How democratic is the European Union?
How democratic is the European Union?
In short, this question, whilst interesting, is actually misguided, because:
- any alleged “democratic deficit” in any democratic jurisdiction is immeasurable;
- the scope of the demos is immeasurable in any democratic jurisdiction;
- in a representative democracy (as western democracies are), the link between the demos and resulting legislation is broken (i.e. representatives are not delegates), rendering any measurement of “people power” logically impossible (even if the effect of lobbying is disregarded).
But the European Union does have a European Parliament. So there is some element of it at least trying to be democratic. So far as we can see, it looks and smells a lot like a representative democracy. It even elects representatives from geographic constituencies, based upon closed party lists. And we also know that the alleged democratisation of the European Union is work-in-progress, constantly evolving.
Only, it isn’t a democracy, because there is no demos. We know that, because the German Constitutional Court said so in 2009. No demos, no democracy, Q.E.D..
It turns out that there is a much more important question for western democracies to answer: why is voter participation falling?
Until we answer this question, considerations of European Union democracy is premature. At best, all that one can achieve in the European Union is to replicate the basic mistakes of current western democracies.
Therefore, considerations of how democratic the European Union might be are irrelevant to the voter in the referendum of 23 June 2016.
One day in the future - whether Britain remains part of the European Union or not - the democracies of the west (including the European Union) are going to have to learn the lessons of falling participation of the voters.
Apathy and anger: the twin cancers of democracy
In elections throughout the western world’s representative democracies, turnout over the longer-term (~100 years) is generally falling, irrespective of the scope of election (local, regional, national), and irrespective of how close the result could be (in spite of close elections have higher turnout, they are still generally lower today than they were 100 years ago).
In all my years of studying public choices, economics, politics and philosophy, I have yet to encounter a mainstream commentator who understands the underlying issue: our elected representatives are generally poor decision-makers, poor debaters, and clueless about the real world.
On 22 March 2016, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview with Professor Carolyn Roberts, an environmental scientist, who revealed that in 2007-2008, she had advised Gloucester County Council within its open enquiry into the causes and cures of a damaging flood in 2007. One seemingly intelligent elected councillor asked Roberts to clarify what a flood plain actually is. This elected councillor had responsibilities for planning. [In the podcast, this statement starts at 10 minutes.] Roberts says, “I was rather like a rabbit caught in headlights,” said Roberts.
In my opinion, this typifies the problem in a nutshell. For a local councillor connected with the planning system to be so apparently ignorant of the basics of the natural environment is unacceptable and unforgivable. Bear in mind that since the Local Government Act 2000, taxpayers pay salaries to these elected representatives.
If only it was confined to one local councillor in provincial Britain.
What do the current participants in democracy say about the European Union?
The UK Parliament
The lower house of the British Parliament, the House of Commons, produced an excellent briefing paper for Parliamentarians in 2014. At 71 pages, with 239 footnotes, covering material from across the world, it’s doubtful whether many Parliamentarians (if any) read it and understood it.
For those who believe that something better is possible, the briefing summarises democracy’s history and Europe’s emerging strategy for a greater democracy.
As you would expect from an institutional participant in a democracy, it tends to attribute a decline in democratic participation to changing external forces - globalisation, Parliamentary powerlessness in the face of supra-national bodies, such as the European Union - implying that Parliament’s relative powerlessness against fighting economic reality is the issue. The briefing attempts to define the alleged “democratic deficit” in the European Union, noting that democracy within the European Union is recently new and still evolving.
The briefing carefully avoids upsetting its intended readership (Parliamentarians) by carefully avoiding any risk of criticising Parliamentarians’ appalling performance of their jobs over the centuries as being a major contributory factor to democratic decline in Britain.
The briefing also covers the legal basis of democracy between European states and the European Union, with essential coverage of the ruling of the German Federal Constitutional Court of 2009 regarding the Treaty of Lisbon (ie. the European Union is not yet in itself a state that warrants a demos). It is quite a heavy and technical read, but for those with the stomach for it, well worth it.
Of course, it is quintessentially English, so the reader needs to concentrate on what is not written.
The Electoral Reform Society
The Electoral Reform Society published a 27-page booklet entitled “Close the Gap: Tackling Europe’s democratic deficit”, undated, but presumably published in 2014-2015.
The ERS set out 12 recommendations primarily to strengthen the supervision of government by national Parliaments, but disappointingly permitting the near-mandatory role of political parties, which arguably is one of the main reasons for voter apathy (exemplified in further detail in later sections of this blog).
The booklet also has one section entitled, “Withdrawal: a final solution?”. This section is entertaining, but ultimately too emotionally loaded to be of much use to the rational voter in Britain’s referendum of 23 June 2016. Specifically, it assumes a general negativity of being on the outside, without setting out the evidence to justify such assumption.
Otherwise, the ERS’s contribution to the on-going democratisation of the European Union is a plausible contribution, and would remain so whether the UK votes to stay in or to leave the European Union.
In presenting the case for a democratic deficit in the European Union, the ERS phrases its introductory paragraph beautifully:
The original designers of the European Union – such as Jean Monnet, a French civil servant who was never elected to office – did not envision it as a democratic project so much as a technocratic one, in which European institutions would seek to bring the continent together through largely invisible management of the European economy from above.
In a nutshell, the ERS reveals the correct origin of the European Union’s project. Accordingly, the existence of the European Parliament today can only be satisfactorily explained as an evolving work-in-progress.
But, crucially, the ERS chose not to consider the general decline of voters’ participation in elections in the western world. As a consequence, the ERS’s 12 recommendations amount to “thinking inside the box”, implying some sort of conceit that the 12 recommendations would magically re-invigorate democracy and that, all of a sudden, ordinary voters would give-a-damn about Europe. By analogy, the ERS’s contribution to the debate assumes the electoral equivalent of the Titanic being unsinkable, and not once stops to asks about the risk of icebergs.
12 examples of why democracy is in real trouble
The conduct of public officials - including democratically elected representatives - leave a lot to be desired.
In this section are twelve examples from around the world that point to likely sources of voter apathy and voter anger against their elected representatives, resulting in falling turnouts over time.
All of these examples are contemporary. I’ll leave it to academics to figure out whereabouts on a long-term trend these examples sit.
The West: monetary policy seems to be deliberately outside the scope of democratic scrutiny
Throughout the western world, no Parliament has direct or even indirect control over central banks, whose crass decisions from 1989 - 0% interest rates and money-printing - resulted in (amongst others):
- regressive re-distribution of wealth and income (from poor savers to wealthy borrowers), substantially undermining the popular re-distribution (from the wealthy to the poor) that tends to win elections from emotional populations;
- protection of “zombie” institutions and companies (perverting the course of “creative destruction”, protecting waste for the sake of waste);
- a panic-stricken demand for economic yield by retail investors, realising that regressive re-distribution is happening, creating stupid price bubbles in everything from housing to wines. Madness: wines yield zero income!
Over the decades, European elections have tended to bribe voters with their own money laundered via the welfare state. Voters tend to vote for that more than anything else, because they wrongly feel “free money” is coming their way. The demos always seems ready to rob Peter to pay Paul, and apparently thinks this is wonderfully sustainable. Hardly a surprise, therefore, that the ruling elites saw fit to install a monetary system that substantially reverses the burden of welfare, and then ensure that the monetary system is largely beyond the scope of democratic control.
What would be the point of voting in this environment?
America: the confusion of powers
The American constitution defined three branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary.
But the three branches seem more adept at doing somebody else’s jobs than their own.
Consider how Americans perceive the constant corrupt horse-trading that drives legislative business in the American Federal Congress. We’ll give you, say, mandatory medical insurance if, say, you give us exclusive monopoly rights on, say, fracking, and by the way, exempt us from damages caused by our own negligence. One of these two policies had some sort of democratic mandate, the other had a lot less than even a sort-of-mandate.
And yet, the legislature that should be forming policies that matter to the people (abortion, segregation, embryology research, biofuels) is dumping the job onto the judiciary (Roe v Wade, etc), and then blames the executive for screwing it up. Where Congress makes a decision all by itself, there always seems to be lobby group dodging the public spotlight.
What would be the point of voting in this environment? No wonder the non-establishment candidates of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing so well in the primary elections of 2016.
France: the revolution that ate itself
A bloody revolution in the 1790s wiped out the then ruling classes and the intelligensia, allegedly based on a comment by some posh lady about letting paupers eat cake (actually, a light bread called brioche, but why let recipes get in the way of a nice revolution?).
Subsequent to aristocricide, intelligensricide and five republics - five! - the resulting settlement between state and people today is arguably as uneven and tyrannical now as the Plantagenets would have liked it to remain. In the French state, the President - one person - has near-total control of everything, directly and indirectly, and is even immune from criminal prosecution.
What would be the point of voting in the environment of this fifth French republic?
Greek: what democracy wants, another democracy really doesn’t want
Consider Greece, the cradle of democracy, and its oscillation between democracy and dictatorship, before resulting in a ‘corruptocracy’ (whereby everybody voted to have the public sector do all of the ‘work’ whilst keeping taxation ‘voluntary’).
When the day of reckoning finally arrived in 2008, the Greeks held numerous elections to demonstrate their defiance in the face of economic gravity, in part because unelected and unaccountable foreign forces sought to push that economic gravity down the throats of the Greeks (the “Troika” of 2010).
Greece also shows just how the ideology of democracy conflicts between democratic boundaries. While the Greek demos voted in favour of defiance - in particular, “reparations” for German (mis-)conduct during the Second World War - the German demos voted in favour of making the Greeks enjoy the consequences of having lied to gain entry into the Eurozone (along with the long-term financial fraud of the ‘corruptocracy’).
What would be the point of voting in Greece, where all you sought to vote for was economic and financial dreamland? How do you control your elected representatives?
Northern Ireland: the dual-minority problem
In Northern Ireland, the majority of only Northern Ireland want to belong with United Kingdom, whereas the majority of Ireland plus Northern Ireland want Northern Ireland to belong to the Irish Republic.
There is no democratic solution to this issue. After many years of antagonism and discrimination by Ulster unionists against Ulster nationalists - a division which generally fell along religious denominations - some nationalists became terrorists and evolved into a mafia operation which bedevils Ulster today.
What would be the point of voting at all in this environment? Ultimately, your choice could be confined to voting for your ‘tribe’, because even a rumour that your voted otherwise (or abstained) could result in your physical injury, or death.
Scotland: the conflicted-majority problem
In September 2014, Scotland held a referendum about whether Scotland should remain in the British Union or leave the British Union. The parallels with the British referendum of 23 June 2016 are striking!
A majority in a referendum in September 2014 wanted Scotland to remain within the British Union.
Yet, only 8 months later, the overwhelming majority of representatives returned by Scotland to the British parliament represented a fundamentally pro-independence party.
What was the point of voting such that the two outcomes were contradictory within one year? What message does this send to other taxpaying stakeholders elsewhere in the same British Union?
Britain: the expenses scandal
The biggest wake-up call to the British electorate of just how despicably corrupt their tribal, partisan, deliberately-confused-and-confusing, self-serving, spinning sycophantic representatives were (are?) was the Parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009.
By international standards, the financial scale of the expenses scandal was small fry. But looking only at the finances was to miss the point. British Parliamentarians - irrespective of whether left-wing or right-wing - all acted like perfectly corrupt Champagne Socialists: “do as I say, not as I do. And don’t watch my hypocrisy, mind your own bloody business.”
One of the more memorable expense claims came from the then Labour Party Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who claimed on Parliamentary expenses porn videos purchased by her husband. It was later discovered that she had designated her sister’s home in London as a main residence to qualify for the full payout of a housing allowance.
Defensive comments from embattled politicians implied that parliamentarians were entitled to scam the rules because of a “gentleman’s agreement”, apparently in sheer and deliberate ignorance that if any taxpayer tried that sort of “gentleman’s agreement” with the tax authorities, the taxpayer would be in prison for tax evasion (as Parliament said should happen in various Acts relating to taxation of the masses).
Most odious of all were the numbers of parliamentarians who double-claimed various accommodation-related allowances and used the cash to fund speculative property empires… whilst at the same time complaining in public about how buy-to-let investors were making house prices unaffordable for first-time-buyers! The scandal was, and I think still is, the root cancer for British democracy, and there is no real inclination - or even awareness - amongst today’s Parliamentarians to resolve it.
Parliament’s sole solution to the scandal was to create a quango that whitewashed Parliamentary salaries and expense allowances, meaning that the gravy train can just carry on regardless without further democratic scrutiny.
The contempt that Parliamentarians continued to hold against the electorate remained strong. On 20 November 2014, a relatively-unknown Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeted a photograph during a by-election campaign for the single constituency of Rochester. The incumbent MP, Mark Reckless, triggered the election upon his defection from the Conservative Party to the UK Independence Party. This was a seat that, demographically, Labour should have been able to contest with confidence, even if it was likely to lose anyway. But Thornberry’s tweet - an image of a working man’s white transit van, parked in front of a gardenless terrace covered in England flags; formerly an image of a brainless football thug of the 1980s, but now an image of a hard-working working class patriot in the 2010s - was widely interpreted by all classes as a blatant and deliberate insult to the very class/background of people that Labour supposedly represents, and pushing those voters away to UKIP . Thornberry had effectively become the Marie Antoinette of the Labour Party.
What would be the point of voting for such people to represent you? “Don’t vote: it only encourages them”.
Britain: the sex abuse scandal
The theme of “do as I say, not as I do” re-surfaced in 2012 upon the death of English DJ Jimmy Saville.
Within months, allegations of sexual misconduct arose from everywhere, identifying the perpetrators as celebrities and senior figures within public life (government and Parliament).
The idea that leading figures of the 1970s and 1980s participated in, and covered up, sexual abuse was all too believable, especially after the scandalous negligence of Rotherham. In Rotherham, the public sector authorities and local elected representatives chose not to prosecute child abusers because they were all terrified of being accused of being racist. The perpetrators were of Asian origin and, of course, Parliament has said under the Equality Act 2010 that we cannot discriminate - directly or indirectly - against people based on their culture or race. The Equality Act 2010 was enacted under a government controlled by the Labour Party and Rotherham Council was controlled by the Labour Party.
It took two years for the British government to react, establishing the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in 2014. The police ran a series of major investigations - Operations Midland and Yewtree in particular - the net result of which was a nicely complicated whitewash, a huge busy fuss to ensure that no stones were properly overturned, cutely peppered with some very public injustices to hit the headlines. A little bit of razzle-dazzle to entertain the Great Unwashed. But it backfired badly, because the police went on a few politicised witchhunts, in particular those against Jim Davidson, Paul Gambaccini , Leon Brittan and Lord Bramwell.
What would be the point of voting in this environment?
Britain and America: the Second Gulf War
In the Second Gulf War, the British Parliament fell for the claim by then British Prime Minister that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass-destruction that could have been mobilised within forty-five minutes.
The Government hoped that Parliamentarians could have been bounced emotionally into deciding in the Government’s pre-determined interest, and so indeed they were.
That the Government’s message depended on a “dodgy dossier” - whose existence led to the subsequent alleged suicide of scientist David Kelly - was detected by some Parliamentarians, but obviously not enough of them to place country ahead of other interests.
America’s government just went ahead, with only a cursory announcement to Congress.
What would be the point of voting for Parliamentarians with such a deep ignorance of how the world outside government actually works?
Britain: the Digital Economy Act
Copyright law arguably inhibits innovation, because there are no longer any original ideas left. Particularly within the digital realm, all that is now possible in the short-term is a re-hash of existing processes. The problem is that large corporations can now command as much money from being patent trolls as selling innovations worth buying (the best example to date is Apple v Samsung: Samsung lost because Apple patented an idea that even a four-year old could have had). And the music industry has always wanted to make money out of consumers multiple times for the same basic product.
So it was somewhat depressingly predictable that a Labour Government - a Labour Government, supposedly the party of the people against the evils of big business! - issued a three-line whip to its members to be in Parliament and vote in favour of the Digital Economy Bill.
Who won this alleged act of democracy: the demos or the lobbyists? Who exactly was representing whom? What would be the point of voting in this environment?
Germany: mass immigration triggers electoral changes
In Europe, there has been a simmering scene on the right of the political spectrum, which boiled over in the migrant crisis of 2015. Anger in Germany was measured most substantially in elections in March 2016, where the incumbent chancellor Merkel lost votes to the Alternative für Deutschland, a sort-of Germanic UKIP) (comments by the New York Times, BBC; report by the BBC 14Mar2016).
One of likely contributory factors was a consequence of mass immigration without preparation, resulting in moral outrage at moral relativism. At New Year 2016, a number of immigrants wrongly interpreted the lack of headscarves worn by German women to be - how to put it? - an invitation to unsolicited sexual approaches. This is, of course, cultural incompatibility, exacerbated by language difficulties. Yet, under German law, these immigrants had committed an offence.
But the politically correct way in which the German authorities attempted to cover up these offenses rightfully became offensive (Guardian). The German police seemed to be more concerned about being called racist than protecting their own women from the risk of abuse from immigrants who do not natively share German morals, and certainly appeared not to realise that German social cues were entirely different from those of the Middle East.
It later turned out that Sweden also succumbed to the same political correctness, and that gangs of men sought to take advantage of the politically correct non-response by the police (Spectator, Daily Mail).
Having voted as such in 2016, what do the Germans now expect to happen? How do the Germans ratify their democratic choice, and when?
European Parliament: the world’s most expensive white elephant, work-in-progress?
The scale of financial waste by the European Parliament is mind-boggling.
The European Parliament has three locations: Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. In 2014, the European Parliament claimed a budget of €1.756 billion. By comparison, the US President believes that the US Congress will cost $5.757 billion, 2015 budget of the US Government page 4.
Popular comment in the UK is understandably hostile - examples from the Daily Mail 14 January 2013 and the Daily Telegraph 11 January 2014 - not least because the British state is the second largest net contributor to the European Union. Yet the European Parliament appears to feel entitled to waste money on lots of unnecessary gold-plated luxuries combined with deliberately inefficient working methods.
That’s an awful lot of money for an institution that merely rubber-stamps technocracy.
What would be the point of voting in European Parliamentary elections at all?
The extent to which the European Union is democratic is immeasurable, so therefore of no relevance to a decision whether to vote for Brexit or for EurIn.
Wider democracy has major issues to handle, notably a long-term and apparently unstoppable decline in voter participation, which political commentators are keen to blame on everything - anything - but the real reason: corrupt politicians being paid by the taxpayer to lobby for their own partisan interests, to hell with the democracy’s interests.