“Taking back control” from an anti-democratic EU is a central theme of the “leave campaign”. Even some of those advocating “stay” concede the EU needed to “reform” to become more democratic and accountable.
This response is puzzling given the existing opportunities to influence EU as well as critics’ vagueness and disagreement about how a more democratic EU should look like. The focus on allegedly undemocratic Brussels institutions misses that most of the problems as well as solutions to democracy can be found closer to home.
The most obvious way in which citizens can influence the EU is through the election of the Westminster parliament. Any transfer or sharing of new competences with the EU had to be agreed by national parliaments and the House of Commons has ratified each Treaty change since 1973 with solid majorities. Supranational law and its interpretation to the European Court of Justice only takes effect because this is what the people’s elected representatives legislated for.
Major changes to the EU such as Enlargement have been strongly advocated by successive British governments, whilst they have also blocked in the past more wide-ranging proposals for direct democracy fearing that more legitimacy for EU bodies will give them also greater power. National ministers appointed through general elections wield significant power over day-to-day legislation in the Council of Ministers and, for strategic direction, the European Council.
The UK retains exclusive competence in the areas most sensitive to UK citizens such as taxation, pensions, health, policing and remains exempt from legislation associated with the Schengen free-border or the Eurozone. The UK has consolidated its status as Eurozone outsider with guarantees that it will not be discriminated against, does not need to contribute to any bailouts and can keep its own financial supervision.
The previous government’s extensive audit of EU’s competences involving business and civil society was broadly supportive of the current distribution. It is true that the UK does not always have its way, but as my LSE colleagues have shown, British governments have voted in 97 percent of cases with the majority in the period 2004-2009 and 87 percent in 2009-2015 in the Council.
Hence, it is somewhat meaningless to measure which proportion of UK laws emanate from the EU. The widely cited study of the House of Common’s library arrived at figures of 6.8% for primary legislation and 14.1% for secondary legislation. Even these figures overestimate EU influence as the ‘degree of involvement varied from passing reference to explicit implementation’.
The second democratic channels are the elections to the European Parliament (EP). Not only has the EP acquired real power to block or change legislation in most policy areas, for instance, its rejection of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
The EP has also increasing powers over the European Commission as a hybrid body combining the powers of a regulator with more political functions of proposing new legislation. The first function relies on having appropriate expertise and is typically-shielded from undue political influence in most countries. The second function no doubt requires political accountability and democratic responsiveness and the primary body to do this is the European Parliament.
In 1999, the EP brought about the resignation of the Santer-Commission after a transnational network of investigative journalists exposed cases of corruption and wrong-doing. This case also illustrated vividly that national-based media can hold supranational institutions to account and that pan-European debates are possible.
At the 2014 elections, the major European party groupings, Socialists and Democrats and the European People’s Party (EPP) campaigned with lead candidates for Commission president after a change in the Lisbon Treaty allowed for this personalisation. When the EPP emerged as the winner on a decent turnout of 42.6 percent, its candidate Jean-Claude Juncker became President against the opposition of the UK and Hungary.
The reason why this outcome appeared as a surprise to British voters in contrast to those of other countries was because Labour and Conservatives had pretended that the Treaty change was meaningless and most British media uncritically bought this line and thus gave the candidates hardly any publicity in contrast to, for instance, Germany as the LSE’s Simon Hix showed. Given this precedent, it is likely that next time more citizens will vote in European elections according to the candidates and policies on offer, not the popularity of the domestic government.
The last avenue of influence is the Citizens Initiative which obliges the European Commission to consider new legislation on a particular issue as long as it is backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. Even though if it does not force the Commission to actually legislate, it is a powerful tool to put issues on the agenda.
Given the diversity of national systems and cultures, there is no ready-made blue-print available for democracy above the nation-state. The greatest potential lies not in protracted constitutional reforms involving governments with little interests to cede power, but in changing everyday democratic practice within and across member states.
There needs to be greater scrutiny of ministers’ actions in Brussels by the media to prevent them getting away with ‘saying one thing in Brussels, and another thing to the domestic audience’ (Boris Johnson). It has been argued that the House of Common’s scrutiny of European affairs has been weak and many MPs have lacked the motivation to invest time in this role as they feel this was not going be sufficiently visible in the media and appreciated by constituencies.
The media should also report more extensively and accurately about who takes what decisions with which consequences in the EU. And civil society organisations and citizens could use more fully the existing opportunities to influence the direction of the EU and campaign for the changes they want, both at home, and with citizens in other countries. A more democratic EU starts at home, but cannot stop there.
Christoph Meyer is Professor of European & International Politics, King’s College London