Discontented Democrats

Today it is exactly six months since the UK Referendum, in which a majority of those who voted chose that Britain should leave the EU. We celebrate this half-anniversary with a long post on an issue – democracy – that goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the EU today.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) of the UK has produced an extended paper on the democratic deficit, as they see it, and how the EU could be reformed to make it more democratic. While we do not believe that the EU is open to democratic reform, we value the ERS analysis of the issue and summarise it here. The ERS is not anti-EU, it simply wants to improve the EU. We think its critique of the democratic dimension to the EU goes to the heart of its failings. But is the exercise ultimately futile if the organisation cannot be changed, short of a catastrophic collapse?

The ERS paper can be read and downloaded from here:


The scene is set early: “The report proceeds by first providing the principles used to assess Europe’s democratic performance (these are: subsidiarity, accountability, representativeness and engagement), and then by carrying out that analysis. Our recommendations flow from this analysis, and the report concludes by embedding these proposals in a vision of what a more democratic European Union would look like.”

democracy-1Being concerned with electoral reform, the ERS has to believe that the EU could be reformed. We argue, in contrast, that the underlying ideology of federalism requires the centralists to avoid significant reform, notably in respect of democracy. To be fair, the ERS does see the difficulty:

“[R]adical pro-Europeans see the creation of a federal Europe as the answer to the democratic deficit. It is relatively straightforward to imagine how the structures of the EU could be transformed into those of a federal state, with the Commission becoming a government, the Council of Ministers becoming a Senate and European political parties formalising themselves into genuine trans-continental parties.

The commonly cited complaint against this model is that one cannot have a democracy without a demos, a unit with which people can identify. [B]ut there appears to be little sign of a European identity and little
 sign of a desire for a federal Europe. This creates a fundamental problem: if European citizens do not want a federal Europe, then a democratic state should not be imposed undemocratically. A United States of Europe would therefore seem to lack legitimacy.”

subsidiarity-1Despite this seemingly terminal criticism of the EU Project, the ERS is determined to show how it could be reformed to become a democratic community, without removing the ideology of federalism. This is a worthy exercise and the 12 recommendations make valuable debating points, in any debate about a genuinely democratic economic and cultural community.

Democratic Principles

The ERS sets out the criteria against which they judge the EU’s democratic credentials, and finds them lacking. But first they note that the EU is unique in its form of supra-nationalism, with its governing institutions and structures, rather than a simpler forum for negotiations between member states, such as the UN and ASEAN. “There are EU courts, the corporatist European Economic and Social Committee, the directly elected European Parliament and intergovernmental summits, amongst others.” Not to mention the European Council and Commission.

The ERS specifies four principles for democratic governance: subsidiarity, representativeness, accountability and engagement. We would argue that, while these four are necessary they are not sufficient. However, the fact that the EU fails to qualify on each of these necessary principles justifies our claim that it is undemocratic (not merely ‘deficient’).subsidiarity-4

Subsidiarity is a founding principle of the EU, spelt out in the Maastricht Treaty, which declares that the Union will act only in areas where required action cannot be sufficiently well achieved by the member states (except for areas taken as being its own “exclusive competence”).

…the essence of subsidiarity is that it protects the democratic self-determination of nation states (as well as lower levels of government) within the transnational framework of the EU. As such, it is a crucial component of any functioning European democracy.

Democratic governance should be representative of the people governed, in terms of both ideology and demography, “in order to make sure that the voices of EU citizens from all walks of life are heard.

The EU should be accountable to its citizens. “Citizens must be able to reward or punish good or bad behaviour and the performance of those who make decisions. … Clear lines of accountability should exist between citizens and those who make policy on their behalf”.

engagement-1We would add that citizens should be able to dismiss a government that does not meet their expectations. For that there should be formal means by which citizens can be engaged with their system of governance. Democracy requires that citizens can freely exchange their views and that there are channels for them to do so.

“…elections without the free interchange of views between citizens, civil society and elected representatives leads to a pseudo-democracy – the institutions and form of democracy, without the content. … A democratic system’s efficacy can therefore be measured by the level of participation, engagement and trust in it.

These four principles – subsidiarity, representativeness, accountability and engagement – are the basis for judging the EU’s democratic performance. In what follows, the ‘democratic deficit’ refers to the extent to which the EU falls short of meeting these standards.

Democratic Deficits

The next part of the ERS report gives their analysis of the extent to which the EU meets the standard for democratic governance, as they define it.

In recent years, the European public has developed a markedly sharper distaste for the EU. For instance, according to Eurobarometer polls there is a clear and widening trend of people tending to believe that their voice does not count in the EU … This suggests that the EU is failing to deliver on representativeness and engagement.

At the time the report was prepared, Denmark was the only EU country in which a majority of poll respondents agreed that their voices counted in the EU (but only 56%). voices-count

Across Europe, trust in the EU has … collapsed in recent years, dropping from a high of 57% in Spring 2007 to just 31% [in 2013].”

“[This] suggests a serious and widening democratic deficit – people are unlikely to feel represented by an institution that they do not trust, nor are they likely to feel they can hold it accountable.

democracy-2With the public feeling distant and disengaged from European affairs, and with serious questions to answer surrounding the democratic nature of the European legislation process, it is clear that a real democratic deficit exists.”

European Parliament

The ERS report then has an extended chapter on the European Parliament (EP) and another on the European Commission. We offer here a summary of their conclusions.

The report points out that since the Lisbon Treaty the EP has gained more powers and has exercised them more actively. “Yet just because a parliament is powerful, does not necessarily make it representative, accountable and, indeed, democratic.

Turnout at parliamentary elections has fallen in every election. “A January 2013 YouGov poll found that 95% of the British public could not name one of their MEPs. This is an indicator of a general lack of engagement in European affairs when it comes to European elections.

The parliament has gained huge amounts
of powers in the 35 years since it was first directly elected. Nevertheless turnout has fallen at every election. Simply giving the EP more powers will clearly not increase its visibility or encourage more people towards democratic engagement.” 


The EP comprises a majority of supporters of federalism. “… we know from survey data that the majority of EU citizens would be unlikely to see themselves as equally pro-European as their [EP] representatives.

European Commission

The European Commission (EC) comprises 28 representatives of the member states and is the executive arm of the EU, perhaps its civil service (except that it initiates all legislation). The way in which EC commissioners are selected contradicts its brief to be independent and to represent wider European interests. “Governments typically appoint prominent politicians into the role of Commissioner.

The EC has several, mutually conflicting, roles. It is a political body, it initiates legislation, it arbitrates between meeuropean-commission-3mber states, it is a technical organisation that evaluates the performance of member states, it is a quasi-judicial authority that oversees markets and enforces rules, and it negotiates common policies on behalf of its members. The work of the EC and the selection of its commissioners are distant from – and obscure to – the citizens of the EU. 

The EP has a significant democratic role to play in holding the Commission to account. But the whole process opens up a significant gap between the Commission and the people, and seriously obscures channels of accountability.

The reports quotes a revealing statement by a former Commissioner, Fritz Bolkestein: “The Commission meddles too much in business that the member states can regulate themselves. The background of that is the large number of Commissioners in the union. Most of these managers have too little to do, and unintentionally end up making policy.”

The report also cites the Centre for European Reform, which argues that the EC has instituted a system of top-down control that discourages debate, innovation and reform. “This leaves the Commission sometimes behaving more like an intergovernmental institution.” Subsidiarity is not consistently applied. wannabee-members

Ultimately, voters do not have a direct vote for the presidential candidates in question. They are voting for national political parties, which affiliate to pan-European political parties headed
 by candidates for President.”

For example, the British Labour Party did not support Martin Schulz, the Socialist candidate in the EP elections because he is too federalist. And the Conservatives were disenfranchised because ‘their’ EP party, the Conservative and Reformist, did not put up a presidential candidate.


The rest of the ERS report is devoted to explaining their 12 recommendations for reforming the political processes of the EU to make the Union more democratic. These would be sensible recommendations, if we believed that the EU is open to reform and not stuck, irredeemably and irreversibly, in the rut of its federalist ideology. We like the ERS analysis of democracy and how to improve it but we don’t think that their recommendations are adequate to reform the EU to the point where its citizens will respect and trust it. Here are some sample recommendations that relate most directly to the EU’s democratic deficit (the remainder have more to do with the ERS’s more general views on elections and democracy):

National parliaments

  • subsidiarity-2The adoption of ‘green cards’, whereby national parliaments can instigate European legislation, should be a long-term priority. Red cards (when parliaments come together to veto legislation) should also be adopted.

  • Parliament and the UK Government should put in place mechanisms for giving citizens a direct say in the shaping of EU legislation.

The European Parliament

  • The introduction of a candidate-centred, proportional system should be adopted for UK elections to the European Parliament.

The European Commission

  • The European Council should negotiate with European political parties on a clearer set of rules for future elections.
  • In the long term the Commission should shrink in size. 


Political parties

  • Parties should attempt to recruit candidates with a wider range of views on Europe.

It’s clear that much of this would conflict terminally with the federalist agenda, which is why we argue that effective democratic reforms cannot be expected. 


But we’ll leave the Electoral Reform Society with the last word:

Ultimately, any such effort has to be embedded in a clear vision of what a good European democracy looks like. But it is no good just taking the standard nation-based model of representative democracy and applying it to the unique contours of European governance.


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