Democracy in the EU

by George Hatjoullis

It is very fashionable to talk of the democratic deficit within the EU and to regard the EU as less democratic than the national parliaments of the states that comprise the EU. This popular mythology, however, is not consistent with the facts. Power within the EU ultimately rests with the Council of Ministers which comprises the first minister of each member. All are elected to national parliaments according to national democratic procedures. The European parliament now holds a great deal more power and is almost as powerful as the Council of Ministers. The weighting system of seats gives small countries a better representation per head of population than large countries. Every country gets at least 6 seats whatever its population. Members of the European Parliament are elected by proportional representation. It is this system that allows parties destructive to the EU to be elected in such large numbers into the EP. UKip cannot achieve the same level of seats at Westminster with the same percentage of the national vote. How then is the EU less democratic than Westminster?

One area of valid criticism is the near monopoly role of the European Commission in introducing legislation to the European Parliament. However, the EP can suggest legislation to the EC or to the Council of Ministers. Moreover, the Citizens Initiative makes it possible for individuals from member states to introduce legislation (see my blog Innovations in Democracy: European Citizens’ Initiative). The EC can introduce legislation but only the EP and the Council of Ministers can approve it. All three centers of power work together in a system of checks and balances. The unelected Civil Service in the UK also exercise a considerable degree of power but is ultimately accountable to the minister and through the minister, parliament. It is not really clear from this that there is a democratic deficit in the EU.

The democratic deficit is of course a linguistic contrivance to cover the real concern; federalism. The EU does supersede national parliaments in many spheres. It centralizes power within the institution of the EU. It is not that the EU is undemocratic but rather because it is federalist, that is the source of concern. The EU has a relationship with national parliaments that is increasingly like that of national parliaments vis-à-vis local and municipal authorities. It is not less democratic. Indeed it allows parties such as UKip and Front Nationale a bigger voice than their national parliaments will allow. How is this less democratic? Let us not conflate federalism with democracy.

The other important feature of the EU is that it is truly pluralist. The relationship between pluralism and democracy has been discussed in several earlier blogs. Many speak of democracy when they mean pluralism. In a pluralist society power is distributed and there cannot be a dictatorship of the majority, much less a dictatorship of a minority. Democracy alone does allow dictatorship of the majority and even of a minority. Athenian democracy was not pluralist. Power rested with a narrowly defined group of men. Some so-called modern democracies, such as Turkey, are struggling with pluralism at the moment. The EU distributes power widely and recognises the rights and responsibilities of the many groups that make up the EU. It is democratic and pluralist when many member states may fall short on pluralism. The price that is paid for this pluralism is a creeping federal structure. Those that oppose it are those that would use democracy to impose a dictatorship of the majority, or even minority, within the member state. It is on this point that the debate about EU membership needs to be made and understood.