The Democratic Deficit

We all think we know what a democracy is.  Adult citizens vote periodically for people to represent them and make decisions for the common good.  Half of us generally don’t like those decisions, but we accept them.  We know we’ll get another bite at the cherry in a few years time when another election will be held, and there will be an opportunity to get rid of the failures, charlatans, idiots, incompetents, crooks, corrupt or however else we see the politicians that call themselves “The Government”.  Sometimes they get re-elected, sometimes they don’t.  But at least we have the chance to turf out the people who make far reaching decisions on our way and quality of life.

But very few people seem to understand that that model no longer exists, except superficially.  Yes, we still have our elections, and we swap one of these politicians for another, so no regime apparently lasts for ever.  But since the UK parliament ceded sovereignty to the European Union through the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties (thank you, John Major and Tony Blair), it is no longer the highest law making body in the land.  That body now resides in Brussels and is never elected by us.  I refer not to the European Parliament (which is only a talking shop peregrinating around the EU at great expense) but to the European Commission, which has reserved to itself alone the power to propose all EU legislation.

Who or what is this Commission?  At the political level, it is formed by appointees nominated by each of the Governments of the Member States, so there are 28 of them, each allocated to a specific portfolio.  So Malta (population 0.4m) has the same representation as Germany (76.4m).   The representatives of small countries have proportionately the most power: the ten smallest countries with 5 per cent of the EU population have 36 per cent of the Commissioners.  Commissioners tend to fall into two categories.  The first type are former national politicians whose domestic career is over (or never got started) and they want a well remunerated place to park themselves (one thinks of Kinnock and Mandelson).  The other type is the ambitious politician who wants a bigger stage and better remuneration than he or she can get in their own country.  These guys and gals hang around for 5 years, but if they want to stay on for another term they usually can.  It really depends on whether their national government wants to reward another supporter with this plum Commission job.

The personal financial future and career of these people is intimately tied to the future of the institution, so there are none who would question its existence, its goals or its modus operandi.  The same goes for the 23,000 public servants who support these Commissioners and are the motor for the entire EU project.  It goes without saying that these people are also highly paid with a wide range of non-taxable emoluments to cover things like healthcare, education, living expenses, travel – the things that the rest of us have to meet out of our taxed income.  Oh yes, they also have a special low rate of income tax.  One can see why such people are committed European Unionists.

Now although the Commission is the only body that can initiate legislation, and it gives it to the Parliament to discuss and propose amendments (which it does though it never seems to reject anything of substance), there is a third body which the Unionophiles claim gives the EU a democratic constitution.  This is the Council of the European Union consisting of a single representative of each member state, usually the minister responsible for whatever subject is being discussed. This institution has a remarkable constitution.  Eighty per cent of all decisions in this Council are decided by a qualified majority, but this majority is harder to get if the proposal being discussed does NOT come from the Commission! A Commission proposal is passed if 16 of the 28 member states with at least 65 per cent of the population approve it.  But any non-Commission proposal (and it is not at all clear how anything can get through to this Council without first being vetted and approved by the Commission) requires 21 member states to support it before it becomes law.

So it is clear that legislation can be steered through even though a substantial minority of member states may not want it.  But what about the famous veto that Cameron insists the UK can wield to prevent developments damaging to the UK interest?

There are a number of policy areas where a member state may declare especial sensitivity and for which a unanimous vote is required to pass the measure into law.  In theory, anything can be classed in this manner, but since this would effectively prevent any decision ever being taken, member states confine themselves to issues such as the budget, EU membership, foreign policy, and a few other areas.  So, Yes, the UK does have a veto over EU expansion, as does every other member state.  But vetoes are rarely used since they are considered the nuclear option, and bring opprobrium and discrimination against the recalcitrant state.  In practice there are a number of ways in which a state can be isolated and co-operation in other policy areas withheld.  It is, after all, not a union of friends but a grouping held together by fear of isolation.  According to the Remain campaign, our “friends” in the EU would turn the knife on us if we ever dared leave.  Some friends!

In all decision making in the EU, the key institution is the Commission which is unelected and permanent (which alones give it much more influence than all the transitory ministers who fly in and out of Brussels a few times a year).  But by allowing the peoples of the EU to vote for a toothless Parliament, the Commission has kept the illusion of democracy.  We still have a vote, but it is valueless.

I was watching The Suffragettes the other day and could not but be impressed by those heroic efforts by a relatively small number of women to get the vote for women in the UK.  That was only 100 years ago.  Full enfranchisement only came in the late 1920s.  So they earned the vote, and what they struggled to get has now been rendered valueless by the institutions of the EU.  Will we reclaim our democracy this year, or will we resign ourselves to permanent rule by a foreign-based technocracy?