives on the European Council and the Council of the EU change, and they continue to represent our interests.
Then we come to the Commission, which seems an odd beast on the face of it. Each country’s Commissioner is chosen by their government and replaced every five years, but while they are a Commissioner they do not take instructions from their government – they act on behalf of the entire EU. Their job is to find a way to harmonise some aspects of law throughout the EU in such a way that all the countries will be happy, and they have to find a better solution if their proposal is thrown back to them. The Council and Parliament have a lot of influence over the proposed legislation. Both can pass back amendments, and at the end of the day if they don’t like it, they won’t vote for it. In addition they can remove entire Commissions by refusing to approve their budget, as has happened twice already.
This seems to be where the “undemocratic” label lies – that the Parliament and the Council cannot propose law. But when you look at it, the arrangement makes perfect sense. True, we did not vote for the Commission, but they do not get to vote on the law, and they are accountable to the Parliament. The Commission’s job is to try to find solutions to pan-EU issues that will please every single country. There is a good reason why the Council and the Parliament cannot propose law: they would not come up with anything that they could agree on. Each member would propose bills that benefited their own country, and their sessions would be taken up with pointless discussion with nothing getting done.
Instead, the Commission tries to please all the people all of the time. And as we know that’s impossible, so sure, sometimes they propose things we consider a waste of time. Sometimes they get hung up on issues we consider unimportant or against our interests. But that’s part of being in the club, because often they propose very important, very sensible law, that’s very much in our interests.
And what comes out of this? Some jolly good law. Banning animal testing on cosmetics. Removing misleading food labelling. Data protection. Banning neonicotinoids to protect our bees. Clean water standards. Cheaper phone calls. And lots, lots more.
Yes it’s true that in the complicated world of the EU there are improvements that can be made to the relationship between the Commission, the Council and Parliament, but there is no reason to think this won’t happen. The EU has morphed over the years into what it is now and it continues to change. The last major change was the Treaty of Lisbon which gave more power to Parliament, as well as the ability by national governments to issue a “yellow card” on a law if they think it would be better implemented at national level, and the ability of EU citizens to influence the Commission by getting enough signatures on a petition. And very recently, in 2014, the voting structure of the Council was changed – we benefited and now have a much higher share of the vote.
So to stand up and say “the EU is undemocratic” is simply not true. It’s just a different sort of democracy from ours. And we routinely have a government that gets less than half of the vote and we have an unelected second House, so who are we to judge?!
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