Europe Needs Less Democracy, Not More | Andrew Loy
You may find the antics of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament commendable, contemptible, hideous, or hilarious. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is seen by many as either a second Moses, leading us out of slavery, or as Hitler (or perhaps Charlie Chaplin). Everyone has a clear opinion of Farage and his disciples. Why, then, does the Brexit Party not have a similarly clear view of its aims?
That sounds absurd. Of course they know what they want. It’s in the name! Two recent events suggest otherwise, though. First, Brexit Party MEPs turned their backs as Ode to Joy was played, rejecting the notion of a single European state – of the sovereignty of the European Union. Second, they complained that the election of the next President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was insufficiently democratic. Farage, an unelected leader, tweeted that the narrow margin of the European Parliament vote meant she lacked legitimacy. She received 52 per cent.
Irony aside, there is something curious here. What allegedly so exercised the Brexit Party about von der Leyen’s appointment was that it had been a stitch-up by the European Council, which presented one unpopular candidate for MEPs to approve. If it were more democratic, however, the legitimacy of the nascent European state would be strengthened. A more transparent, representative EU would weaken national sovereignty.
Eurosceptics should never attack the EU for being insufficiently democratic. In a democracy, power resides with the people, who are sovereign. If the EU is to be a democracy, then there must be a European dēmos to hold kratia. This is precisely what Eurosceptics reject. Europe does not consist of one people, but of many nations.
The European Parliament, as the democratic representative body of the EU, lies at the heart of the issue. As the great Eurosceptic intellectual of the last century, Enoch Powell, put it,
‘Parliament’ is a word of magic and power in this country. We refer to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. We live under the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament. Our history and political life would be unintelligible if Parliament were removed from that history.
Parliament is essential to our nation, and that nation is a prerequisite for Parliament.
By the mere act of calling that entity in Brussels and Strasbourg a parliament, we grant legitimacy to the idea of a European state and one European people.
It may sound slightly ridiculous, but I questioned whether it would be right to vote in the European Parliament election this year, the first time I was old enough.
Voting, far more than nomenclature, lends credence to the hypothetical European dēmos. European elections also transfer our sovereignty. Before 1979, members of the then European Assembly were delegates from national parliaments. Powell explained the transformation which elections would bring:
As long as the Assembly consists of delegates, the ultimate authority remains with the national parliaments and with the national governments as members of the Council of Ministers. … Once, however, the Assembly is directly elected, that position is totally changed. What appeal can there be beyond the representatives of the peoples, directly elected for that very purpose? (2)
So, by electing MEPs, by participating in European democracy, we consent for our affairs to be governed from abroad. In the end, I did decide to vote, for two reasons. As a party loyalist, I wanted to support my party, especially in its approach to Brexit. More significantly, it is a matter of fact that the European Parliament has authority in this country. It is our own Parliament which has surrendered our national sovereignty, and change must be sought there. In the meantime, we have to accept that the EU institutions have jurisdiction here, and we should exercise the right to choose our representatives.
In the passage above, Powell spoke of the Council of Ministers, or European Council. Comprising the leaders of the members states, this is the only body in the EU which ought to have political authority. The Parliament should revert to being an Assembly of delegates, and the Commission should be a non-political civil service. Then there would be a true Europe of nations, with national sovereignty retained. The situation would be comparable to our membership of organisations such as the United Nations and NATO.
Even the European Council is too democratic, though. It uses two methods of voting: unanimity, and qualified majority voting (QMV). With the former, each country has a veto. With the latter, voting weight is partially determined by population. To block a measure, at least four countries must vote against. This makes it possible that a country could be forced to accept laws and obligations which it vehemently opposes. The problem with QMV is that it assumes the existence of a larger whole, which can make decisions based on a majority, qualified or otherwise. Again, this points to the notional European dēmos.
It is claimed that the EU stands up for small states, as for the Irish Republic in the Brexit negotiations. Yet the increasing use of QMV threatens this. Von der Leyen’s manifesto for the next five years envisages ‘a common consolidated corporate tax base’. Until now, matters relating to taxation have always been decided by unanimity, but von der Leyen states that
I will make use of the clauses in the Treaties that allow proposals on taxation to be adopted by co-decision and decided by qualified majority voting in the Council. This will make us more efficient and better able to act fast when needed.
Perhaps, indeed, the aim is efficient and fast action, but that will be achieved by trampling the interests of countries like the Irish Republic, whose economy has benefited hugely from low rates of corporation tax. Control over taxation is one of the fundamental prerogatives of a sovereign state. A European democracy, rather than a Europe of nations, will further erode these prerogatives.
Naturally, some Eurosceptics will seize on any negative aspect of the EU. Yet there is a strange irony when they deplore the EU’s lack of democracy. Greater European democracy can only weaken national sovereignty. If Brexit Party MEPs are to be consistent and honest, then let them attack the anthem and the flag, but they shouldn’t complain that the EU is undemocratic.
Europe needs less democracy, not more.
(1) J.E. Powell, Enoch Powell on 1992, ed. R. Ritchie (London, 1989), pp.25-6.
(2) Powell, On 1992, p.18.