The democratic deficit in the EU

20160227_brp502One of the central claims of those supporting leaving the EU is that the current arrangements represent an unacceptable democratic deficit. This is writ large over Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article announcing his support of the Leave vote.

Above all, we will be told that whatever the democratic deficiencies, we would be better off remaining in because of the “influence” we have. This is less and less persuasive to me…Democracy matters…We have given so much to the world, in ideas and culture, but the most valuable British export and the one for which we are most famous is the one that is now increasingly in question: parliamentary democracy – the way the people express their power.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to vote for real change in Britain’s relations with Europe. This is the only opportunity we will ever have to show that we care about self-rule. A vote to Remain will be taken in Brussels as a green light for more federalism, and for the erosion of democracy.

There is a similar line of argument in the declaration by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

The ability to choose who governs us, and the freedom to change laws we do not like, were secured for us in the past by radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed it in the hands of the people. As a result of their efforts we developed, and exported to nations like the US, India, Canada and Australia a system of democratic self-government which has brought prosperity and peace to millions.

Our democracy stood the test of time. We showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves.

There is no denying the immediate appeal of these position: Britain governed by Britons! But neither is there much denying that such statements are over simplistic, for two major reasons. First, since we live in a globalised economy, we do not and cannot simply ‘govern ourselves’. As Werner Jeanrond points out:

Full national sovereignty is and remains impossible in our world – not just for Britain. The issues associated with, for example, transnational companies, environmental resources, disease vectors, organised crime cannot be solved by one country…‘British laws for British people’, as the battle cry would like to have it, won’t any longer solve many British problems.

You only have to think about the recent argument about Google’s tax arrangements to see how a ‘sovereignty’ argument about law is naive in at least one important regard. But even when thinking about issues of national governance, the argument is not quite so simple. The organisation of the EU is less an example of loss of sovereignty, and more an example of ‘pooled’ sovereignty, something which happens in multiple ways through hundreds of treaties governing all aspects of our national life.

Britain is subject to some 700 international treaties involving multi-lateral submissions to multilateral compromises. Its membership of the UN similarly infringes its self-determination, for it can be outvoted there just as it can in Brussels. Likewise the WTO, NATO, the COP climate talks, the IMF, the World Bank, nuclear test ban treaties and accords on energy, water, maritime law and air traffic all require Britain to tolerate the sort of trade-offs that Eurosceptic souverainistes find distasteful: influence in exchange for irksome standardisation, laws and rules set mostly by foreigners not elected by Britons (regulations that Britain would not apply, or would apply differently, if left to its own devices). Yet it submits to all of these knowing that, as with the EU, it is free to leave whenever it wants—but at a price not worth paying.

For Christians thinking about the EU referendum, one of the challenges here is to think theologically about democracy, and it is not a straightforward task. This is in part because the documents of the Old and New Testaments were written at a time when democracy as we have it now was simply unknown, and because there are different forms that democracy can take. In his final edition of Issues Facing Christians Today (revised in fact by Roy McCloughry), the late John Stott takes a very broad brush approach, locating democracy as a mid-point between the extremes of autocracy on the one hand and anarchy on the other (pp 38–43). He does this for theological reasons. Autocracy suggests a ‘low’ theology of humanity, in that people need to be held in check. Anarchy suggests a ‘high’ view of humanity, in that people can be trusted to act well on their own. Democracy sees human as both virtuous and flawed, deserving the freedom to act but needing systems of power to keep them in check.

Jonathan Chaplin of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics offers a more detailed exploration of possible reasons to believe in democracy. He identifies three main ideas supporting Christian belief in the democratic process.

Christian consent theories hold that both divine and human appointment are required for the establishment of legitimate political authority.

The second and third kinds of justification for democracy are neatly summed up in the two parts of Reinhold Niebuhr’s celebrated maxim: ‘man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ The first part of this maxim expresses the thrust of the participatory theory. This theory endorses the principle of popular election as an expression of the human capacity to assume responsibility for the doing of justice.

In the defensive theory, democracy is justified as a necessary check on the inescapable tendency of fallible office-holders to abuse their power: democratic election is one vital constitutional restraint on the corruption of power.

Chaplin’s second and third points here correspond to Stott’s summary reason, and all three offer a combined justification for democracy as the preferred Christian approach to government.

There is, then, a ‘cloud of witnesses’ in the Christian tradition, the cumulative impact of which is to counsel an embrace of the principle of popular election by Christians today. Indeed I suggest that we need to honour the insights of all three theories and integrate them in a robust Christian account of constitutional democracy.

This still leaves two large questions to explore: what form should democracy take? and what is the ‘basic unit’ of democracy when it comes to electing representatives? These are the questions raised sharply by the EU referendum. After all, the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty into a larger electoral area has an impact in both directions, even if we are only aware of one half of it.

Consider the trade-off: let foreigners have some influence over your country of 64m and in return receive quite a lot of influence over a union of more than 500m. When Eurosceptics only mention the first half of this bargain, they imply that Britain is too weedy to take advantage of the second. Which is odd, as the national strengths they otherwise celebrate give the country a tremendous ability to do so.

unite-europe-benefitsAnd it is worth considering the ways in which the pooled sovereignty has actually affected life in Britain, as illustrated by this poster produced by the Unite union. I think it rather over claims the role of Europe; after all, we do have our own equality legislation which calls for equal pay for men and women. But it is striking that the European ‘intrusions’ into British life are all pulling in a ‘social democratic’ direction, and restricting our unfettered embrace of free market economics. Conservative eurosceptics will blame this process for limiting our economic growth—but in fact these are things that the majority of the population of the UK want and would vote for, except that, because of our first past the post electoral system and the way the political parties are divided, we have always ended up withe governments who are to the right of the electorate.

In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives.

So the effect of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Europe that arises from our pooled democracy is to correct the ‘democratic deficit’ that we have in our own UK electoral system. If you want to eliminate the one, it is surely logical to want to eliminate the other for the same reasons. Membership of the EU has, as it turns out, made us more democratic than we would otherwise have been, and if we leave the EU, then we will need to make the correction that Europe has been making for us.

If you therefore side with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in wanting to leave the EU, you also need to side with Colin Buchanan in seeking electoral reform.

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22 thoughts on “The democratic deficit in the EU”

  1. The benefits Unite cites for being in the EU are not contingent on being in the EU. All are things that could be campaigned for locally. What would be better would be advertising that you can work in other EU nations under similar conditions, or that Unite is working with other trades unions across Europe for the benefit of all workers.

    Regarding the democratic deficit, you could argue that the unelected House of Lords has reduced it by voting down unpopular laws where the Commons has cow-towed to the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary.

    My own view is that Cameron’s renegotiation has set an important precedent. Granted it was all fluff around the edges concerning how much child benefit you pay to Polish workers living in the UK with children in Poland, instead of something substantive like reforming the Commission and the Council of Ministers, but it was important to say that a nation’s relationship with the EU is not either static or a one-way street. Hence I am now more comfortable staying in the EU. I don’t think the UK will be substantially worse off out (the UN security council seat isn’t safe either way) and the UK may indeed flourish out, but I don’t think getting out particularly solves any problems. In some ways I feel guilty since I’m a bit like the separatist Quebecois who keep wanting to leave Canada, but never do anything substantial about it. I’m luke-warm on Europe and can’t get too excited about being in or out. I like having Nigel Farrage around, but don’t really want UKIP to win.

    I think the result of the referendum will be close and in favour of staying in. Not as close as the Scottish referendum, though. However, if England just about votes to leave and Scotland, Wales and NI vote to stay it could trigger another UK constitutional crisis with England further aggrieved at being shackled to its celtic fringe.

    I’m probably not trying hard enough, but I can’t think of a Christian response to the EU question other than the EU is a fruitful mission field.

    Finally, will you be following the polling and creating a Pseph(iz)ology sub-blog? 🙂

    • The Unite poster is a lie because it is the EU that allows zero-hours contracts and agency workers and there are many companies in which agency workers are in the majority.

      The consequence is that workers such as myself don’t get healthcare but fall back on the NHS, we don’t got proper pensions and we don’t get proper holiday. The most incidious of all is the zero-hours contract in which workers simply don’t get paid for days off.

      So the time-off claim in the poster is untrue and the Fairness claim is untrue.

    • John, yes, we *could* have voted for all the things listed on the Unite poster—but that is my point. We didn’t, even though actually the population as a whole would want them. That is the democratic deficit we are facing.

      I don’t think I will be having a sub blog, but will be commenting on some aspects. The question for me is: what theological perspective can help us here? I am not qualified to offer a professional economic opinion…

  2. A recent opinion poll suggested that more Welsh voters will vote to leave the EU than remain in, so it would be unwise to assume that both Scotland & Wales will vote a different way to England. We know that both English & Welsh voters are more euro-sceptic than Scottish voters. I was speaking to some Scottish visitors to Plymouth yesterday and there is no doubt that Scotland is much more pro-EU than the rest of the UK. Therefore, I will stick my neck out and predict that England & Wales will vote to leave and Scotland & NI will vote to stay in the EU.

    • Mark, I am not sure it is simple that Scotland is ‘pro Europe’. I think it is more that the Scottish outlook is more social democratic than England (and Wales) and this is quite deeply rooted in Scottish political thinking, and even connected with the distinctives of the Scottish Enlightenment.

  3. Thank you for addressing these issues to stimulate healthy Christian debate. Your quotes from Boris and Gove highlight the issue of the sovereignty of the British Parliament. However the title of your piece is about the democratic deficit. My understanding is that these are two separate issues. The democratic deficit is not that issues are decided at an EU level rather than a British level, but that at the EU level the decisions are taken by unelected people ie the Commission and The European Court of Justice. If the European Parliament was in charge there wouldn’t be such a democratic deficit. However democratic accountability would be harder because of the size of constituencies and the huge population of the area governed ie 500 million people. A concern I have about Europe wide decisions is that it gives the people who make them, whether the Commission or the Euro Parliament, enormous power – 500 million people power rather than the 60 million people power our UK politicians have. The saying ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is sobering, and I think biblical. And therefore, from a biblical point of view, do we really want to give European politicians this much power? National parliaments and national prime ministers having to muddle through making lots of different agreements and bilateral treaties may be a lot messier, and may well be less efficient economically, but may well be safer in that it avoids a huge concentration of power in one place. I feel a government in London for 60 million people of whom I am one is a lot more democratically accountable than a government in Brussels for 500 million of whom I am one. And already too many decisions seem to be taken at the Brussels level – and by unelected people. These concern make me want to vote leave. How do you respond to these concern?

  4. The EU is imploding as it is a huge unwieldy form of Government. The response to the migrant crisis has shown the flaws. A country makes decisions and instigates actions, the EU talks forever while the risks deepen. A comment from a EU bureaucrat spoke to me this morning. He said that countries putting up barbed wire fences were acting on a national basis, which is not in the interests of the EU. To stay in is to be subsidiary to the goal of ever closer Union and ruling by Eurocrats. They have no interest in poor old Greece which has been left to cope with a mass influx. We have tried 72 times to make changes to how it is run and been unsuccessful on every occasion. It’s time to take back control and decide how our country is run.

  5. The problem with the EU isn’t the EU, the problem is that British politicians can’t handle the EU.
    Our politicians behave like the alleged nature of Pharisees. Whatever Directive is issued by the EU, our politicians make a MORE onerous law to make sure that British people don’t fall foul of the EU Directive.

    Take, for example, the ATEX Directive (there is technically more than one here, but we won’t go into that). I can buy, anywhere in Europe an ATEX certified device that has been certified anywhere in the EU and use it anywhere in the EU – except in the Britain! ATEX comes from the french and means “Atmospheres Explosif”, so in the the UK we should have EAR, the Explosive Atmospheres Regulations. you’d be wrong. We are the only country in Europe that doesn’t have EAR, we have DSEAR, the “Dangerous Substances AND Explosive Atmospheres Regulations”. So in the UK I can only use an EU certified ATEX device if I do an additional risk assessment to show it complies with DSEAR.

    ATEX covers equipment in an area that contains chemicals that can cause fires or explosions. In Britain we have added to that by producing regulations that cover any chemicals that can cause “like-type injuries to fires and explosions” and so chemicals like caustics can cause burn injuries … but they would never cause a fire or explosion in a month of sundays. Hence DSEAR manages to cover much more than ATEX in order to make sure that British people don’t fall foul of ATEX !

    The HSE say DSEAR isn’t very different from ATEX but they miss the real question: Why is it different at all? Any differences mean that it isn’t about trade.

    I won’t even go into the EU’s COMAH directive and how it applied in the UK.

  6. Hmm. Not sure about the statement that we have always ended up with governments who are to the right of the electorate. Was this really true in 1945 and 1966, when first-past-the-post favoured old-style Labour? And it is not the case, as Johann Hari claims, that 56% of people voted for centre-left policies at the height of Thatcherism. He is presumably referring to the 1983 general election, when 56% of voters who voted did so for Labour, the Liberals, the SDP and other smaller left-wing parties. But this was not “56% of people” because the turnout was only 73%, so the % of the electorate voting for left-wing parties was actually only 41%.

    But leaving aside the psephological inexactitude, I think Ian Paul is on shaky ground if he is implying that the EU is a good thing because it imposes more left-wing policies on the UK electorate than they actually vote for in Westminster parliamentary elections. Because the EU suffers from an even greater ‘democratic deficit’, which is that most power is wielded by unelected bureaucrats, and the only nod to democracy is the European Parliament which has been described by The Economist as “a travelling circus” with no real democratic legitimacy – which is presumably why UK voter turnout for European elections was barely 36%. So on John Stott’s autocracy-anarchy spectrum, the EU is much closer to the autocracy end. Is that a good thing?

    That said, I shall probably vote ‘Yes’ on 23 June. I believe the crude nationalism and chauvinism being promoted by the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson is naive and un-Biblical, since the concept of the independent nation state (which as you say is a fiction in our modern globalised world) is effectively being idolised. The EU is a flawed institution, which needs ongoing reform, but we are better in than out.

    • Jeremy, I am happy to concede that 56% was of those voting…but that point remains, and I think it is easy to see right now in particularly sharp relief. Specific Government policies on health and welfare are justified by ‘Well you voted for us’ but they do not command popular support, raising the question what it was that people voted for.

      But note my argument. It is *not* that European democracy works better than Uk democracy. It is that, as it happens, the EU has delivered what people actually want over against what they have been given by successive UK governments. If that weren’t the case, then we’d easily vote to leave the EU and would have done so some time ago.

      And this leads to my second point: if we were to leave, we would end up with policies that even fewer support. And the logic of ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘sovereignty’ if that really was the argument, would be leading Boris and Michael to be campaigning for electoral reform. I haven’t noticed them do so as yet.

  7. I very carefully offer some theology. I do so carefully because I am by no means an expert (either on the EU or in theology!). I believe we should remain in the EU, and preferably stop behaving like a petulant child, and take our seat at the table with an attitude of constructive, critical, receptive cooperation.

    1. The Anglian way: I’m thinking here of both the via media and the deep commitment to staying together despite strong difference. I’m not going to add a mini lecture on how these approaches are rooted in both scripture and tradition because that’s been done elsewhere. The EU, in its own imperfect secular way, actually embodies these principles pretty well. There is both unity and difference; dialogue across that difference; a commitment to getting there together, despite the difficulties; and the plurality of voices means it does usually end up somewhere in a via media.

    2. I am DELIGHTED that the existence of the EU has contributed significantly to the so-called ‘Long Peace’ – one we all too easily take for granted. I realise our trust is in God and not in man-made institutions, but I believe God can and does work through people and the institutions they build. Not only is peace of God, but the absence of war and the chaos it brings in its wake (and the evil it unleashes) allows for other Kingdom-building work to take place. Individuals and NGOs / charities do this, and the EU itself does this too, through the disbursement of significant funds to support development work both within and without its borders. There is thus a strong peace and social justice imperative for supporting the EU.

    3. If we’re talking about the Marks of Mission (and in my head I was), we might add that the EU does much to address environmental concerns, and as a multi-national organisation and major world player, is in a position to make a significant difference.

    4. Going back to my introduction and what i see as the small-ness of the UK’s vision, we might point to how large is the vision of God for the world, and the selflessness of Jesus’ engagement with the world, and try to move beyond our narrow self interest to a bigger vision for what’s possible, and work in a self-giving way to make it happen.

    More directly in response to this blog piece, I think it’s an interesting take on the idea of a democratic deficit, and it actually being the UK’s deficit and not the EU’s. The EU is much more democratic than the Brexit people pretend (see for example: One principle underpinning democracy is the basic idea that everyone has an equal voice and an equal right to contribute to the conversation. We might say that we are also all equal before God, so in that sense, democracy is a (very pale) reflection of all the nations gathered before the throne. Since the EU is on all levels fundamentally democratic, it is, at the very least, not ungodly.

    • I’m not so sure that the ‘Long Peace’ post-war has been due to the EU but more to the existence of NATO and the nuclear weapon.

      • I didn’t mean it was *only* the EU, but after centuries of war on the continent (wars that in the distant and not so distant past involved the UK as well) I think a strong case can be made that the EU is a huge part of why that no longer happens. It’s WHY the EU was set up: if we cooperate on trade, it won’t be in our interests to kill each other. Cooperation trumps competition.
        The world-wide long peace is broader, but Europe also benefitted from it: it’s the existence of international organisations designed to facilitate cooperation that makes a significant difference (something first identified by Kant). However, I’d point to the UNO and its subsidiaries, rather than Cold War military treaty organisations and nuclear bombs (but then, I *am* a pacifist, so perhaps I would say that).

        • Evelyn,

          I think that most of those who favour Brexit would not disagree with your principal assertions.

          The issue for them is* how best* cooperation may be achieved between European states so that the chance of another European war becomes remote which is of course, a very laudable aim.

          Their thinking is that the EU in its present form is not up to the job and is incapable of significant reform. My own view is that the EU should go back to the drawing board and start again- perhaps along the lines of a Commonwealth model.

  8. “Full national sovereignty is and remains impossible in our world …”

    This confuses sovereignty with autarky: no nation, not even North Korea, exists in a vacuum; the crucial question’s where ultimate authority lies. Google’s tax antics don’t make it “naive” to believe that nation states can be the ultimate authority (when this issue was pressed, Google had to knuckle under).

    Great Britain could repatriate powers and end up with a Swiss-style arrangement, where access to EU markets is negotiated, but with far less EU control over its internal policies. Yes, it’d have to obey EU law when trading with the EU: but it has to obey American law when trading with America; Chinese law when trading with China, and so on.

    Or it could decide that it wants to be in an increasingly federal arrangement, shift from an independent state to a state of the union. There’s benefits to that, but it’s very much a choice, and should be made eyes-open, as the Thirteen Colonies and Australian colonies did.

  9. I feel uncomfortable about drawing on the Bible to justify political opinions. Jesus was highly critical of those in positions of worldly power and the combination of religion, church and State has not been a good one (the film Spotlight is just a recent depiction of how corrupt this mix can be). By all means take an opinion on ‘in’ or ‘out’ but don’t claim that Christ or any kind of theology endorses your view.

  10. Ian, thank you for a wonderfully clear and cogent analysis of the real issues around democracy and the EU. On eh theory that “big fleas have small fleas on their back to bite ’em” I’m interested in how sovereignty is pooled, or nested, within nation states. In Ditzaerlandc, for example there is Subsidiarity max — every community votes frequently on all kinds of daily questions affecting peoples’ lives. In England there used to be a complex pattern of local authorities from the bottom up, that dealt with many issues without them ever going to Westminster. Think of the civic and political pride expressed by our great victorian Town Halls. That way of working was largely done away with not by popular will from the bottom up, but by the centralisation of all areas of life required by the war effort in two world wars. Those powers having been pushed up, or pooled, in such a way that central government held them, Whitehall / Westminster was not inclined to give them back afterwards. This led to a growing democratic deficit (if that’s the term) within the nation state. I wonder if some of the frustration with central government this engenders is expressed as hostility towards the EU?

  11. I guess we would all accept that God supports no particular colour in today’s political spectrum, and so we can only look to scripture for principles of behaviour rather than a prescription for how we should organise ourselves. There are 4 principles to be found there which I think are relevant:

    1) God gave humans personal choice (free will); from the garden of Eden story onwards mankind was able to choose, but of course there were / are consequences.
    2) Justice; the call for people to act justly is a reflection of God’s own character.
    3) The nation; this seems to be a natural unit of human organisation which God clearly used and did not condemn. The tower of Babel story suggests that grand and hubristic human projects do not impress God.
    4) ‘Render to Caesar…’ tells us that God has no problem with the necessity for human politics and that we should value the process of macro decision making (including taxation!).

    If we take democracy as the least worst system of organising our politics then the democratic deficit of the EU is a central issue; and it operates on 2 levels. Firstly the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty makes individual citizens answerable to authorities outside of the nation (the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Court) and any democratic effect on these bodies is non existent in reality. Secondly, such democratic power as there is (via the European Parliament) is so massively diluted as to be also non existent.

    The notion of ‘ever closer union’ clearly has a logical end in a single state, however gradual the process of getting there may be. For me it is an ill-conceived Tower of Babel project with little prospect of a happy conclusion. Moreover the effort by Europhiles to undermine the confidence of ordinary people who might dare to disagree, and the implied threat of trading sanctions against any nation that chooses to withdraw are very revealing of the attitude that pervades the EU bureaucracy and its supporters. It seems to have contempt for ordinary citizens, only valuing them when they vote the right way.

    None of which is to deny that our democracy in the UK is also sadly lacking, particularly in respect of the indefensible FPTP voting system and the shameless packing (by party leaders) of the House of Lords with their own favoured friends as peers. The sad thing is that it is voter apathy that allows this to continue – but that’s democracy for you.

  12. Interesting comments from all sides with a few factual errors. The United Kingdom is not a centre left nation but a nation that is at its heart independent, patriotic and free and proud to be so. I am a Christian, ex soldier and was blinded when I was 21 in my final year at Durham University. I spent half a term as a teenager in a school in Paris and have many dear friends from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and other European countries but I am actively supporting the Vote Leave campaign for the following reasons.

    The United Kingdom is at the centre of the world; we gave the world democracy, freedom, justice and the English language. In the 20th Century 50% of inventions came from the genius and inventiveness of the British people. We have also given Europe its freedom and for the last few centuries have every 50 year stepped in to stop tyrants. We still do that today and will continue to do so. Over 60% of our laws are determined by an unaccountable and self selecting European Union. The United Kingdom has given over £506 Billion to the EU which has yet to be audited and every week we give £350 Million which is enough to build a fully funded and staffed A & E hospital or 150 primary schools. I am an experienced charity director and fundraiser and know what an enormous difference just one week’s of that money would do. That child in Stoke could have had the treatment for Cerebral Palsy on the NHS. The UK through NATO, the Commonwealth and the UN is the most generous provider of support for those in need per head of population in the world. I want us o remain independent and sovereign s we can be there again when our support is needed. That is why I am campaigning to leave the EU and hope that the freedom my parents and grandparents gave to Europe will be enjoyed by all.


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