A deeper look at problems of EU democracy


citizenship, democracy, Europe

Author(s):  Jon Worth
Published date:  02 Mar 2012
Source:  IPPR

It is not a question often posed in the UK, but what is the European Union? The answer may give us some way to determine how its institutions should be organised, and how democratic accountability can be assured.

Looking at it one way, the EU is a classic club of nations, an international organisation. Its 27 members sit and decide on matters that are supposed to be for their mutual benefit. It has no army and has a budget that is many times smaller than a national government's, and – as the eurozone crisis has shown – when the going gets tough it is the heads of state and government that call the shots.

Look at it the other way, however, and the EU is closer to resembling a state (cue hisses from across the political spectrum in the UK). EU law is binding, supreme over national law, and member states can be fined for not complying. From the environment to fisheries, working time to transport, it legislates on matters that affect all of our lives. It has permanent institutions in Brussels including – unique among international organisations – a parliament elected by citizens.

It is this European parliament that was subject of the former foreign secretary Jack Straw's ire at a recent IPPR event as part of the series After the Euro crisis: Where next for the European Project? His argument (summarised in this IPPR video) is that what he calls the 'experiment' of a directly elected European parliament should be abandoned. National parliaments should nominate representatives to the European parliament instead.

Yet answering what role the European parliament should play must be contingent on what the European Union is. If it is a classical club of nations (the style of the UN or NATO for example) then there is no precedent for citizen involvement through elections. But even Jack Straw must see that the EU is more integrated than any other international organisation and has some of the component aspects of a state. Any body that wields power over our lives needs to be legitimate.

The question to then pose is whether the European parliament, as currently constituted with 754 MEPs elected every five years, gives that legitimacy.

Jack Straw argues that it does not, citing declining election turnouts as his reason, although the long-term turnout trend in the UK is downward for all elections at all levels. Straw also has no explanation for how national parliamentarians with a part-time eye on EU matters would do a better or legitimate job.

The clue to the solution instead lies in IPPR's research: that 75 per cent of Britons do not think that their voice counts in the European Union. Citizens might have a voice in the formal sense (there are elections) but they do not feel that voice shapes the direction the EU is taking. To put it another way, the EU has elections but it does not have adequate representative democracy.

A quick comparison with Westminster is useful here. The composition of the UK government is contingent on a majority in the House of Commons. As a citizen, if I do not like the current lot, I can turf them out at the next election by giving another party/other parties a majority instead.

What is the equivalent at EU level? There isn’t one. There is no clear connection between the closest thing to a government (the European Commission) and the outcome of the European parliament elections. If they were corrected then people might feel they have more control of the direction the EU takes. Simon Hix has pursued this argument further in an IPPR article and his call is being answered in Brussels: the party of European Socialists, for a long time the second force in the European parliament, has not only committed to choosing a candidate for 2014 but has put in place a system whereby members of national parties that compose the PES can have a say through a primary system. Labour – the UK's PES member party – has not yet declared how it will participate in this process, but this new way to engage party activists in a decision of EU-wide importance could be a major step forward. Further, if the PES were to move on this issue, other EU-wide political families would have to follow.

There is also plenty of room for progress in how parties in the UK select their candidates for the European parliament, and how these candidates are elected. The UK's closed-list election system gives MEPs only a weak incentive to communicate with citizens, while the Conservatives and Labour additionally prioritise sitting MEPs at the top of their election lists in their party selections. The Conservatives' 2009 European parliament election manifesto [see page 20] promised that a Conservative government in Westminster would review the election system, although we have heard precious little on that from the Coalition to date.

In conclusion then, the problem that Jack Straw raises – that the European Union has a legitimacy problem – is the right one. But his plan to abolish elections will only make the matter worse. There are viable ways to better connect the commission and the parliament and to improve how MEPs are selected and elected that could go at least some of the way to reducing the disconnect people rightly feel at the moment.