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Guide to the European Union

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Is there a democratic deficit in the European Union?

It has been argued in the UK that there was a democratic deficit in the EU.

This means that there is a lack of access to decision making for citizens, that they are not properly represented and that there is a lack of accountability to the voters for decisions that are taken. If it is a problem then the solutions are, from a pro-European point of view, to introduce more democracy or even move to a federal state, or from an anti-European point of view, to take powers away from the EU.

Arguments for a democratic deficit

        When Britain joined the EU, sovereignty was transferred from an elected British Parliament to an unelected European Commission and a Council of Ministers which consists of elected politicians but who are not accountable for their decisions. The British Parliament does not consider EU regulations and cannot veto EU directives. Only the Commission can initiate legislation and it has control over other major areas such as international trade agreements.

        The EU is neither an international organisation, like the UN or NATO, in which sovereign states meet to discuss issues, nor a federal country, like the United States, in which the general electorate and the different parts of the federation are represented in elected houses of parliament.

        The low turnout in European elections (42% in the UK in 2014) shows that voters do not see the European Parliament as representing them.  These are ‘second order elections’ in which people vote on the performance of the national Government rather than on European issues and they have been increasingly ready to vote in these election for an anti-EU party, UKIP.

        Voters need to feel that by voting they are trusting a representative to legislate for them. The voting system used for European elections is a list system of PR by which people vote for parties, which then form loose European federations in the Parliament, with no clear idea what they intend to carry out. 95% of the British public are not able to name any of their MEPs.

        There is no Government and Opposition in the European Parliament and much voting is bipartisan with centre left and centre right groups voting together.  This means that the voters cannot turn a Government out and there is no critical Opposition as at Westminster. The attempt of the party groups to nominate a Presidential candidate before the European election had no effect on voting.

        The EU is too remote for citizens to understand the issues that it deals with or have any impact in lobbying the various institutions.

Arguments against a democratic deficit

        The EU still only deals with a relatively small proportion of policies that affect Britain and many of these are areas such as competition law which the public has little interest in. The key areas of political debate such as education, health, taxation, law and order and welfare are almost entirely dealt with by Westminster. The EU has some influence, but still limited, in areas such as foreign policy, defence, immigration from outside the EU and consumer protection.  There are widely differing views of how much British legislation is made in Europe from 10% to 50% but it is difficult to make a reliable estimate and much EU legislation is on detailed aspects of areas such as product regulation which are not the most significant areas of legislation.

        The directly elected European Parliament is one of the most powerful in the world with an ability to amend and veto legislation, amend and veto the budget, monitor and reject trade agreements, and reject Commissioners. Unlike Westminster, where a Government, under the first past post system, can be elected with the vote of about 25% of the electorate and then whip its MPs to support whatever the Executive wants, MEPS are free to make up their own mind on issues and consider the needs of their constituency.

        Proposals for legislation and spending move back and forward between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council in a very open way, so that the system is much more transparent than in many national systems where a small group of politicians and civil servants take key decisions in private. This allows public pressure to build, for example on genetically modified foods, where proposals changed over time to introduce restrictions.

        The Commission and the Parliament are very open to hear the views of interest groups and incorporate their concerns in legislation.  People can contact their MEP in the same way that they can contact their MP and the former have better resourced offices to deal with the issues raised.

        Reforms have taken place with more power given to the European Parliament, an ability of national parliaments to combine to object to legislation and the Citizens’ Initiative petitions.  The EU has adopted the principle of subsidiarity, so that if decisions are better taken by national parliaments then they should be.

        The EU is not a state and has no army, police force or power over taxation and criminal justice.  Democratic safeguards needed at the national level are not necessarily relevant to the EU.

*** This page is subject to change due to the ongoing Brexit process.