Richard North, 11/05/2019  
 


It seems that those who assert that the European Union is a democracy rest their argument on two planks. The first is to redefine the term, so that democracy means something different from its traditionally accepted sense.

The key to this is to deny the need for one of the central elements of democracy, such as the demos, currently lacking in the European Union. That then opens the way for the second plank, to introduce other elements into the equation, which can be fulfilled in whole or in part by the EU, thereby allowing it to claim democratic status.

Favourite amongst these attributes is "participation". The EU cannot furnish a demos but it can involve its "citizens" in the processes of decision-making, asking groups and individuals for their opinions before it embarks on developing policy or making new laws.

The fatuity of this argument is so easily illustrated that one wonders how anyone can bring themselves to offer it. Nevertheless, they do. However, imagine if you will a pedestrian in the street beset by a gang of youths. They are intent on seizing his money, but before doing so they invite their victim to discuss whether he should hand over his wallet.

In this scenario, the hapless pedestrian has been involved in the decision-making process. He has been allowed to "participate". But I don't think many would seek to argue that this was an example of democracy in action. Much more than mere participation is needed.

There is, of course, a third option to which some resort: a different way of playing with definitions, whereby it is not democracy which is redefined, but the demos. This variation will have it that the demos can be transformed in such a way that, despite all evidence and understanding to the contrary, the EU does actually have a demos. And since this exists at a European level, the EU is miraculously transformed into a democracy.

Another favourite technique is to ignore the demos issue altogether and simply focus on the processes and rituals adopted by the EU, attributing to them "democratic" values.

In this scenario, we are reminded that the Commission president is chosen by the European Council, comprised of elected heads of states and governments from the Member States, and approved by the European Parliament, the members of which are directly elected by the peoples of Europe.

What this tedious litany neglects, though, is that the European Council is an institution of the European Union, part of the institutional framework of the Union which, according to the consolidated treaties, must "aim to promote its values, advance its objectives, serve its interests". Only then, as an afterthought, does it include citizens and Member States.

As with the other institutions of the EU, including the Commission and the European Parliament, their primary purpose is to serve the Union. Of the Council, its purpose is to "provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development". It is required to define "the general political directions and priorities" of the Union but, of course, it does not exercise legislative functions.

In no sense do any of the institutions of the Union represent the interests of the peoples whom they supposedly serve and not in any way is the primary decision-making body, the Commission, accountable to the people. The process of election, therefore, depends for its legitimacy on the demos. Outside that, it has no meaning.

One can again refer to my gang of youths accosting the hapless pedestrian. They may decide to vote on whether to deprive him of his wallet, and they may invite him to join in that vote. But the majority decision could hardly be considered democratic – any more than could two wolves joining with a sheep to decide on dinner be regarded as a democratic assembly.

In a paper written as part of the Jean Monnet Programme, this general issue is discussed, exploring the view that a parliament is an institution of democracy not only because it provides a mechanism for representation and majority voting, but because it represents the nation, the demos from which derive the authority and legitimacy of its decisions.

To drive this point home, it says, imagine an anschluss between - this time - Germany and Denmark. Try and tell the Danes that they should not worry since they will have full representation in the Bundestag.

Their screams of grief will be shrill not simply because they will be condemned, as Danes, to permanent minorityship (that may be true for the German Greens too), but because the way nationality, in this way of thinking, enmeshes with democracy is that even majority rule is only legitimate within a demos, when Danes rule Danes.

Wherever this issue has been confronted honestly, in this paper and elsewhere, the authors are never able to contest this central premise, and it is largely acknowledged that there is no European demos. For the record, a demos is "a group of people, the majority of whom feel sufficiently connected to each other to voluntarily commit to a democratic discourse and to a related decision-making process".

Even prominent apologists admit that the EU is not there, and has a long way to go. The best the Union can hope for is that some time in the future it will acquire or develop a demos. In the interim, it has to rely on the democratic credentials of its members.

Bluntly, anyone seeking to argue that a democracy can exist without the essential component of a demos is arguing in the face of the vast body of informed opinion on the subject. And, in the absence of a European demos, any argument that the European Union is a democracy is without merit. It is plain wrong.

For sure, the Union can acquire some of the features of democracy, but that no more makes it a democracy than painting my car a camouflage green turns it into a tank. And it can seek to soften its lack of legitimacy by engaging "citizens" in consultation and by allowing participation. But that is compensation for its lack of democracy, not a substitute for it. A slave might be consulted on what they prefer to eat, and a kindly owner might even allow his slaves to choose their own meals. But that does not make the owner a democrat.

But then, even if the Union was able to satisfy the pre-condition of acquiring a demos, there is still the small matter of kratos (power), the other half of the equation.

In a national scenario, where government is intent on a course of action which does not have popular support, the people are able to intervene, either at the ballot box or by direct action on the streets, or both. On a more prosaic level, much can be achieved in small ways by lobbying MPs in a system that is (or used to be) so accessible that even the individual could achieve change.

Ultimately, therefore, the people exert power. The situation could be improved with the extension of direct democracy and wider use of referendums and, of course, it was people power that directed the government to seek withdrawal from the European Union.

By contrast, it is difficult to imagine any process by which the people of any one nation – or even a group of nations – could prevail upon the EU institutions to change its policies or laws. French farmers may demonstrate and riot and while they occasionally take their tractors to Brussels, mostly they act on French soil against the French government. That is the fulcrum of power.

For a very long time, I have asserted that the real test of a democracy is not in dealing with the routine and the uncontentious, but when things go wrong – for instance when people are disadvantaged by a law they regard as unfair and want it changed.

From personal experience, achieving change within the UK system is still possible, provided we are dealing with UK law. To achieve change at the European level for an individual or a small national group is virtually impossible. To muster an EU-wide campaign is far beyond the resources of all but the largest and wealthiest of lobbyists.

In that context, the EU disempowers people. To promote the "European" agenda is to deny or suppress the national interest, yet it is at the national level that people exert their power. And, on that basis, the EU can never be a democracy.

What is remarkable though, is the number of apologists who will go further than the EU in claiming for the object of their desire that it is a democracy. In the treaties, the EU asserts adherence to "democratic principles" and claims that "the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy" – an aspiration more than a reality – but it does not actually claim to be a democracy.

And, of course, it isn't. Doubtless it would like to be and, short of that, it would like people to think that it embraces democratic values. But it serves no one to assert that the European Union is a democracy. To do so is to lie.






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