International democracy?

A growing number of problems can’t be dealt with adequately by national authorities alone — they require concerted international action at various levels. And contrary to much anti-European rhetoric, the EU is actually the most democratic of all the international structures we belong to.

Traditional methods of international co-operation are slow, cumbersome, opaque and, frankly, not very democratic. They involve long negotiations among officials, leading eventually to government ministers’ signatures. In most cases, nothing can be agreed without consensus — thus creating a bias towards weak, lowest-common-denominator agreements, if agreement is reached at all. And when an agreement is reached, it is submitted as a fait accompli to national parliaments on a take-it-or-leave-it basis — if it is ever submitted to parliaments at all.

Doubts about whether every signatory will ratify plague the implementation of such agreements. And even if all do ratify, there are constant questions about whether countries are applying them in good faith. Many international structures theoretically create binding agreements, but the procedures for verifying whether everyone is playing fair, and for settling any differences, are weak, if they exist at all.

Such are the working methods of most international organisations, and of the G7, G20, and countless other structures. Although they take decisions which affect all of us and constrain the actions of governments acting in good faith, the quality of democracy overseeing those decisions is low.

But the European Union is very different.

  • First, it has far more developed mechanisms than any other international structure for informing and involving national parliaments. All legislative proposals are sent to them eight weeks ahead of any ministerial meetings, enabling parliaments (if they organise themselves properly) to mandate their minister before he or she goes to Brussels, rather than just debate the matter afterwards.
  • Second, there is an elected European Parliament, directly representing citizens and bringing into the decision taking process a pluralistic representation of both governing and opposition parties in each country. Its approval is necessary for legislation, the budget and international agreements entered into by the EU.
  • Third, the EU is not always constrained by lowest-common-denominator politics. Many, though by no means all, decisions are taken by a qualified majority vote among the member states. The ability for the will of the majority to outvote a small minority is rarely used, but it does put pressure on everyone to compromise rather than holding out.
  • Fourth, EU decisions have legally binding force within the legal systems of all member countries, which means it can be relied on directly by citizens, businesses and consumers. There is a common court, appointed by the member countries, to settle any different interpretations of what has been agreed — which avoids unilateral interpretations. And EU decisions that fail to respect fundamental rights can be overturned by the courts.
  • Fifth, decisions on legislation are taken democratically and in public, not in secret.
  • Sixth, the EU’s central administration comes under the authority of Commissioners, who are nominated by elected governments and accountable to the elected Parliament. Parliament elects the Commission President, confirms the appointment of the Commission as a whole, and can dismiss it.

The EU’s basic rulebook is set out in treaties, agreed and ratified by every country. Those treaties lay down its (limited) field of competence, the powers of its institutions, how to elect or appoint people to those institutions, and the details of its decision-making procedures.

The EU can act only within the limits of that rulebook, and no changes can be made to it (for instance, to enlarge its remit) without the agreement of every country. But, within its field of responsibility, it is more effective, more accountable and more democratic than any other international organisation or structure that Britain belongs to. Far from threatening to walk away, we should be proud of our collective achievement.

Democracy in international institutions

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent piece of work as usual Richard.

    Shame you were not a lot more prominent in the national campaign. Your academic approach would have been so much better than Camerbourne’s Project Fear and Alan Johnson’s Project Invisibility.

  2. Well explained and important. Far more like this needs said … and repeated. It needs said at various levels, too, from the academic through to Blogs, the banner headlines of local newspapers, Tweets and posters/ flyers.

    Having been brought up in the 60s on a diet of comics with square-headed ‘Jerries’ shouting ‘Achtung’, I am now moved by the overwhelming generosity of modern Germans and the statesmanship and simple decency of Angela Merkel.

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