Fact-Check: Is The EU Undemocratic?

This is one of the biggest points of contention in the Brexit debate, particularly amongst Remain voters, oddly enough — is the EU democratic, or isn’t it?

Note: I’m addressing the question “Does the EU have flaws rendering it undemocratic?” here, not “Does Britain get outvoted in the EU a lot?”. They’re two entirely different questions.

So Is It Undemocratic?

I couldn’t come up with an absolute answer to this given the time available and the fact that I’m not a scholar of EU democratic institutions. See below for my opinion of the efforts of anyone else claiming to have solved the problem.

The EU’s democracy has some problems. If you’re comparing the EU setup to the UK’s government, my research left me with the conclusion it was extremely hard to show that one was more democratic than the other.

To take just one example: the EU Commission is unelected. However, so is the House of Lords. The EU Commission, though, can propose laws, and no other branch of the EU can — but they can be asked to do so by Parliament, and they appear to very rarely refuse ( I couldn’t find an example of them doing so ), so that’s not so much of an issue. The Commission is appointed by a collection of democratically appointed people, which the House of Lords ain’t. It’s led and appointed by a democratically-appointed President. And it’s approved by the European Parliament after intense scrutiny, which, again, the House of Lords ain’t. And, but, and, but, and …

Overall, this entire exercise left me with two conclusions.

Firstly, there is no obviously compelling evidence that the EU is dangerously undemocratic compared to the UK. It has problems in some areas of its democracy, but so does the UK. And the problems in both cases appear to be about the same in number.

In the EU’s case, the key issues appear to be the European Commission’s unelected status, lack of transparency in certain areas (although this is improving) and low turnout in European Parliament elections. In contrast, key issues in UK democracy are the First Past The Post system and the unelected House of Lords.

Secondly, this exercise left me with very serious doubts on whether anyone who claims to know the absolute answer to the question “is the EU less democratic than the UK?” actually does know the answer — excepting academics whose specialism is the comparative democratic institutions of the EU and the UK. (Note that I do not assume most MEPs would be able to answer all these questions without looking them up. )

Below, numbered 1–10, is a shortlist of the questions that I present directly from the the International Democracy Watch’s checklist of democratic indicators.

If anyone claiming to know whether the EU is undemocratic or not isn’t able to answer all those questions below, they probably don’t actually have enough knowledge to make that call.

Note: remember that each of these questions applies to each of the branches of the government you’re trying to evaluate. For example, in Point 5, each of those questions must be separately applied to the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Council, and the European Court of Justice (and any relevant UK branches, if one is comparing the democracy of the UK and EU).

1. Appointment

How are key officials appointed or elected, and what is the agency’s governance structure (single-headed agency, multi-headed commission, self-regulatory organization, etc.)? Who can belong to the institution — only states, or also nongovernmental actors? Does a parliamentary body exist? Are its members directly elected by people or are they representatives of national parliaments? In the former case, are the election[s] free? Do free (private and/or public) mass media exist making citizens aware of government alternatives?

2. Democracy at the national level

Democracy in the context of the nation-state represents a necessary condition for international democracy; this indicator reflects therefore to what extent the member states of an international organization are democratic.

3. Input legitimacy

Does a civil society exist, organized at the institution’s level and articulating the poli[ti]cal demand? How developed is it? Is it autonomo[u]s from public powers and from market forces? How is it funded? How is it organized? Do political parties exist, organized at the institution’s level and aggregating the political demand? To what extent are they autonomous from national parties? Is decision-making process managed according with formalized and observed rules?

4. Participation

This indicator describes citizens’ ability to influence and participate in decision-making. Are citizens entitled with the right to address petitions and with the right of legislative initiative? Are they consulted through referenda or through public hearings conceived to amplify their voice? If a civil society and political parties organized at the institution’s level exist, what is their role in decision-making? Is a consultative status for NGOs, associations, trade unions provided? Tho what extent can citizens participate in the life of political parties and influence their positions? To what extent are women involved in political elections and in organization’s institutions and bodies?

5. Control

This indicator reflects whether citizens and civil society are able to control the political authority of the monitored organization. Can citizens appraise whether their representatives implement the mandate according to which they are elected? The answer implies the evaluation of transparency in decision-making process: are documents and acts produced by the political authority freely available to the public opinion? Are bodies required to publish reasons for their decisions and are these reasons widely accessible? Are involved interests granted in their possibility to access to information? Do independent mass media exist? If a parliamentary body exists, can it exercise effective control powers on organization’s bodies, e.g. through questions and parliamentary enquiries? Is parliament competent on all issues managed by the executive power? Can it apply to a court when it finds that a decision produced by governing bodies is against law?

6. Inter-state democracy

This indicator reflects the quality of member states’ participation in the decision-making of the monitored organization. Does a body representing states exist? What is its relationship with an eventual legislative body? Are states represented according to the sovereign equality principle, with the same powers in decision-making process (one country-one vote), or decision-making is based on weighted-voting? What are the rilevant principles for the weighted-voting? Does a corrispondence exist between states representation and power relationships, and to what extent the two elements are at variance? Power relations give birth to a balance of power or to a unipolarism involving one or more countries?

7. Supranationalism

Supranationalism means that citizens’ general interests, rather than states’ interest, are the point of reference for the political authority. If a legislative body exists, does it have legislative powers? Are rules approved by the organization directly applyable and enforceable in the member states’ legal order? Does a supranational executive power exist and what are its powers and competences? How is it composed and which principles regulate the composition-process? What is its relationship with the legislative body? If the organization has a secretariat, to what extent is it independent from member states and what are its powers and competences? Does a jurisdictional body exist and how is it composed? What are its competences? Are its decisions binding and how are they implemented? Does a central bank exist, independent from member states? What are its competences? Does a common currency exist and how is it managed? Are norms and decisions enforced through supranational police forces or through member states’ executive powers? Does the organization have a legal status? Does it have the power to interfere within the domestic jurisdiction of member states, e.g. when gross violations of human rights occur? Is this power concretely exercised?

8. Power limitation

This indicator reflects the availability of checks and balances between the organization’s powers. Does a separation between executive, legislative and jurisdictional powers exist? Are executive power’s acts submitted to the control of a court, and what is the power of the latter in this context? E.g., can it block an act or does it only produce advisory opinions? Does a clear division between the powers of states on the one hand, and the organizations’ ones on the other exist?

9. Human rights

An everlasting relation links directly and indirectly democracy and human rights: indeed, civil and political rights are constitutive elements of democracy, while there is a biunivocal relation between the latter and economic, social and cultural rights. Therefore, this indicator reflects the extent to which human rights are recognized and enforced at the supranational level. Do human rights documents exist, produced by or in force at the level of the monitored organization? Are they binding or political documents? To what extent are they obeyed and perceived as binding by member states? Are these documents directed only to states or to their citizens and non-governmental actors (NGOs, corporations…) too? How many countries have ratified these documents? How can be judged the reservations put by states in signing the documents? How can be evaluated the range of protected rights, e.g. in comparison with the UN Treaty on Civil and Political Rights, or the UN Treaty on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? In particular, the documents provide only civil and political rights, or economic, social and cultural rights as well, or even third generation rights? How developed is the machinery for protecting rights? Is its nature only political, or quasi-jurisdictional or jurisdictional? Are human rights executed? Is the organization equipped with an executive mechanism with reference to human rights? Are these machineries effectively used and considered as effective protection instruments? Are extra-jurisdictional mechanisms for human rights protection provided (e.g. an ombudsman) and what are their power and competences? Are their decisions efficacious and do their observations get results by organization’s authorities? Do they find an answer by authorities and are they applied by them? Do a common passport and a common citizenship (which can be complementary to the national ones) exist? Are a criminal law and a criminal jurisdiction provided in the framework of the monitored organization?

10. Output legitimacy

This indicator reflects the quality of organization’s output, describing to what extent it corresponds to the competences and the objectives accorded to it by member states and citizens. In other words, it is about the organization’s capability to provide effective solutions in order to gain the legitimacy by its member states and citizens. Does the organization concretely perform its constitutional functions? With what degree of success? In particular, what is the role played by the organization in promoting democracy inside its member states?

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One person’s attempt to fact-check all the claims coming from both Brexit camps

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