Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On the EU’s “democratic deficit”

I’ve been planning a long piece on this for months, ever since that whole openDemocracy thing I did back in the autumn (which is, it turns out, what got me shortlisted for that Reuters award thing, rather than this place), but haven’t quite found the time.

The short version (guaranteed to rile the eurosceptics): nope, the EU’s not democratic – and nor should it be if Britain’s interests are going to be maintained. (I’ll try and explain in more detail at some point, but it’s unlikely to be overly soon…)

Anyway, back to the original starting point for this post. Amongst the usual stuck record of eurosceptic complaints under Timothy Garton-Ash’s latest offering about the EU over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free yesterday (I sometimes read these things just to remind myself why I’m not slipping back into full-on eurosceptic mode, despite the repeated disappointments, annoyances and embarrassments that come with being pro-EU*), this little beauty leapt out, by poster “tooter”. It’s one of the best succinct rejoinders to the perennial “the EU’s not democratic” complaint I’ve seen in quite a while, and echoes many of my own views:

I think this “democratic deficit” thing is overdone. The appointees you are on about are put there by people we elect. Great chunks of our government is run in the same way – the House of Lords being the most glaring example, but there are others, Quangos, the Judiciary (!), the PM (!) to name but a few.

Take one example, the European Central Bank. I read over and over again, as an argument against the Euro, about sinister “faceless bureaucrats” who will run our economy for us from Frankfurt. Well the ECB is accountable to no less than FOUR of the European institutions.

Who is the Bank of England accountable to? Can anybody name even two members of the MPC without googling? Are they not, therefore, “faceless bureaucrats” running our economy from London?

What do the europhobes think we are living in now?

He/she later came back with a quick, even snappier follow-up, reiterating the point:

“We British have something called a “Parliamentary Democracy”, as do most of Europe. We never elect our Prime Minister, we elect Members of Parliament. It is these Members who choose the PM. The PM is an appointee. As are the entire House of Lords. As are the Judiciary. As are the Generals, senior civil servants, heads of Agencies and othe Quangos, the Cabinet, Chief Constables, Bishops etc etc

So, europhobes, how “undemocratic” is the EU again?

I too am intrigued by the answer to this. Because the arguments against the EU employed by eurosceptics who have moved beyond petty patriotism (which, to be fair, is an increasingly large proportion these days – and to be clear I mean patriotism in the strict sense, with no nasty connotations) increasingly revolve around criticisms of inefficiencies and failures that are also invariably present at a national – even local – level of government. Because, after all, no system of government ever devised is perfect.

Yet when it comes to the EU, for the eurosceptics it seems that nothing less than perfection will do.

Or am I being incredibly unfair and/or missing the point?


* By the way, I really, really need a better term than “pro-EU” to describe my attitude to the whole thing. Because as should be clear to regular readers I’m not a loyal cheerleader for the EU by any means, and advocate fairly radical reform. I remain a supporter of a European Union of some kind, and of close cross-border political and economic co-operation – and in some case integration – of the kind the EU helps facilitate, but not necessarily this European Union.

In the good old days, this would have labelled me a eurosceptic in the true sense (inasmuch as I am sceptical of the benefits of a number of things the EU is doing) – but now that that term has become synonymous with “anti-EU”, what’s left for those of us who are neither europhiles nor eurosceptics, but occupy that vague middle-ground of being largely in favour of EU membership while wishing the whole thing was just a bit, y’know, better? Because that does, after all, account for the attitude of the vast majority of the British population – it seems very odd that there’s not a term for us all…


  1. *sigh*

    What you’re doing is mistaking me saying “this is the situation” with me saying “this is what I would like the situation to be”. Repeatedly.

    Rest assured, yes, I do indeed have “a degree of knowledge” about both British and European politics and history, having worked both in Westminster and Brussels, holding two degrees in modern history, and making (in part) my living writing about them (see my miniature bio if you’re interested). But what you’re doing is confusing “knowledge about” with “interpretation of”. Two people can happily look at the same data and come to two different conclusions. That’s all we’re doing.

    However, because of this we’re also getting nowhere here, and I’ve got work to do.

  2. Afternoon Nosemonkey,

    I am really slow on the uptake. I must be as it has taken me 40+ posts to realise what the line is you are pursuing. I could have worked it out easily enough by exploring the site in more detail but I have been lazy and tended just to consider what was right in front of my face on this thread.

    It is for that reason that it has taken me until now – or rather until your posting at 7.51 this morning – to realise where I disagree with your analysis.

    You have said (excuse the paraphrase) that the problems of the EU come from it being caught between two stools. It is neither a purely economic nor a purely political organisation. You seem to indicate that its problems derive from not being clear as to which it is.

    I think that the problem is that it cannot be an effective economic organisation without being a comprehensively politically unified organisation. Certainly the evidence is clear that it has real problems surviving as a single monetary zone without further political integration. And such integration is undesirable from a social and democratic point of view as it can only be achieved by overriding the democratic wishes of the people living in the region.

    So my position would be that since economic unity cannot be achieved without political unity, neither should be considered desirable and the whole project in its present form should be abandoned.

  3. Fine, as for me I don’t need to work so I have the time to answer you.


    I’m not confusing or misunderstanding what you wrote when you said “the EU’s not democratic – and nor should it be if Britain’s interests are going to be maintained”.

    I have pointed out that I agree with you, that the EU is NOT democratic and I disagree with you specifically in respect that British interests will be better “maintained”, both in an economic and a democratic sense.

    Incidentally I’ve read through your links and wotnot and I’m impressed, however you now mention that the British Nation is in someway not acceptable to you as a nation ? I find this more peculiar than a lack of care for either democracy or for the ability to influence our economic and monetary systems and one subject I’d rather not go into with you until I’m presented with a ballot box.

  4. And I agree with Richard Tyndall.

    And I’d like to see an “Alliance of sovereign nations” [ not a superstate ], with their own economic policies in one trading area as it was intended and in accordance with the first democratic pinciple that noone voted for anything different and I don’t like being lied to by culpible politicians who have no inlfuence over the laws I must live by without being able to sack them and repeal those laws if I don’t like them.

  5. nosemonkey @ August 12 9:32am said: “I’ve merely pointed out that such problems are not unique to the EU, so to treat them as if they are (as many do) is both unfair and non-constructive.”

    True, but I can understand how that happens. Given the EU operates above the nation state level, the EU’s democratic problem often compounds those within nation states. If we feel our own government is unresponsive, and here in Britain many certainly seem to, then for those ministers to abdicate decisions up to even more remote EU institutions is a step that makes the democracy problem so obviously much worse. Hence the EU tends to be the first target of criticism for democracy campaigners.

    Aiming first to solve the problem of the EU’s negative effect on democracy also makes practical sense. There’s clearly not much to be gained from making national institutions more responsive if they’re not, ultimately, making decisions of any great importance any more.


    You also said: “(The same goes for my theory – that this post was originally intended to act as an introduction to to – that calls for greater democracy can only further politicise the EU, moving it even further away from the traditional British view of the organisation as a trading bloc.)”

    Isn’t this one of those neat twist debating points that might work at the despatch box to throw back democracy campaigners but which doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, so isn’t much cop in the real world. In this case, because it’s far from clear where the “can only further politicise …” bit comes in.

    While I don’t doubt that’s how 1950s-style EU state automatons (for whom the answer to any problem is always ‘more Europe’) would like to respond to such demands, such a move would not be likely to resolve democratic complaints and is of course far from the “only” possible course of action.

    The other option would be to abandon more steps down the same old 1950s centralisation path and embrace more radical reform of European co-operation for the 21st century. Specifically:

    – to recognise that genuine democracy has geodemographic boundaries that cannot be safely ignored for the advancement of some utopian design;

    – to come to terms with the reality that their overly rigid and limited 1950s design (the ‘United States of Europe’ ideology) is in any case outdated in today’s highly inter-connected, increasingly globalised world;

    – to respond by rowing back from the current democratically unacceptable level of EU politicisation and centralisation;

    – to create instead a modern trading and co-operative block together with a limited structure to facilitate economic development of the zone and flexible co-operation between participants in any other area. For example, that structure could be similar to today’s Council of Ministers, but with no QMV.

    That sounds to me a far more suitable and perfectly possible response.


    @ 10:40am you ask: “How were we unaware of the democratic deficit when there were no such things as European elections in 1975?”

    I think the answer to that goes back to the question you raised earlier, about how democratic purely economic arrangements need to be. That, of course, is how the EEC was presented and sold back then. In the context of simply a trading block, there was understandably not a great deal of concern about lack of democracy. The reality of the organisation’s aims and development has of course been quite different.


    Also @ 10:40am: “And it all stems from my belief that the nation state is not the best option. ”

    The conflict we face is that certainly much added benefit can be gained from countries working together. Yet the nation state is the only proper venue for genuine democracy.

    What disturbs me is when people are clearly prepared to sacrifice democracy – the only true guarantor of peace and stability on our continent – on the alter of the EU project, which has gone much further than what is necessary to deliver the benefits of co-operation.

    A co-operative Europe, which I’d guess virtually all anti-EU campaigners would support, can bridge this divide. Today’s integrationist EU does not. Worse, with every step down its 1950s-inspired path, the conflict is exacerbated. It cannot go on.

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