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Which is more democratic: UK or EU?

The European Union consists of 28 member states. All treaty changes or enlargement of the EU require the unanimous consent of every single member, however large or small.

The Union of the United Kingdom consists of four member states: England, Scotland, Wales and the province of Northern Ireland.

In the referendum, two of them voted to remain in the EU: Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet the UK government is going ahead with Brexit, without the unanimous consent of all the UK’s member states.

That couldn’t happen in the European Union, where all member states of the EU, however large or small, each have an equal vote and a veto on new treaties.

  • If the UK was run on the same democratic principles as the EU, then the UK could not leave the European Union without the unanimous agreement of all its four members: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But in the 2016 EU referendum, the democratic wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland were ignored by the UK government, splitting the United Kingdom in two.

Similarly, Gibraltar – a British Overseas Territory which also had a vote in the EU referendum and chose by 96% to Remain in the EU – saw their objections to Brexit ignored.

Why offer Gibraltar a vote in the first place if their vote basically – and literally – counted for nothing?

  • Even though Northern Ireland voted for Remain, one party – the pro-Brexit DUP – is being allowed to dictate what future relationship the province will have with the EU (and therefore the entire UK’s relationship with the EU).

That’s because it’s only the DUP that’s keeping the Tories in power, following last year’s general election, in which the Conservatives saw their majority wiped out.

  • Theresa May called for a snap general election last year as she said she needed a bigger mandate to push through her brand of Brexit.

But even though she lost her mandate entirely, she’s still going ahead with her hard Brexit plans, as if the general election had never taken place.

  • The EU’s remaining 27 member states will have a greater say and vote on the final Brexit deal than the devolved areas of the UK and the overseas territory of Gibraltar, who are being given no say.

Even the European Parliament will have a more meaningful vote on Brexit than our Parliament in Westminster. The European Parliament can withhold consent to the final Brexit agreement, thereby giving it a veto.

  • Theresa May has never wanted our Parliament to have a meaningful vote on Brexit – that’s why the issue had to be dragged through the courts, when she tried to pass Brexit by bypassing Parliament (something she’s continued to attempt to do, despite the High and Supreme Courts damning rulings against her).

Nonetheless, Parliament will only have the power to accept or reject the Brexit deal on offer. If Parliament rejects the deal, the government would have to propose a new plan – but Parliament would not have the power to amend such a plan, unless the Speaker of the House decided otherwise.

  • Brexiters claim that the EU is ‘undemocratic’.

But in reality, the EU is more democratic than our system in the UK, where we still have an unelected second chamber; where the wishes of devolved UK states can be ignored, and where we still have an antiquated voting system of first-past-the-post (MEPs are voted to the European Parliament using a system of proportional representation).

  • Brexiters tell us that the EU is run by faceless bureaucrats.

But the truth is that all EU laws can only be passed by the democratically elected European Parliament, in concert with the Council of Ministers, that comprise the ministers of democratically elected governments of EU member states.

The European Commission is the servant of the EU, and not its master. The European Parliament elects the Commission President, must democratically approve each Commissioner, and has the power to dismiss the entire Commission.

(If that isn’t democratic, I don’t know what is.)

  • Brexiters claim that if the EU doesn’t like the result of a referendum, it just calls for another referendum ‘until it gets the result it wants’. But this is entirely untrue.

The EU has no power to call for a referendum in a member state, let alone to call for another referendum if they ‘don’t like the result’. Only a national government, with the consent of their parliament, can call for a referendum or subsequent referendums.

Furthermore, there is nothing undemocratic about having another vote. That’s precisely what democracy is about.

  • For example, France and Ireland voted in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. But Denmark did not.

The Danish government subsequently negotiated four significant concessions to the Treaty on Economic and Monetary Union, Union Citizenship, Justice and Home Affairs and Common Defence.

Consequently, Denmark, with the democratic consent of Denmark’s Parliament, presented these new concessions to the Danish electorate in a second referendum. In this second referendum, the Danes voted in favour of the Treaty, based on the concessions negotiated.

None of this was undemocratic. It was democracy at work.

Does anyone really think that the citizens of Ireland, or Denmark, both proud and independent peoples, could be ‘forced’ to vote in a way they didn’t want?

  • Just after the referendum, Brexiters mocked that a region of Belgium, called Wallonia, had the power to block the new free trade agreement between Canada and the EU.

But that shows how Belgium, a country only a tenth the size of the UK, has a better democracy than ours.

Unlike in the UK, under Belgium’s constitution, regional parliaments such as the one governing Wallonia, must give their unanimous agreement before Belgium, as an EU member state, can give its consent to any EU Treaty.

The regions of Belgium have much more democratic power than our devolved parliaments of the UK. That’s how Wallonia came to block the EU-Canada agreement, called Ceta.

Eventually, Wallonia sought and received assurances about the Ceta deal, and lifted their objections, so the EU-Canada free trade agreement could go ahead, which it did.

The EU-Canada trade agreement, incidentally, is calculated to be worth an estimated £1.3bn a year to Britain – but of course only whilst we are an EU member.

During 2016, whilst the parliaments of Belgium and all the other EU countries were democratically considering Ceta, the UK’s international trade secretary, Liam Fox, had to apologise to MPs for not allowing our Parliament to have a debate on the Ceta deal.

  • There’s something else that makes Belgium arguably more democratically accountable than the UK.

Since 1894 voting in Belgium’s elections has been compulsory. Everyone must vote.

Contrast Belgium’s system of compulsory voting with what happened in Britain’s referendum, where around 20 million people who could vote, didn’t vote.

That included around 13 million who registered to vote but didn’t, and a further estimated 7 million who could have registered to vote, but didn’t.

What a difference 20 million voters could have made to the EU referendum result if it had been compulsory for them to vote.

Polls indicate that those 13 million who registered to vote but didn’t would have supported Remain 2-to-1.

So, in summary:

  • The Tory government is going ahead with Brexit, without the unanimous consent of all the UK’s four member states, and without the consent of our overseas territory, the state of Gibraltar.
  • Only a minority of the electorate voted for Leave, just 37% – the majority either voted for Remain or didn’t vote.  In most referendums around the world non-voters do count, and a  ‘super majority’ is required before change can take place. (Just 37% of members would not be enough to change the constitution of most political parties.  Just 37% of the electorate wasn’t enough to give Scotland its own assembly in a 1979 referendum, even though the ‘Yes’ vote won. Just 37% of MPs would not be enough to call for an early General ElectionJust 37% of a trade union’s members – under the law – would not be enough to call for strike action.)
  • Many people directly affected by the outcome of the referendum were denied a vote: Britons who’d lived abroad for more than 15 years (even though the Tory manifesto promised them a vote) and citizens from the rest of the EU who had made Britain their home, in many cases for decades.
  • Although Northern Ireland voted for Remain, just one small Northern Ireland party, the pro-Brexit DUP, is being allowed to have the final say on the province’s (and therefore the UK’s) future relationship with the EU, because that party is keeping Mrs May and her Tories in office.
  • The government has refused to give Parliament a vote on whether Britain should leave the EU, saying the decision was already made by the referendum. Yet, the Supreme Court ruled that only Parliament could make the decision, as the EU referendum was advisory only. This is now a legal challenge against the government. See A50challenge.uk
  • The Tory government plans to use ancient Henry VIII powers to prevent Parliament from having a say on which EU laws and protections should be kept, amended or scrapped after Brexit.
  • The Tory government does not want our Parliament to have a proper vote on the final Brexit deal – there will be no option for Parliament to reject Brexit if it doesn’t like the deal. Parliament will be able to reject the deal, in which case Britain could end up leaving the EU without any deal.
  • The Leave campaign had to rely on lies to win. All the reasons to leave the EU were based on misinformation, mistruths and false promises. (Yes, all of them).
  • Evidence is now emerging of alleged fraud, and criminal acts by Vote Leave, Cambridge Analytica, and Aggregate IQ: illegal overspending, psychologically profiling and targeting people with online ads, based on masses of stolen data. All this could have illegally swung the referendum vote in favour of Leave – especially as the margin for Leave was wafer thin.
  • Lawyers are consequently calling for the Brexit vote to be declared void for irregularity, but the government has shown no interest.
  • Unlike in other democracies that have held second referendums, the government is refusing the give us, ‘the people’, a second say on Brexit, even though nobody knew anything about the final and finer details of Brexit in the referendum (and we still don’t know).

So, which has the better system of democracy: the EU or the UK?

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