A Democratic Deficit in the EU Essay
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A Democratic Deficit in the EU
The question over the legitimacy of the EU has been a nearly continuous debate and many commentators appear to agree that the EU suffers from a severe ‘democratic deficit’. There are many reasons why this perception is so widespread. As a multinational body it lacks the grounding in common history and culture upon which most individual polities can draw. However, this should not necessarily disqualify the EU from being treated as a democratically legitimate body. Andrew Moravcsik believes concern about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ to be misplaced. Judged against existing democracies, rather than ideal parliamentary democracy, the EU is legitimate. Most critics…show more content…
Most powerful of all is the Council of Ministers which deliberates in secret and until recently was not legally obliged to listen to the EP’s decisions. While indirectly accountable to voters, the link is too tenuous and the mode of interaction too technocratic to satisfy most observers. It also appears unreasonable that the deliberations of the Parliament must be public whereas the Council remains secretive. The European Council only meets every six months, largely as confirmation of decisions made elsewhere, but McCormick remarks upon its remarkable potential power: “It can in effect set the agenda for the Commission, override decisions reached by the Council of Ministers and largely ignore Parliament.”
Analysts have also criticised the undemocratic nature of the legislation, because interest groups dominate policy-making in the EU excluding more regular channels of democratic governance. The very complexity of the legislative procedures also means that it is virtually impossible for even experts to understand them. In addition much of the decision making takes place behind closed doors. They have also targeted European elections as decentralised, apathetic affairs. In the 1999 European elections the voter turnout for Britain was just 23%. The party ‘List’ method of elections has caused a great deal of controversy and there
One of the best arguments against referendums is that they are seldom fought on facts, and more often on buzz phrases or received wisdom, little of it wise. The most commonly heard buzz phrase circulating in Britain's soul-searching over our membership of the European Union is "democratic deficit". It is a phrase much-loved because a) it is alliterative, and b) only vaguely understandable, the "vaguely" being an advantage, as it allows anyone to use it to make it mean whatever they want.
Unfortunately, once media terms get coined, they become part of the landscape of discussion. Opponents of the EU are labelled as "Eurosceptic", which suits them, as scepticism is something the British public broadly approves of much more than enthusiasm.
But does the EU really have a democratic deficit? And if so, is it any worse than many of its member states? Major EU decisions are still made by the European council, made up of each country's national leaders who all have voting rights proportional to their population. Contrary to popular supposition the regularly maligned "unelected Eurocrats" – the commission president and council president – do not get a vote at all.
There are direct elections regularly to a European parliament, which is slowly accruing more powers; slowly because the national politicians who have to give them to it resent anything that limits their own. Despite having twice dismissed the commission budget and once forced its resignation, it is still widely perceived as an irrelevant expenses-led gravy train (as if our Westminster MPs were blameless in that respect) and the elections attract a low turnout, almost always a protest vote. Electing a Ukip MEP is about as sensible as asking a turkey to cook Christmas dinner.
That, in turn, allows national governments to refuse to yield more power. Such democratic deficit as there is, is encouraged by the power-hungry national politicians who complain about it. It would not be hard for a citizen of any other EU country, or indeed many Britons, to look at our own electoral system with its multiplicity of "safe seats", where votes for alternatives to the sitting candidate barely need to be counted, and rightly point at a British democratic deficit.
The cack-handed attempt at electoral reform, which offered only the flawed alternative vote system, turned out to be a Liberal Democrat own goal. The European nation that has the least "democratic deficit" is Germany, not least because its electoral system was thrashed out in 1948-9 under the watchful supervision of French, British and US occupation forces, and borrowed elements from all of them.
Germans have two votes each, one for a constituency MP elected British-style by first-past-the-post, the second for a party list, starting with the party leader as number 1. Seats are allocated on a proportional representation basis to each party depending on their list's share of the vote, with the constituency MPs allocated first and the list afterwards.
So if a party won 30% of the vote in a 600 seat parliament, and 130 constituency seats, it would get 200 MPs: the 130 constituency representatives plus the top 70 from the list. This means the party leader never has to pretend to be caring for his constituents' concerns at local level while also running the country.
A 5% bar keeps splinter groups out of parliament, save for anyone winning a constituency seat outright. The total number of MPs can be adjusted to compensate. It is a system that works well, even if it tends towards coalitions, on occasion including the two main opposing parties, the equivalent of a Labour-Conservative coalition. It seems odd to us, but not many voters can say they feel their vote is wasted.
The British disease is always to assume our system is better, just because it is ours. Nobody doubts that the EU institutions need reform, but that is best done from within rather than shouting from the sidelines.
In a paper for the thinktank Policy Network, the LSE professor Damian Chalmers has proposed that EU directives should only tested by national parliaments, and that it should be possible to disallow directives when they will cause higher national costs than benefits. Changes like that can be done without tinkering with treaties.
Conservative backbenchers, spurred by Ukip's ability to frighten their mainstream into referendum politics, are already calling for a popular verdict on gay marriage. The restoration of hanging and the expulsion of migrants may not be far down this "democratic" road. A democratic deficit is lamentable but in the long term, civilised societies have more to fear from a democratic surplus, otherwise known as mob rule.