The EU is democratic. And so is the UK. But in my experience in speaking with people, there is a profound ignorance of the differences between UK and EU democratic system. The EU may be democratic, but it is a system structured in such a way that detracts power from the people, as compared to a direct democracy. This problem is termed the democratic deficit. This is because the EU is many orders more complex and bureaucratic, and thus orders of magnitude removed from direct democracy.
To explain, let me start by describing the system of democracy in the UK…
The UK’s democratic process
First, you elect your MP. Your MP represents you in the lower chamber, the House of Commons. The political party which has the most MPs form the government cabinet. Laws are proposed and drafted by your MPs, including those in the cabinet. Usually bills are instigated by the government cabinet, usually based on the manifesto on which their election was won. Sometimes, these laws are instigated because these MPs have a personal interest in the subject, maybe because of personal experience or because their constituency requires it. The bills are debated in parliament, put through a committee of MPs to consider the bill line-by-line, redrafted for successive readings in parliament, until finally MPs vote on whether or not to pass the bill . Next, the bill goes through a similar process afresh in the upper chamber, the House of Lords. The House of Lords has a more permanent membership, composed mostly of individuals appointed by merit (life peers), although many positions are still hereditary. The bill only gets passed into the law books if the House of Lords also vote it through. If the House of Lords don’t pass it, they may make amendments to it, before passing it back to the House of Commons to debate and either pass the bill or make their own amendments. This process gets repeated until the bill gets the approval of both chambers of parliament.
There are several advantages to the UK’s system of democracy…
- The great strength of this system is that the will of the masses is balanced against the merits of the elite. The majority do not get to impose their wishes on the few, and neither does the elite get to impose their ideas on the masses. This system means that cooperation and assent of both the masses and the elites are necessary to pass anything into the law books; neither gets to overrule the other.
- Another strong benefit is that bills have to pass through two rigorous and independent checking processes, thus inadequate or poorly thought out bills can be stopped, or refined at either of the two stages.
- Another strong benefit is that the MPs (of whom there are many) who are responsible for drafting these bills and the scrutinising them are able to focus more of their efforts on researching the subject and refining the wording of the bill. The size of the resource pool also reduces the likelihood of incompetence.
- Most of the bills originate from the lower house, where the big problems can be ironed out early on before it gets being passed on to the upper house. The upper house, who tends to be greater in expertise, is then able to apply their expertise to focus on the finer details that the lower house may have missed.
- Yet another advantage of this system is that, as most new legislation begins its life from the bottom up – if they mess up the bill they are drafting, MPs know that they risk losing their position in less than 5 years, at the next election. This makes elected members of parliament accountable to the public, for mistakes are traceable directly to individuals.
- Finally, if both houses of parliament mess up and cannot make up their mind in a time of crisis, as a last resort, the Queen (or the reigning monarch) has the legal power to intervene and direct the process to some form of resolution.
- MPs in the House of Commons: They are the ones the ones directly elected, thus representing the wishes of the people, as well as being primarily responsible for drafting legislative bills;
- The House of Lords is composed of peers appointed based on individual merit, introducing the advantageous element of meritocracy.
The EU’s democratic process
If you thought the UK democratic system was complicated, contrast this system with the democracy implemented by the EU:
In addition to voting for their own MPs, citizens elect MEPs in the European elections, a costly redundant process contributing to the bureaucracy that already exists. MEPs participate in debate in European Parliament, but has no part to play in drafting any legislation.
The ones who are in charge of drafting and pushing through legislation are the European Commission. The European Commission is a tiny group comprising 28 members, in effect acting as the cabinet of the EU. Each of the members are nominated by their respective countries, and appointed by the Commission President.
The Commission President is elected by the European Council. The European Council is comprised of the heads of government of EU member states. And since heads of government are democratically elected, the argument goes that all the appointees of a democratically elected President are legitimately part of the democratic process.
Confused yet? It gets worse… The Commission drafts bills, which are debated by your MEPs in European Parliament (lower chamber). The bills are also debated within a Council of the EU (upper chamber). However, there appears to be no actual expertise in the subjects of concern involved in the production of these bills or the debate of them. Thus Commission is subject to the whims of lobbyists, each of whom presents a case that inevitably benefits the lobbyist. And unlike the UK parliament, neither the upper chamber or the lower chamber has any hand in the redrafting of these bills – the Commission itself redrafts them. The process of passing bills has no order of refinement (as compared to the UK’s two-chamber system). So when it gets passed back down to Parliament and Council, the debate goes on and on, and the bills get redrafted as Commissioners attempt to take into account the political interests of MEPs, rather than the input of experts. The result? There will have been plenty of heat and mud-slinging amongst the ideologically and financially vested interests. This entire process is vulnerable to the problems of partisan politics, where individuals fight for their own side rather than what’s actually beneficial for everyone. In the end we have a bill that suits no-one and pleases no-one.
And then finally, these bills become European Union Directives. EU Directives are basically ‘orders’ from the EU to member states, where member states are required to translate these Directives into local legislation. The only ‘advantage’? There is balance, in that no-one is happy with the outcome, because we are left with a set of laws that serve nobody and pleases nobody.
Too long, didn’t read:
To summarise, here’s the difference between the UK and the EU democratic process…
UK: You vote to elect someone (MP), they help form a government (cabinet), and they draft bills for you and debate on your behalf.
EU: You vote to elect someone (MP) to help form a government (cabinet) so that they can elect someone else (Commission President) to appoint Commissioners to draft laws for you. And then you vote again to elect someone (MEPs) to debate these laws on your behalf, but MEPs have no direct part in drafting these laws.
In short, you have no say in who makes your laws. Do you see the democratic deficit yet?
Inference and conclusion
The UK’s parliamentary system has experienced many centuries of maturation, with every refinement devolving more and more power to the populace, progressively increasing democratic accountability. In comparison, the EU parliament has a history of barely half a century, evolving from a makeshift collaboration between a few countries to the vast bureaucratic legislative and governing body that it is now. It is moving too fast and growing too quickly, much to the detriment of everyone involved. It currently appears to be heading in the direction of the socialists of the last century, achieving through economic methods what the communists achieved through revolutionary methods.
The UK’s democratic system may not be perfect of course, but it is definitely a far sight better than the EU’s system.