UK -v- EU democracy

Jon Danzig |

Brexiters claim that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats. It’s a laughable claim because it’s untrue.

The EU is a democracy, run by elected politicians.

By comparison, the UK seems more like a quasi-democracy, with unelected decision-makers and undemocratic practises that would be considered despotic compared to EU standards.

Take our Parliament. It consists of 1,435 members (in the Commons and the Lords). Just 650 of them were elected, but the other 785 were appointed, and not elected.

By stark contrast, the European Parliament has 705 members, all elected.

On 29 December 2023 the former Prime Minister, Liz Truss, added new members to the House of Lords, a tradition granted to outgoing Prime Ministers (yes, even to one who left the position in disgrace and who was only Prime Minister for 49 days).

The former Tory leader nominated two prominent Brexiters to Parliament’s upper chamber FOR LIFE – Matthew Elliot, who was chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, and Jon Moynihan, also of Vote Leave.

Strange that, since Ms Truss supported Remain during the referendum, but afterwards, miraculously became an ardent Brexiter.

The ex-PM also appointed her former senior adviser, Ruth Porter, to the Lords. She additionally nominated eight other individuals for honours, including knighthoods.

Once introduced to the Lords, Ms Truss’s three appointments will boost their numbers to 788 unelected members – whilst the number of elected members of the Commons remains static at 650.

You may also remember that in June 2023, in his resignation honours list, former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, nominated seven new members to the House of Lords, a tradition granted to outgoing Prime Ministers (yes, even to one who left the position in disgrace).

In addition, Mr Johnson named six new knighthoods, including Jacob Rees-Mogg.

(He had wanted to give his dad a knighthood, but reportedly dropped the idea when it was pointed out that this would look “terrible”.)

He also gave out five damehoods, including one to former Home Secretary Priti Patel.

By 2022, Mr Johnson had already appointed 86 new peers to the House of Lords over a three-year period, equivalent to 10% of its total size.

They included his brother, Jo Johnson, Brexit negotiator, David Frost (enabling him to be in the Cabinet) and Johnson’s mate, Evgeny Lebedev (now Baron of Hampton and Siberia).

Similarly, the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, appointed former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to the House of Lords so that he could become the country’s (unelected) Foreign Secretary.

Our Parliament has more unelected members than elected. The House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament in the world to be larger than its lower house.*

[*Source: Alan Siaroff, Comparing Political Regimes]

Just look at other aspects of so-called British ‘democracy’ that would be considered alien in the EU:

▪ We have a legislative system whereby most laws are made by Statutory Instruments, drafted by the Civil Service, which cannot be amended by Parliament and most of which become law automatically, without a Parliamentary vote.

We have governments that can bypass Parliament with the use – and abuse – of arcane and ancient Royal Prerogatives and Henry VIII clauses.

▪ We have an old-fashioned voting system of first-past-the-post resulting in governments that most people didn’t vote for. (In European Parliament elections, voting is by proportional representation).

▪ We had a Prime Minister who could (until it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court) close down Parliament for an extended period at his will and without Parliamentary approval.

▪ We had a Prime Minister who attempted to initiate Brexit without Parliamentary authority and spent considerable sums of public money in litigation defending her “right” to do so.

▪ We have a government that has given lucrative contracts to their friends, bypassing usual procurement procedures and public accountability.

▪ We had a referendum in which two out of the four members of the United Kingdom voted against Brexit, but we still went ahead with it anyway.

▪ We have an unelected head of state (although he has no real power to intervene on important issues).

None of these undemocratic situations would be acceptable in the EU.

But how many people truly know that the EU is a democracy?

For years, Brexit politicians and papers have been selling us the blatant lie that the EU is undemocratic, even a “dictatorship” and run by unelected bureaucrats.

Let me take this opportunity to explain why that is not the case.

In the EU, democratic governance is the number one requirement of European Union membership.

In 1962, the year after Britain first applied to join the EEC, Spain also applied.

The country was then governed by authoritarian dictator, Francisco Franco. Spain’s membership application was flatly and unanimously rejected by all members of the European Community.

The reason? Because Spain wasn’t a democracy.

Indeed, if the UK was applying to join the EU now, recent events could present questions over the validity of our application and whether our democratic governance is currently robust enough.

Remember, the Tories have committed to scrapping our Human Rights Act and they oppose the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. In the recent past, the Tory government has also threatened to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

That would likely bar us from joining the EU, where a commitment to human rights is also a strict membership requirement.

Before becoming a member of the EU, an applicant country must demonstrate that it has a stable government guaranteeing:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Human rights
  • Respect for and protection of minorities
  • The existence of a functioning market economy
  • The capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union

Most countries that applied to join the EU did not meet these strict membership requirements and so they needed many years to prepare for the process before their application could be accepted.

NOTE: The UK’s unelected House of Lords may be a barrier to the UK being accepted as an EU member if we apply to re-join. We may have got away with having an unelected second chamber when we first joined in 1973, but there is a question mark over whether our application would be successful again without deep constitutional reforms in the UK. 

Contrary to what many people in Britain understand, the EU is a democracy, democratically run by its members.

These comprise the democratically elected governments and Parliaments of EU member states, alongside the directly elected European Parliament.

All the treaties of the EU, upon which all EU laws must be compatible, and any new countries applying to join the EU, must be unanimously and democratically agreed by all the national parliaments of every EU member state, however large or small.

In some EU countries, according to their national constitutions, agreement must also be obtained by regional parliaments and national referendums.

All the EEC/EU treaties since Britain joined the European Community in 1973 were fully debated and democratically passed by our Parliament in Westminster.

Not once were any changes to our EU membership imposed upon us, and neither could they be, as the EU is a democracy.

In addition, every EU country has a veto on any treaty changes or any new country joining.

(Compare that to our referendum of 2016, when a majority of citizens in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but it made no difference.)

The European Parliament is the EU’s law-making body, alongside the EU Council, which comprises the departmental ministers of democratically elected governments of every EU country.

The Parliament is directly elected every five years by citizens in all EU countries. The latest European elections were held in May 2019.

There are 705 MEPs (we used to have 73 MEPs from the UK representing us in Europe; alas, no more).

Each European country is proportionally represented in the Parliament according to their size of population.

EU laws can only be passed by the European Parliament in concert with the EU Council (also called the Council of Ministers).

The Council of Ministers shares law making and budgetary powers with the European Parliament. When voting on proposed EU laws, its meetings must be public.

Alongside the Council, the European Parliament has the democratic power to accept, amend or reject proposed laws and regulations.

According to extensive research at the time by VoteWatch Europe, over 97% of adopted EU laws in the 12 years to 2016 were supported by the UK.

There are proposals to give the European Parliament new powers to directly initiate legislation.

The European Commission is the servant of the EU, and not its master. Ultimately, the Commission is beholden to the European Parliament, and not the other way around.

The candidates for Commission President are proposed by a qualified majority of the European Council, which comprises the Prime Ministers or Heads of States of EU countries, taking account of the latest European elections.

Similarly, the Commission is composed of one member from each member state “suggested” by the national governments of each member state, but elected by a qualified majority of the European Council.

The Commission President must then be elected by an absolute majority of all MEPs (i.e. over 50% of them).

Indeed, Ursula von der Leyen could only become Commission President with the democratic backing of over half of ALL MEPs.

Each proposed Commissioner must also be democratically approved by the European Parliament in a strict vetting process. The Parliament has the democratic power to reject candidate Commissioners – as it did in 2019.

The Parliament also has the democratic power to sack the entire Commission at any time during its five-year tenure.

The Commission is responsible for implementing the democratic decisions of the EU, upholding and enforcing democratically passed EU laws and treaties, and managing the day-to-day business of the EU.

The Commission also proposes new laws, but they only do this in close collaboration with the European Parliament and Council of Ministers, as only the Parliament and Council can pass laws.

The Commission has zero power to pass any laws.

Before the Commission proposes new laws, it prepares ‘Impact Assessments’ which set out the advantages and disadvantages of possible policy options.

The Commission then consults interested parties such as non-governmental organisations, local authorities and representatives of industry and civil society. Groups of experts also give advice on technical issues.

In this way, the Commission ensures that legislative proposals correspond to the needs of those most concerned and avoids unnecessary red tape.

Citizens, businesses and organisations also participate in the consultation procedure. National parliaments can also formally express their reservations if they feel that it would be better to deal with an issue at national rather than EU level.

  • How the EU Commission is elected – 1-minute video

The European Council consists of the democratically elected leaders of each EU country – their Prime Ministers and Presidents. It is the EU’s supreme political authority.

The Council does not negotiate or adopt EU laws, but it does democratically set the political goals and priorities of the European Union, including the policy agenda of the Commission.

The Council also democratically chooses candidates for the post of Commission President, which the European Parliament must then elect with an absolute majority of MEPs.

The Council President reports to the European Parliament.

During our membership, Britain democratically helped to run and rule the EU, and not the other way around. Whatever the EU is and has become, Britain helped to create it.

Indeed, the EU can become whatever all its members unanimously agree it can become. But of course, that only applies to EU members, and not to ex-members.

Outside of the EU, Britain can only watch as democratic decisions about our continent are decided without us, even though those decisions will affect us just as much, whether we are a member or not.

Leaving the EU has meant a loss of sovereignty. We no longer have a say, votes, and vetoes on the running and future direction of Europe.

  • Rejoining the European Union will of course help the UK but it won’t solve all our problems. To find out what more needs to be done, I recommend Alun Drake’s s new book “Fixing Broken Britain”. It identifies the country’s underlying weaknesses and suggests ways of addressing them.


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