So What is Democracy?

There is no example of absolute democracy; the term denotes some sort of ideal from which real nations fall short but so-called democracies can be measured against widely accepted and straightforward criteria.

democratic-deficit-1We believe – and believe that many others share this belief – that the notion of democracy contains two elements that are clearly missing from the EU. These two notions are that democratic governments are accountable to the people who elect them, and governments that displease enough of the electorate can be dismissed by them (i.e. that there are real answers to Tony Benn’s questions: “To whom are you accountable and how do we get rid of you?”).

Perhaps in real democracies these notions are cluttered with attempts to minimise their effects on those who get elected. Nevertheless the behaviour of national politicians, in pandering to their voters, shows that they understand the two notions clearly enough. And the behaviour of the European Commission and its other institutions shows how comfortable they are that these two notions have been designed out of their Project.

It’s not about having elections (for example, to the European Parliament), it’s about the belief that elections can make a difference to who governs and how. Without at least a pretence that these two notions hold, we would never use the term ‘democracy’ to label any aspect of the EU; their predecessors designed their Project in the disdainful belief that interventions from ‘below’ can only lead to bad government and therefore any such intervention has to be deliberately excluded.


EUobserver, always a reliable supporter of the EU project, though often critical of the way it works, has picked up the issue of democracy and, perhaps predictably, got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Here is the source of what follows:

The author, Lizbeth Kirk, presents the EU line that democracy is about consulting citizens not, as we argue, about being accountable to them, let alone allowing them to vote out a European government.* She quotes from two thinkers and we have selected and commented on some of their offerings.

Richard YoungsRichard Youngs is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank. He argues that “We may have a more lively and high-profile campaign leading up to the [European Parliament] elections next year – paradoxically, precisely because there is a new potential kind of populist alliance“.

He would like to see more input coming directly from citizens:

The EU needs to be a lot more open to take citizens’ views onboard. They have been saying that for 20 years, but in practice nothing very concrete is being done. If you look at all the surveys, people feel disenfranchised.”

We question whether people “feel disenfranchised” because their views are not taken on board but feel bad about the EU for deeper reasons. The evidence that citizens don’t feel good about the EU, which could be interpreted as feeling disenfranchised, is the low and falling turnout at European Parliament elections, which Youngs believes may change next year because populists may win more seats.

‘Populists’, as they are patronisingly called, are frequently sceptical of the EU, which requires the EU to denigrate them. In EU-speak the term has taken on a completely negative flavour so that anyone who opposes the EU, on any grounds, can be dismissed with a single word. (Of course some so-called populists may have other unattractive opinions, which do need to be exposed.)

Citizens' PanelIn May this year 100 citizens from all 27 (not 28!) member states were invited to discuss the future of Europe through a “Citizens’Panel”. EUobserver doesn’t report what ideas that tiny sample of ‘citizen-representatives’ came up with, nor how they were selected, but Youngs offers this comment:

The Commission does a lot of good work on consulting with citizens and running citizens dialogues but it is all very carefully managed and it is organised very much around an EU script: here are the ideas – do you citizens agree with us?

Such consultations are more than a script, they are a substitute for real representation and are – so far successfully – employed to cover the absence of accountability, not to mention the disdain in which ‘the people’ are held by EU (and national) elites. We don’t see these issues being discussed publicly.

Youngs is more realistic when he argues that, “I don’t think we should … think that if the more pro-European side comes out with more votes than the populist side, that in itself will invigorate European democracy”. Though it would stimulate a complacent sigh of relief and the claim that they are doing enough. He is assuming that there are just two sides – “pro-European” (i.e. Pro-EU) and “populist” but we are neither, as are many others.

Dominik HierlemannThe other critical EU supporter quoted in the EUobserver article is Dominik Hierlemann of the Bertelsmann Stiftung (Foundation), which is “designed to strengthen society and help individuals reach their full potential” (from its website).

Hierlemann argues that, “It is important that pro-European forces head to the polls. A high voter turnout would definitely strengthen EU democracy but I am worried that we will get a more populist EU parliament, with a lot of members that are more interested in disintegrating the EU, and less interested in full EU integration”.

If voters prefer disintegration to integration we might think that the EU should listen and change direction. That is democracy in the literal sense. The EU has a use (or abuse) for certain words that differs from normal dictionary definitions, ‘competence’ and ‘subsidiarity’ are other examples (see Subsidiarity and Competence).

EP elections-1It is indeed important – if just for the EU’s credibility – that voter turnout at the next European Parliament election reverses the downward trend since such elections began. One reason for the decline is that offered by Hierlemann, that much-denigrated populists are not interested in full EU integration. However, we doubt that getting elected to the Parliament encourages MEPs to wish the EU would disintegrate (in the usual meaning of that term) because they will want to keep their new jobs and juicy pensions.

Hierlemann continues, “EU democracy is still a very elitist thing – trying to sell EU politics to the average citizens. But this is not about selling. I mean, if you want to ‘sell democracy’, you are already a little bit lost … We’ve got to involve people – they should have a chance to participate, and this is where we need to shift our perspective from communication and more towards participation”.

He seems to be saying that the EU’s use of the term ‘democracy’ is part of its sales pitch to its citizens; if so we would agree (though we doubt that he does mean this). We would also agree with his claim that the EU needs to be more participative, if that isn’t just a requirement of its “perspective”. But for us participation is not merely answering surveys and joining ‘consultations’ (to be fair that’s not what he says, but he doesn’t elaborate what he does mean).

EUobserver itself (or at least its current author) argues that, “Citizens must be more directly involved and at an earlier stage in the political process via citizens consultations.”

Accountability-1While we have no objections to consulting citizens – on the contrary, it is necessary – such things as Citizens’ Panels are not sufficient to justify the use of the term ‘democracy’ to describe the European Union. Without real, untrammelled accountability there is no such thing. Above all, how citizens can get rid of rulers is the key: by voting (in a democracy) or by revolution (against an autocracy).




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