What is Democracy? A lot of people throw this word about in the European debate saying they are fighting for Democracy and Freedom. So what are we actually talking about?
Well, personally, I would give the democratic principle as: we collectively give our assent to the rules, laws and people that govern us. Another more catchy expression from Abraham Lincoln was “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Or it could just put simply as: “We should only be governed the way we want to be!”
I can’t think of a single person who would readily argue against either that idea or the sister idea of freedom – i.e. you can do what you want unless there’s a law against it. And so it won’t surprise anyone to guess that I am 100% behind that.
But that rallying cry can be a little bit misleading. Mainly because, in reading it, we always seem to think of ourselves as the “we”. The people “we” want, the laws “we” have agreed to. As anyone who has just lived in a family knows, getting four or five people just to agree on what to watch on the TV is hard work. Getting millions of people to agree on how something should be run is nigh on impossible. And so some people have to compromise and not always watch what they want.
Imagine a community of 1,000 people. How should they decide on how things should be run for the whole community? Most of us would probably say democratically and thus they would vote on things with decisions following the majority.
Now pick out 100 people who happen to live in the same street. They participate in the discussions and they have their full vote on the matters that affect the whole community. Does it matter if that street always has to agree with the community decision? Say 52 of them are against it and 48 for it. Has that street had that decision “imposed” on it?
Before I mentioned the street and was talking about community decisions as a whole, I bet you would have said it was democratic. Now you might not be so sure; but what actually has changed? For a community wide decision, a community wide vote is appropriate and democratic as it is about rules for everyone in the community. Everyone must have the chance to debate and persuade; but so long as they can and the vote is fair; that’s democracy – regardless of small areas where a local majority are against.
Just before anyone complains or points out that argument can be used to impose tyranny, I want to draw attention to the words I used. Decisions that affect the “whole community” should be decided by the “whole community”. That is a basic principle of democracy. However, matters that affect only one part of the community – our street in the above example – are only fairly and democratically decided at that level. And if that whole community was just telling the one street what it had to do all the time – and all of that street objected – then that is a very different scenario.
Also, please note that I’ve deliberately said community because this same principle can – and I believe should – be applied to all levels of government. Things that just affect a town or city should just be the concern of that town or city. Things that just affect a nation or country should just be the concern of that nation of country. And if you are going to have an organisation like the EU, then it is fair and democratic to make decisions as the EU as a whole.
But there are two massively important conditions to that:
- Everyone has got to understand and be able to debate and challenge the people who administer things – either directly or indirectly through representatives (mainly through representatives as we’ve all got jobs to get on with)
- The community does not try and administer or legislate over things which have nothing to do with it. So if something is not the remit of the community (and in the EU that really needs to be clearly written down), they cannot make decisions on it.
So now to the important question: is the EU democratic? I would say no – or rather only a little bit. Should it be democratic? YES! Is it scandalous that so much power has been accumulated with so little democratic process holding it accountable? Again, YES! Should its authority be restricted to key agreed areas and no more? Definitely, YES!
Now I don’t have a problem with the idea of an EU law being made at the EU level where we only have a share of the voting – I only have a tiny share of the vote in the UK and I sometimes get outvoted in general elections. That is democracy – you don’t always get what you want.
Nor do I have a problem with EU law having primacy over national law – it logically has to or any national parliament could override any common decision and so there would be no point in having the law or common standards in the first place; but this should only be happening in specific agreed areas. Anything not specified should be reserved for the member states. And that’s it. No more. Definitely no more “ever closer union”. If there’s going to be a union, let’s agree terms and then leave it at that. The constant tinkering just makes people quite rightly ask “will it ever end?” It needs to stop.
How Democratic are the Institutions of the EU?
The European Parliament is the most democratic; and yet amazingly is the weakest body in the whole process.
The Council represents individual governments and they are supposed to have been democratically elected; so it is arguably democratic. However, if it is making laws for us and wants to claim to even be vaguely democratic, it needs to be open and transparent. So no more closed meetings!
When it was set up back in the 1950s, the format of the European Commission may well have been appropriate. It was officials trying to coordinate and organise a lot of trade and technical details. Back then I think people were happy to let it get on with its limited job.
Today, that has changed. Whatever its origin; whatever its claims to be the EU civil service, the 28 person Commission behaves like a government and it has the power of one. And it is not; by any stretch of the imagination, elected.
It can technically be removed by a two-thirds majority in the European Parliament; but that doesn’t alter the fact it wasn’t elected! It is the only body that proposes European laws but there’s no public discussion or vote on its agenda or plans. With the amount of power it now wields, this is inexcusable and it is time that a government of that type is made of the people rather than civil servants, run for the people rather than for technocratic elites; and elected directly by the people.
And if it can’t it should be abolished completely.
For me, this is one of the most powerful and compelling Leave arguments. The current situation is simply indefensible. The only reason it doesn’t win me over completely is that there is a significant difference between this issue and the economics argument. That is simply the economic advantage of trade and open markets exists whatever we think of it; whereas this injustice is changeable. And so my reaction would be to try and change it before discarding the economic advantage that does exist. That doesn’t mean banging on the table and telling everyone else to reform – it would be an EU wide decision affecting how the EU works and so it would need to be discussed and campaigned for across all the member states – many of whom find the current situation as appalling as we do.
As for what to change it to, the obvious answer would be a president and a cabinet with one member coming from each member state. My suggestion would then be for the president and vice-president to be voted for in two rounds of voting. The first one would be an open primary, a few states at a time, where the candidates can pitch to the voters of the individual member states and say what they would do for them. Once all the states have done this, the two people with the most votes would go into a second round where it would be an EU wide vote.
Give them clear powers, clear limits and a clear way to get rid of them if necessary; and then leave it at that. If the EU wants to survive, it’s going to have to do something like this or everyone will exit.