Whether you work in UK- or EU-focused public affairs, you have probably heard one of these or some kind of variation: “unelected officials deciding our legislation”, “faceless Brussels bureaucrats imposing their will on our country” – and not just from the likes of Ukip.
But for their emotional appeal, none of these arguments stand scrutiny. Let’s take things step by step.
- The European Parliament: with its legislative role significantly boosted, the European Parliament is directly elected by voters in all Member States. MEPs represent the will of voters in each country, as translated through national electoral laws and can significantly change legislative proposals to reflect the people they represent.
- The European Council / Council of the EU: This body is comprised by Heads of Government and Ministers of each Member State, all of which have taken office through free and fair elections in each country. They are also instrumental in amending proposed legislation to suit the interests of the countries they represent.
- The European Commission: often described as the least transparent and democratic of the institutions, and sometimes perhaps for good reason, the Commission is nevertheless headed by a President and Commissioners who have been put forward by national Governments and scrutinised by the European Parliament, which in some cases does not consent to certain appointments. True, Commission officials, the equivalent of a country’s Civil Service, are not directly elected but then that is the case for most bureaucracies in most countries.
It logically follows that European Institutions are, one might dare say, more democratic than many national legislative bodies – the House of Lords being a prime example.
“But this or that legislation doesn’t serve the best interests of my country”, you hear. Democracy is a give and take – there are always winners and losers. The voters of Liverpool elected Labour MPs in 2010, yet ended up with a Tory-led Government, which they could just as easily say does not represent their will or what they perceive as the best interests of their region. The EU is nothing more than a step up from small and medium-sized countries to a larger entity, in which they are all represented and yes, sometimes, much like the voters of Liverpool, you will end up not getting what you want.
Then why does the ‘undemocratic’ argument not only persist but hold significant traction, at the same time when examples of undemocratic institutions are plentiful among Member States themselves but remain largely under the radar? This can be put down to how recent a project the EU is, by institutional standards at least, combined with an inability to create a common European identity. Simply put, the EU does not have the 800 years of institutional development (taking the Magna Carta as a starting point), which has resulted in UK institutions embedding themselves in the collective memory.
Does this mean that all is hunky-dory in the grand European project? Of course not. There is still plenty of room for improvement, increased transparency and accountability (worth remembering for example that Members of the European Parliament were first directly elected in 1979). Constructive criticism is, and has always been, welcome, and is the only way forward. But healthy scepticism is not propagating invalid sweeping statements that do not serve any other goal than pandering to voters’ prejudices for electioneering purposes.