The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democracy in the world today. Britain should leave it, with or without a Brexit deal.
“In Britain, you vote for a government and therefore the government has to listen to you.
And if you don’t like it you can change it.” But in Europe, all the key positions are appointed not elected. The Commission, for example, all appointed not one of them elected”. -Tony Benn
The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics, and therefore the mass of people, in the world today. Its central purpose is to constrain popular sovereignty through an executive-heavy, often-secretive complex of organisations. It has no fewer than five presidents; makes key decisions behind closed doors, with no recorded minutes; has a parliament that is its weakest branch; and renders amending its basic constitutional features nearly impossible.
This baroque, opaque institutional arrangement has the severe consequences of weakening the mechanisms and culture of popular control over politics. Recall not just the way European institutions punished Syriza and the Greek people during the debt crisis for daring to ask for better terms, but that European institutions effectively allowed Angela Merkel and Nikolas Sarkozy to replace two nationally elected governments in Italy and Greece with handpicked technocrats.
The EU isn’t so much a tyrannical super-state, as some right-wingers imagine, as it is the institutional consequence of elected officials looking for ways to evade the political accountability they must endure in a representative democracy. National politicians created the EU institutions in a bid to avoid the rough-and-tumble of democratic representation, turning Europe’s nation-states into member-states. These member-states retain the worst, coercive elements of statehood while reducing the influence of the democratic element, allowing elected officials to avoid accountability by retreating into supranational and intergovernmental institutions.
The effect has been to weaken democracy at every level — not just subordinating the people to the executive branch, but also attenuating the relationship between representatives and those they represent. Part of what underlies the current mess in the UK is that members of parliament (MPs) can agree much more on the need to preserve EU institutions than they can on a positive vision for those they represent. The vote in favor of leaving the EU is therefore a product of longstanding popular frustration at the sense that politics is out of the electorate’s control and that elites have little to offer but ruses to avoid being held to account.
As the date that Britain is scheduled to leave the EU approaches (March 29, 2019), the prospect of exiting has thrown the UK’s political class into an almighty panic. There is now a realistic possibility that parliament will fail to carry out the people’s will and decline to leave the EU. This would be an act of breath-taking contempt for democracy that would rival the acts of the right-wing populists who get most of the airtime these days.
Many members of parliament are trying to delay the Brexit date to give them time to organise a second referendum. That referendum would likely include a vote on whether to reverse the entire Brexit process and stay in the European Union — not only flouting the results of the first referendum, but thereby attacking British democracy itself.
A basic feature of democratic politics is that the sovereign should control government. When the people are sovereign, they determine the shape of their institutions and elect their governments. That was the core political point of the first referendum: the British people voted to withdraw from the constitutional constraints of the European Union. This principle was confirmed in the 2017 general election, when 85 percent of MPs were elected on manifestos promising to implement the referendum result.
The political meaning of a second referendum, at least one that involved making Remain an option, would therefore be the opposite of the first. Having been given the task of exiting the EU, the British Parliament would be effectively saying it just wasn’t up to the task — that it was refusing to carry out the people’s wishes and, therefore, deciding to try to reverse that will itself. It would not be far from that old Brechtian line, “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”.
This is not the first time European elites have turned the relationship between the people and government on its head. When in 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice — which reorganised key EU institutions in preparation for eastward expansion — elites arranged another referendum the following year to achieve their desired result. Then, in 2005, after France and the Netherlands resoundingly voted against the European Constitution, the ruling class responded by turning basic elements of the constitution into the Lisbon Treaty, which could be approved by national legislatures instead. Rather than ask the peoples of these countries, the politicians decided to ask themselves.
Except those pesky Irish intruded once again. The Irish, who were required by their own Supreme Court to approve the accord by popular referendum, voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Undeterred, European elites decided that the Irish could not possibly have meant to vote the way they did — they simply needed more education and pressure. A second referendum was arranged, in a manner heavily favouring a “yes” vote, and once again governments had their way with the people.
We’re witnessing a similar tendency in Britain. Prior to the Brexit referendum, the government pledged to abide by the outcome. Immediately after, the major parties agreed to follow the results. And in the most recent general election, both the Tory and Labour manifesto’s committed those parties to implementing the results. In every articulation of democracy — referendum, national elections, legislative government — the major parties have said they would carry out the people’s will and have taken office based on those commitments. Yet there is still enormous resistance to doing the democratic thing and actually leaving the EU.
At this point the one democratic act possible is to insist on exiting the EU, deal or no deal. To withdraw from these institutions is a necessary (though certainly insufficient) condition for revitalising democratic politics. Reasserting popular sovereignty over governments is only possible by reclaiming that sovereignty from the EU — and sketching out a positive vision for a post-EU future.
It’s a BRINO
Unfortunately, with the exception of Theresa May’s plan, which only just barely separates the UK from the European Union, no positive vision for a post-EU future is on offer. This should be an opportunity for Labour, but Labour is just as riven as the Conservatives on the issue. Jeremy Corbyn has offered no clear alternative to May’s unpopular Withdrawal Agreement plan, except to insist that Britain remain tied into a customs union with the EU. Although Corbyn himself is widely believed to oppose EU membership, the party’s membership overwhelmingly prefers a second referendum, and numerous Labour MPs are involved in parliamentary maneuvers to delay Brexit.
This division is complicated by the large minority of Labour constituencies where a majority of the electorate backed Leave, and where polling suggests voters have not changed their minds. For Corbyn to support Brexit with any enthusiasm would alienate his political base in the party membership, but to oppose Brexit or support a second referendum risks massive electoral losses in the North of England. Faced with this dilemma, the Labour leadership has not chosen to embrace the opportunity for democratic renewal offered by Brexit, but instead gone for short-term opportunism, calling for a general election that is unlikely to come about and hoping the Tories will continue to flounder.
Not the will of our representatives
The majority of British representatives don’t really want to leave, or at least engage in the hard act of coming up with a plan for post-Brexit UK. But they know it’s difficult to baldly go against the will of the people. Hence the lure of the second referendum. They are hoping to be let off the hook by engaging in what has practically become a Brechtian tradition of EU politics.
If they do so they will not only announce their contempt for democratic majorities, but also raise a serious question for existing institutions. If democratic institutions, procedures, and parties are not there to allow the people to create and control governments, but are instead to be used to manage the people, then why participate at all? If there is a majority decision — in fact, repeated majority decisions — that one can expect will be reversed anytime representatives find them too difficult or unpopular, why have those institutions?
The Undemocratic EU Explained – It Will Never Change
The EU’s law-making process is fundamentally undemocratic. Power is vested in the unelected and unaccountable elite who make laws – in secret – to preserve the status of large multinationals at the expense of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Multinationals achieve their preferential status by spending enormous sums of money on lobbying. They create a complicated regulatory framework, which only large companies with their Human Resources departments can comply with. This drives small competitors out of business, destroys competition and encourages monopolies, forcing the consumer to pay a higher price for poorer quality goods and services.
There are four key institutions of the EU: the European Commission, European Parliament, European Council and the Court of Justice of the EU. Each institution supposedly represents separate interests. The Commission represents the EU, the Parliament represents the people, the Council represents the Governments of each Member State and the Court interprets the law. However, these institutions do not do this in practice, as they all represent large multinationals and an integrationist agenda, as the intention is to create a federal United States of Europe. This new country already has a flag, a Parliament, an anthem, Presidents, currency, a legal system, legal status and a navy – to name just a few.
The EU Commission is the guardian of the treaties and enforces EU law. More importantly, this means it is the Government of Europe which has the sole right to propose the laws which increasingly encroach on our lives here in Britain.
The Commission is made up of 28 unelected commissioners, who cannot be held to account. Each commissioner has a specific policy area in which to create laws. The Commission has a President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker); unlike the other 27 commissioners he is personally elected by the European Parliament, however his was the only name on the ballot paper, not exactly democratic. The Commission is advised by the Directorate General, which along with the Commission is heavily lobbied. Once the Commission proposes an EU law, this proposal is taken to the Parliament.
Secondly, the Parliament is made up of 751 MEPs who are elected by the people in EU Member States every five years in elections. National parties arrange themselves into European groups of similar parties throughout Europe. It also has a President (currently Martin Schulz) who was voted in by the Parliament, but once again he was the only candidate. Theoretically, the Parliament has the ability to remove the Commission; however the Parliament has never successfully been able to remove it – even when the Commission has been full of corrupt cronies. The Parliament didn’t even remove the commission of 2004 to 2009 which was full of questionable characters. This Commission included Siim Kallas the Anti-Fraud Commissioner who was given this role despite being charged with fraud, abuse of power and providing false information after £4.4million disappeared while he was head of Estonia’s national bank.
This is not a Parliament in any real sense, as they have no right to propose laws. Instead it is a façade, created to make the EU look democratic, rather than give the public a choice over those who makes their laws. The Parliament does vote and can make amendments on laws proposed by the Commission, but the Commission must accept any of the amendments proposed for the changes to become effective, showing where the power lies.
Additionally, once something becomes an EU law, the Parliament has no ability to propose a change to this law. All the power is given to the Commission. It is clear the public’s elected representatives do not matter in the EU. It’s a ‘club’ to push through laws which would be rejected by national Parliaments. Once the Parliament approves an EU proposal, it is sent to the European Council.
The European Council – sometimes called The Council – is the meeting of the Member States. It is called the European Council when the leaders of each Member State are in attendance, and The Council when it’s the ministers for the policy area being discussed attending. This is the final hurdle any European proposal has to pass in order to become law. Decision-making at this stage is done almost entirely by Qualified Majority Voting. This means the UK Government can vote against a proposal and as long as it receives enough votes from the other Member States it becomes law in the UK anyway. The UK only has a veto to prevent EU laws impacting the UK in a very minor number of areas. If the European Council/Council approves proposals, they become EU law. They will be in the form of EU regulations or directives. If they are regulations the new EU law applies to all Member States without any of those states having to pass legislation in their own home Parliaments. If they are directives, the national Parliaments are forced to change their national laws within a specific time limit to comply with EU law – whether they want to or not.
Finally, the Court of Justice of the EU is supposed to interpret EU laws to ensure they comply with the EU treaties. Unfortunately, it does not do this. It happily ignores the treaties when it wants to if the EU is pushing its own federalist agenda. This is not a court like we have in this country; it is a kangaroo court wilfully ignoring the rule of law, as it did with the bailouts which should have been deemed illegal. The treaties clearly stated bailouts were illegal, but as the bailouts helped to prop up the failing Eurozone project, the EU court allowed them anyway.
The EU is a highly undemocratic organisation ratcheting more and more power with every passing day. It is impervious to public opinion. The people who matter in the law-making process are unelected and therefore unaccountable.