Friday, 8 April 2016

The EU is not democratic

No, the EU is not democratic. There are two senses in which the EU could be democratic: in the sense that it is responsive to the wishes of HM government or in the other potential sense, that it is democratic in itself – although the first sense is the more important because it guarantees that the second sense is a constant, an unchangeable feature of the EU monolith. At least through the democratic will – framing the EU as a thing we should be in to reform is wishful thinking and I for one am not content with just sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the unlikely event of a senior EU bureaucrat deciding that EU citizens should actually be given a meaningful say in the project.

This should be obvious. Whether you want Britain to stay in or leave, it is pretty much an objective fact that the EU is undemocratic at present and exceedingly unlikely to become more democratic in the future, near or otherwise. If you think that Britain should give up democratic power because it needs influence within the EU structures or it is needed to prevent a general conflict, by all means make that case (obviously, I would not agree with you at all on those points) – but do not try to call it a democracy and at least accept the limitations that it puts on Britain’s parliamentary sovereignty.

Some sort of a definition for democracy must be offered – although I will not stoop to quoting American presidents. Democracy is a system of government by all eligible members of a state, typically by representatives (hence, representative democracy – the Westminster system). As such, the EU can either be democratic in two ways – one, that it is responsive to the elected parliament in Westminster, and two, that all eligible citizens of the EU take an active role in its governance.

The second point should be taken first because it is largely self-evident. The EU parliament is more of a fig-leaf than an organ of democracy. True democratic accountability means much more than having elections and voting – even the North Koreans let the people vote and Russia has a parliament (I wonder what would happen if they passed a vote of no confidence directed at Putin). To constitute an institution of representative democracy, the parliament elected by the citizen body must be sovereign, the basis of all real power exercised by the executive (meaning ministerial accountability and the ability to formulate/repeal laws). This is clearly not the case – as almost everyone reading this will know, the European Parliament is only permissive, meaning that it can only give assent or dissent to proposals put before it. Moreover, the parliament cannot adequately hold the law-proposing commission to account for its actions (its only power in this regard is a vote of no confidence in the entire commission to get a new one appointed – such a blunt instrument that it exercises little leverage).

On top of the fact that the EU parliament in its present form objectively cannot be described as democratic because its votes are not an exercise of sovereign power, it can never be democratic because there is no demos (uniform citizen body). For the combined European citizenry to constitute a demos, the European identity must become a powerful part of each and every corner of Europe – if the EU continues to aspire to replace the nation states of Europe as the ultimate government in Europe, this European identity must similarly replace national identities to a large degree as the chief loyalty of Europeans if a working demos is to be formed. When there is no demos, democracy ceases to function properly as the self-interests of internal identities take over, meaning that the country cannot be governed in the interests of a democratic majority because the interests of the citizens are diverse and separate from the interests of the superstate. 

Given that the national identities in Europe are steeped in several millennia of cultural assimilation, including distinct languages and political sensibilities, let alone economies, this is exceedingly unlikely. The EU flag is just about a recognisable feature here from the many park benches upon which it is proudly emblazoned, but no one on this side of the channel cares much for the anthem, if they recognise it, or would feel like joining in a people’s war to maintain European solidarity. In Britain’s particular case, I doubt that the public could ever be truly Europeanised – the national debate on the referendum is framed according to the national interest by both sides; if Cameron were to join the extremely fringe element claiming that we should act in European interests rather than British interests, he would be out of office tomorrow. Cameron’s entire campaigning strategy is based on keeping up a fa├žade of parliamentary power (including the phantom repatriation of powers) to mask ever-increasing EU suzerainty.

Europhiles tend to argue that the parliament is only one part of the EU’s democratic mandate, the remainder being exercised by the Council of the European Union. Yet, this body itself is fundamentally undemocratic – it is carried out at two removes from the electorate through Qualified Majority Voting and is hugely constrained by international treaties. It is a stark contrast to the consensus-based system of most other international organisations (e.g the WTO - p. 6).

Do you genuinely recognise our EU commissioner?
The Council of the European Union is made up of ministers from the 28 states – it appoints the commissioners, co-ordinates policy and passes laws. Many would argue that this body is no less democratic than the sending of delegates to the WTO or UN, for example, because a supranational body has power but the ministers are accountable to electorates at home. They have either been misled or are deliberately trying to mislead.

Qualified Majority Voting, the method of decision making in the council, means that representatives from countries can be directly over-ruled by a vote – and hence, decisions are twice removed from the various European electorates. Effectively, the British public vote to fill a parliament, the lead party of which then sends someone to represent it at a higher parliament – the will and mandate of HM government, and hence their British electors, is not necessarily respected in decisions directly affecting them.

People compare this to the House of Lords and other organisations such as NATO/WTO. It is not like the House of Lords because the British upper house does not directly shape policy, but is purely permissive and more importantly is constituted to act in British interests – not the interests of the other European countries or a supranational union made up of them. Moreover, it can, and in my view should, be reformed by the British electorate (I would like to see all party affiliations of the peers ended, party politicians largely removed and the body self-electing – but with very severe legal constraints). The body is not democratic, like the Council of the European Union, but it quite clearly fits in the British system. People vote for stupid shit that we cannot afford all of the time – we need a body to check mob rule, prevent the chronic short-termism gripping our political decision-making and rationalise some of the slightly more crackpot things that come out of Downing Street. I would make the Commons much more democratic and the Lords less so – but that is not the point as we can reform it ourselves and it is ultimately responsive/subservient to the Commons that we elect.

The Council of the European Union is not like the WTO, or other international organisations, for two major reasons. The first is that international organisations are run on intergovernmental lines, normally, meaning that sovereignty is never ceded and measures are taken through broad agreement (one of the five fundamental principles of the WTO – although some commentators place the number higher, this is irrelevant). Practically, intergovernmental systems ensure that decisions are made through negotiation and consensus, with a full range of opt-outs and vetos at the disposal of participating states – hence allowing those states to remain democratically accountable to their electors. NATO’s decisions are taken consensually as well, as are those of the international regulators which create most single market law (which begs the question – why are still in? We would be sacrificing a larger share in a supranational irrelevance where our wishes are by no means respected to gain an albeit smaller share at a much more favourable series of intergovernmental global top tables). While the intergovernmental system can be taken to represent sovereign entities negotiating with each other, the EU is effectively a state above a state.

The other difference is that the EU interferes in internal affairs – it genuinely aspires to the governance of Europe. No other international organisations are intrusive as such for the sake of it, as the EU is – their remit only extends to relations, e.g. trade or diplomatic, between their member states. While this frequently interferes with internal regulations, the sole motive is to facilitate better trade relations between states externally. Hence the infringement of intergovernmental organisations is smaller (as the EU adopts international standards anyway as well as its own laws) and is not focussed on the erosion of democracy, which still has considerable leverage through consensus governance.

As a contrast, the EU will intervene as and when it sees fit within countries – not just to improve relations/cooperation between its members – but because it seeks to run the member states as far as its own interests dictate, which means that it is both far more likely to infringe on democratic sovereignty (it was set up to become a state, the direct opposite of a body espousing intergovernmental cooperation) and that when it does, as it operates supranational QMV which can leave a states’ representatives with little effective power to resist, democracy can be directly undermined.

Why do we listen to this man? The soft Greek accent and the unassuming demeanour conceal a breathtaking incompetence and inanity - not very well. I have friends like him - they ended up at Oxford Brookes.
Can we reform it? Could we turn the EU into an intergovernmental system which respects democracy, as former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis implores us to in the Guardian? The short answer is no – while it is hypothetically possible it is politically implausible, not least because there is a self-evident majority of European countries pushing for more EU power rather than less. Varoufakis' political nous is as good as his economics
The basic reason for this is the weaponisation of international treaties to further European integration. International treaties are designed to be binding on successive governments in order to give stability to, and normalise, external relations between states – the EU has turned this instrument into a ratchet for further integration and uses treaties to intervene within countries.

An international treaty is not in itself democratic – they are meant to bind successive governments to provide continuity in international affairs and as such can only be reformed by a further international treaty (or amendment agreed on the same lines as the original treaty) or revoked in its entirety. Despite this, treaties are clearly necessary if we want some degree of world peace – most are not intrusive as their main concern is state-to-state relations rather than what happens within a country,  and they can peacefully be revoked in their entirety by a future government, if they follow certain legal procedures, even if they are designed to stick.

The EU treaties to which Britain subscribes are enormously complex, wide-ranging legal packages, designed to be the foundations of a super-state. If the British public is confronted with provisions that we do not like (e.g. fishing), the UK government’s choice is to renege on the entire EU acquis or to swallow the bitter pill. It is far easier for a prime minister to accept a medium-term political scandal than the colossal political fall-out of an unplanned EU exit. The democratic discord at home is a grain of sand, even on quite a big issue, when compared to the consequences of tearing up the EU treaties. The EU knows this full well – when Jean-Claude Juncker said, ‘There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties,’ he was merely stating a fact, not affirming his dictatorial ambitions or deliberately trying to provoke UKIP. The only democratic choice is to leave the whole thing or abide by the whole thing – I want the former, along a well-worked plan (Flexcit/The Market Solution).

Trigger Alert!
Because the fall-out of abandoning the treaties will always be bigger than dealing with an issue within one of the treaties, a UK government will always choose to do the latter, ignoring the democratic voice of the British people. Typically if hard-pressed, HM government will secure a timed opt-out, maybe giving us a decade or two to implement the provision in full – enough time for the then present administration (e.g. Heath’s) to strut around proclaiming victory, lie to the House of Commons and then retire gracefully, dumping its successors in a massive bucket of shit (who will then be presented with a fait accompli and forced to follow the treaty in full). The EU knows this and exploits the crippling short-termism of our system to the full. Certain opt-outs and rebates were can be assured, but only with great difficulty and far bigger balls than David Cameron has. These are also a one-way street – it only takes one idiot (Blair) and they are lost forever as well in one-sided future negotiations. Hence, powers which we have now are by no means guaranteed eternally - in future the acquisition of power by the EU will continue and we do not know where it will end. 

Hence, the EU is a ratchet – it only goes one way towards ever closer union, unless a future treaty can be introduced that over-rides the previous ones. The chances of this happening are nought, nada, zilch, zero, fuck-all, as demonstrated quite beautifully by our own Prime Minister David Cameron in his negotiations of February, which are not even legally binding (as they are not written in a treaty, they do not carry legal force now and can be rejected by various EU national parliaments and the European parliament later) and make only the smallest impression on the EU acquis anyway.

I do not think that the British system is perfect – it is in dire need of reform (for a start so that the EU situation can never happen again without the full knowledge and full consent of the British public) – but how can subjecting ourselves to two intermeshed democratic Frankensteins be better than having to deal with one, in terms of making the voice of the British electorate heard? Saying we should stay in the EU because the UK is not a perfect democracy is the equivalent of saying that you will not miss a finger because you are already missing your other hand. Problems should be graded by the issues they present, not accepted because problems will always exist. The real difference is that the UK has democratic potential – there is a very real chance of achieving meaningful political reform in the UK (as has been done many times in history), while there is not with the EU.

One of the problems with Western European democracy - when you line up several 'hockey-mother' politicians who have never seen a gun before against a man who was forged in the fires/war-crimes of Chechnya, a bloke who plans gratuitous terrorism just to make himself feel better on long Fridays before the Mosque opens, someone who probably has his political rivals kept in a cage underneath his house and a man who looks like he used to eat Russian spies for breakfast, who do you really expect to win?
While I have no problem with people arguing for the EU if they accept supranationalism as a principle, I do not logically see how anyone can accuse the EU of being a democracy. Even though democracy is far from perfect, I personally fail to see it as a dirty word, despite its limitations.