Which democratic deficit?

Almost every democratic system has aspects which are questionable. The unelected House of Lords in Britain. The role of money in elections in the USA. The pros and cons of different electoral systems. And, of course, the EU.

EU institutions certainly suffer from the problem of distance. They are inevitably and unavoidably more remote from citizens than national or local institutions. That in itself is a good reason not to act at European level on subjects that can be perfectly adequately dealt with at national or local level.

But to the extent that we do want to act jointly at European level — because of our interdependence, or for setting common rules for our common market — then this must be done in as open, transparent, democratic and accountable way possible. That is why there’s a double parliamentary check on everything done at European level: EU legislation requires the approval both of the directly-elected European Parliament and of the Council of Ministers, whose ministers are each accountable to their own national parliament.

Having a directly-elected parliament is a feature unique to the EU. No other international structure has one. Until a few years ago, this was largely a talking shop, but now it is impossible to adopt (almost) any EU legislation without the approval of the elected Parliament.

It’s also a parliament that isn’t controlled by a government. Most national parliaments, like Westminster, are under their government’s control, through a built-in compliant majority that generally approves everything the government wants. In the European Parliament, there is no majority party nor even a governing coalition. Majorities have to be secured by explanation, persuasion and negotiation on every issue.

And, whereas in most international structures everything is decided behind closed doors by ministers and civil servants, in the EU everything is debated and voted in public in the Parliament, both at committee stage and in the parliamentary chamber.

But there is a shortcoming in democratic accountability in the system, and it’s in the second of the parliamentary checks: the often weak scrutiny by national parliaments of the minister representing them in the Council.

Some countries do it well. In Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltic States, any minister going to a Council meeting has to appear beforehand before the relevant committee of the national parliament and square his or her negotiating mandate with them. And this practice is spreading to other countries.

There’s nothing stopping Britain implementing such a practice. It doesn’t need treaty change. It doesn’t need any European-level agreement. It just needs a majority of MPs willing to vote for such a system — and to be willing to put in the work!

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4 Comments

  1. The British have a system that is no longer fit for purpose. Future if the upper chamber in limbo, first past the post for the commons, unrepresentative majorities in the house. There has to be a better way.

  2. ‘Almost every democratic system has aspects which are questionable. The unelected House of Lords in Britain. The role of money in elections in the USA. The pros and cons of different electoral systems. And, of course, the EU.’

    Yes, the House of Lords is arguably in desperate need of reform. But it does not take power away from the UK.

    Debating the democratic flaws of the Westminster model, whether to have an absolute monarch even, does not alter that power resides in the UK. It does not alter that we have the realistic capacity to change it in this country.

    The EU alters that, it takes power and places it in the hands of institutions that our influence is limited in and that are totally remote to UK voters.

    I can help directly remove my current government in the UK, I cannot do that with the European Commission, or other heads of states. It is simply a dishonest comparison you make.

    ‘But to the extent that we do want to act jointly at European level — because of our interdependence, or for setting common rules for our common market’

    a) The European Union’s rules on the common market increasingly do not come from the EU anymore, they originate from a whole raft of international bodies and texts, such as codex, the UNECE, the ISO, the Basel Committee, etc. The EU is bound to accept this these regulations by international treaty, such as the 1994 Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement with the EU as an example.

    An independent international voice in shaping those new rules is key, and we cannot have that inside the EU. Article 34 of Lisbon makes very clear of this point, and specifically includes the UK’s position on the UN Security Council as being used to ‘defend the positions and the interests of the Union’. Even more dramatically, the article states:

    ‘When the Union has defined a position on a subject which is on the United Nations Security Council agenda, those Member States which sit on the Security Council shall request that the High Representative be invited to present the Union’s position.’

    b) We do not need to be part of a supranational organisation to co-operate with other countries. It is what countries have done for centuries. See our border agreement with the French since the 1990s, allowing our border force to operate in Calais and theirs to operate in Dover. No EU needed.

    And lastly, As far as I understand the nature of ‘Implementing Acts’ in the EU, they result in a very opaque committee process, with incredibly limited EP oversight. And that is how 50% of EU law is passed, at least. So it strikes me as misleading to say that every action at EU level must be ‘done in as open, transparent, democratic and accountable way possible’.

    And good suggestion with the last point. Our governments are just as involved in incompetence.

  3. You ask ‘which democratic deficit?’ – that would be the fact we have no say over the the EU ‘government’ – the Commission. It is not elected, did you forget that?

    The people initiating EU legislations – that overrules UK laws – are not elected by us…

    In the UK we have a choice of parties/MP’s and can chose based on their manifesto. The EU is an unelected one party state – like the Soviet Union was and like communist China still is.

    • Actually the European council initiates legislation by setting the agenda for the commission, and signing the treaties which govern what the commission can propose. And of course the commission doesn’t even get a vote on legislation it proposes, so it has to work with both the parl & council of ministers on its proposals.

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