Wednesday, 22 June 2016

EU Referendum and Arguments about Sovereignty and Democracy

Well, after an avalanche of words over the past few months of this seemingly never ending debate, on whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union (EU), the talking will end tomorrow as the actual vote takes place.

I’ve written before about the desperately poor standard of debate from both sides of the argument, with ridiculous claims made about the effects of staying or leaving, but I think the most interesting issue that the campaign has thrown up, is the one about democracy. It is often framed as national sovereignty against a perceived out of touch, remote and foreign bureaucratic entity which is the EU.

One of the main failings of the EU, in my opinion, is in terms of communicating with the European people. Hardly anyone of my acquaintance knows very much, if anything at tall about how the EU works. Most people can’t name a single MEP, and are fuzzy about the democratic processes of the EU at best. This lack of understanding allows for all kinds of myths to take hold, and the EU must take the lion’s share of the blame for this, although it hardly constitutes a reason to leave the organisation.

Essentially, the democratic structure of the EU has three elements, the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, which together covers all aspects of the way the union takes decisions.

The European Parliament, which is elected by the people of the various nation states of the EU, holds a non-binding vote on new EU treaties, dealing with trade for example, but it does not have the power to veto them by itself. However, when the European Parliament threatened to vote down the Nice Treaty, the national Parliaments of Italy and Belgium said they would veto the treaty on behalf of the EU Parliament. Changes were made to the treaty. The EU Parliament can also have other indirect influence. It can amend and reject legislation, but to make a proposal for legislation, it needs the EU Commission to draft a bill before anything can become law.

The European Commission is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. Each elected nation state government appoints one commissioner. The European Council can confer powers to Commission, but on its own, the Commission doesn’t have any real powers.

Power resides with the European Council, which consists of the heads of state of all nations within the EU, although in practice the national representatives are usually the Foreign ministers. Of course all of these people are elected in their own countries, so it can’t really be argued that the EU is undemocratic. Each nation only gets a say in one of the 28 Council representatives with no say over who the rest are, but would we in the UK want the other nations selecting our representative? I think not.

So, that is how it all fits together, and I don’t think that you can credibly say that is undemocratic, but it doesn’t stop the Brexit brigade repeating the opinion, usually in the expression of ‘we can’t vote them out’. This is true of the other nation’s representatives, but as I say, that is perfectly reasonable.

I do wonder what the people of other EU countries, and indeed the world generally, make of this new found pre-occupation of the British (or some of the British anyway) with democratic governance?

This is a country, let us not forget, that has a monarchy, and an unelected upper chamber (the House of Lords) and probably the most undemocratic electoral system in the world, where the present government was elected by only 24% of the voters. A nation with a history of supressing national democracy in other lands, during the Empire days, and one that has overthrown foreign democratically elected governments, in Iran for example, when they refuse to do our bidding.

Hypocrisy perhaps? Or just good old fashioned using arguments that suit your agenda at that time? By Friday we will know whether the British people have been fooled by this line of argument. I do hope not.  

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