The European Union is an affront to democracy! Or so, for over half a century, British Eurosceptics have been telling us.
Whether their target has been the European Communities or the EU that came into being in 1993 following the Maastricht Treaty, the cry has been the same throughout: the laws ‘imposed’ on us from Brussels lack democratic legitimacy.
For a while, however, one half of the choir has been muted. Since 1988, when the European Commission president Jacques Delors – aided by Margaret Thatcher’s growing hostility to him – convinced the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party to EU-turn, the defenders of democracy have been largely confined to the Tories, and the various ‘independence’ parties that have sprung up to their right. But now, following the humiliation of European socialism’s great red hope in Greece by the so-called troika – the Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – some on the left are looking at Brussels with renewed suspicion.
Little more than a year ago Owen Jones, at the Guardian, sank to calling Angela Merkel ‘the most monstrous European leader of this generation’. For what reason? Because the German chancellor had ‘demanded that Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, ignore his democratic mandate and stick to foreign-imposed austerity measures.’ (Note the imposition.) Six months later, Jones was warning that
even outside the eurozone, our [Britain’s] democracy is threatened. The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), typically negotiated by the EU in secret with corporate interests, threatens a race to the-bottom in environmental and other standards. Even more ominously, it would give large corporations the ability to sue elected governments to try to stop them introducing policies that supposedly hit their profit margins, whatever their democratic mandate.
That invocation of TTIP is a recurrent feature of the growing left critique of the EU. The anti-globalisation movement – which takes a rather less benign view of the supranational extension of corporate protections than it does of Delors’ Social Chapter – is stirring to resist the latest round of US-led trade deals (TTIP’s companion, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was signed early last month). Reluctant Bremainer George Monbiot argues that ‘These claim to be trade treaties, but they are nothing of the kind. Their purpose is to place issues in which we have a valid and urgent interest beyond the reach of democratic politics.’ This has spurred the right-on reverend Giles Fraser, who believes in ‘people’s democracy’, to go one step further than his Guardian stablemate and come out for Brexit, because ‘the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you. The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.’ As union leaders used to say, before they started attending swanky meetings in Brussels, it’s a bosses’ club.
So the awkward left is again chiming with the awkward right, the latter including Peter Oborne (‘Over the past few decades the European Commission has worked hard to abolish what we in Britain have traditionally regarded as democratic politics’), UKIP (‘Farage denounces new European Commission as “the enemy of the very concept of democracy”’) and Simon Heffer, who sees the EU as ‘deeply undemocratic and economically spavined’.
Well then, democracy must have been most grievously affronted. Not only have generations of Britons been made to toil under the yoke of laws ‘imposed’ on them as a result of the various treaties their elected governments have signed up to since 1972, now Greece is ‘forced’ to accept the strictures of a currency union that most Greek voters refuse to give up. How enviously the shades of Hitler and Stalin must look on the modern-day tyrants who occupy the Berlaymont.
Something that often goes unsaid, and certainly unquestioned, among the defenders of democracy is the democratic standard by which the EU should be judged. The implication of the supposed affront is that law-making in Brussels lacks the legitimacy of legislation passed at Westminster. But given that a fully-fledged EU democracy – a United States of Europe with a directly elected President Blair – is the stuff of Eurosceptics’ nightmares, there are, unsurprisingly, few calls to open more EU bodies to balloting. And quite right too: as long as Europe lacks a common popular culture – a demos – it will never build a functioning democracy.
So if the EU bears limited comparison with a democratic nation state, how about comparing similar with similar? How does the EU measure up to the many other international organisations created in the twentieth century?
In short, it beats all comers. No other major association of nations – the UN, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank, the Arab League, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or the Council of Europe – can point to similar democratic credentials. Why? Because at no point in its existence has the EU admitted a dictatorship, or other authoritarian regime. There is nothing in its history to compare with the ignominy of Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights, nor could there be.
In June 1993, with the future integration of former Eastern Bloc countries one of the key challenges facing the union, the European Council agreed the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ for accession. These effectively enshrined the determination to guard against nationalism, totalitarianism and militarism that had underpinned the European project since the Hague Congress of 1948. With the exception of the goal of ‘political, economic and monetary union’, they describe a mature liberal democracy.
This is the central fact of the EU: it’s a democracies club. Indeed, so foundational is its commitment to democracy that the observation has become unremarkable. This would not, however, have been the case for those who gathered at The Hague after World War II, or for those surveying a post-Soviet Europe from Denmark in 1993. Nor, one may suppose, is it banal to the ‘monstrous’ Angela Merkel, who has some experience of life in what we once called the Second World.
And yet – the defenders of democracy cry – unelected eurocrats are running roughshod over the very freedoms they purport to uphold!
Here is the great tension that has bedevilled the European project from the outset: How to integrate in the absence of a single electorate? An effective EU requires powerful supranational institutions, but opening these to elections would make them less effective – and put them at odds with the union’s constituent governments.
In fact, power in Europe still resides, in the main, with elected national governments, as the primacy of the European Council in David Cameron’s recent re-negotiation amply demonstrates. It is the democratically-installed leaders of the member states who determine major change, and it is national ministers, through the Council of the European Union, who have the greatest sway over the passage of legislation (in conjunction with the, ahem, directly elected European Parliament). As for the much-reviled Commission that proposes said legislation, not only is it chosen by national governments, it can be thrown out by MEPs – as was the fate of the Santer Commission in 1999. Even the European Court of Justice (ECJ) can claim some democratic legitimacy: its members too are appointed by the member states – arguably a more ‘democratic’ arrangement than that which peoples the UK’s own Supreme Court.
Yet Brexiters tell us this is undemocratic. And to prove it many of them like to invoke that unimpeachable parliamentarian Tony Benn (as if that’s a proven clincher with the voters). Here are some Benn mots courtesy of Giles Fraser: ‘we live in a continent where increasingly power has gone to a group of people who are not elected, cannot be removed and don’t have to listen to us’. Écoutez-vous, Monsieur Santer?
But hang on – I hear you objecting – isn’t the title of this article ‘Reasons to be leaving’?
Quite. Although the affronted overstate their case – contra the Daily Mail the EU does not ‘hate’ democracy – European law-making evidently suffers from serious questions of accountability and legitimacy.
An appointed executive should be regarded as, at best, a necessary evil. And even those EU bodies composed of elected politicians lack convincing mandates for their decisions. Turnout for the 2014 European election set a new low of 42.5 per cent; while the double-majority system in the Council of the EU – under which new laws need the support of 55 per cent of member states representing 65 per cent of EU citizens – still means that legislation can be passed by ministers who collectively have the backing of less than a third of Europe’s voters. (Consider: the UK makes up almost 13 per cent of the EU population so HM Government enjoys the third most powerful vote, but wielded by politicians whose party attracted the support of less than a quarter of the electorate at last year’s general election.)
This is why the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is so crucial. With such weak democratic underpinnings, the wielding of power by the EU needs to be restricted to areas where national parliaments are unable to act effectively – where supranational solutions are required. Moreover, these must be substantial matters that all member states agree ought to be within the competences of the union; the mere existence of a continent-wide problem should not, of itself, be sufficient justification for EU action.
Many Brexiters take the view that Brussels long ago stopped paying more than lip service to subsidiarity. Whereas the braver pro-Europeans claim that the EU’s powers are still inadequate; insufficient to tackle the threats posed by the usual suspects of climate change, organised crime, terrorism and multinational corporations. I’m in no position to judge, although Boris Johnson’s objection to legal activism at the ECJ – set out in greater detail here, by Mrs Boris – strikes me as one of the less paranoiac critiques of the eurocracy.
Another key plank in the defenders’ case is the opacity of the EU. There can be no true scrutiny and accountability without transparency, but the Commission’s committee system is so byzantine it has given rise to a term reminiscent of Cold War Kremlinology: comitology. And the resulting impression of orchestrated secrecy is made worse by the disinterest of the UK media and public. Healthy government depends on pushy journalism, but Europe’s fourth estate remains rooted in national markets – which is no surprise given the media is an outcropping of culture and there is, as yet, no common EU culture.
Even so, there are reporters and activists working on TTIP, and Brussels has yielded a goodly number of memorable stories in its time, from the butter mountains and the wine lakes to Boris’s less reliable French letters. And it’s not altogether surprising that a bureaucracy that is little more than sixty years old has its flaws; Whitehall only buckled to freedom of information in 2000. Unless it can be proven that the Commission is becoming inexorably more secretive, transparency isn’t a compelling reason to be leaving.
On the contrary, the many forces currently pushing the EU toward a leaner, more accountable future may yet be successful. Europe’s mainstream political parties have been given a motive for reform by the various Eurocritical insurgents snapping at their heels; the European Parliament has shown itself evermore ready to exert pressure on the Commission; the ECJ’s activism can be checked by the appointment of constitutional conservatives, and has long faced a doughty opponent in the form of Germany’s Constitutional Court; and David Cameron’s re-negotiation might inspire other national leaders to pursue similar agendas. A likely irony of a Leave vote is that Brexit could occur at the very moment the EU begins to head in a direction most British voters would welcome.
Not that such reform will silence the defenders. So long as Britons regard themselves as an electorate apart the cry that the EU is an affront to democracy will continue to ring true; Brussels will continue to ‘impose’ on us.
Which brings me to the S word.
On 22 February, following the prime minister’s Commons statement on the agreement reached at the European Council, Boris Johnson asked ‘in exactly what way this deal returns sovereignty over any field of law-making to these Houses of Parliament?’ Arguably Cameron gave the wisest (that is to say, the most political) answer in listing the areas in which the British government’s freedom of action will be widened and the EU’s powers limited – or ‘repatriated’, as it’s sometimes put. How joyous it would have been, however, to see him humble le grand blond by taking aim at the sovereignty canard.
That Parliament retains ultimate sovereignty over British law was proven the moment the European Union Referendum Act 2015 gained Royal Assent on 17 December last year. Unlike Scotland (which required a temporary transfer of power from Westminster to hold 2014’s independence vote) and Catalonia (whose so-called referendum the same year was rebranded a ‘citizen participation process’, after a legal challenge from Madrid, and still ran up against Spain’s Constitutional Court), the United Kingdom has had to petition no other state (or superstate) to decide on where its future lies.
We are free to stay within the democracies club, abiding by the treaty obligations this entails, or to seek an alternative future outside it – a choice that will bring its own, as yet unknown, treaties. EU membership may limit government action in some areas, and enjoin Parliament to accept legislation it would otherwise vote down, but this is not a loss of sovereignty. So long as our participation is willing – a free acceptance of the costs in exchange for the putative benefits – then we are sovereign.
That many believe otherwise, that the narrative of imposition runs so deep is in large degree a failing of the EU’s friends.
An irony of the UK’s first European referendum in 1975 is that it vindicated the two politicians most hostile to it: Roy Jenkins, who resigned the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in reaction to Harold Wilson taking up the idea, and Edward Heath, who regarded it as ‘abhorrent’. Both were elitists; they mistrusted plebiscites because they saw direct democracy as closer to mob rule than the wisdom of crowds. Yet the man and woman in the street backed the European vision of Britain’s future by a greater margin than had their enlightened representatives in the Commons.
There was a lesson here, but it was not the pro-Europeans who learned it: eight years later the architect of the referendum, Tony Benn, went into the 1983 general election still committed to withdrawal, but by now Labour had decided against putting the final decision to the public. So much for ‘people’s democracy’.
The EU’s legitimacy problem lies not in the imperfections of its institutions, but in the reluctance of successive pro-Europeans to renew its mandate with the people. Had the Single European Act of 1986, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the Lisbon Treaty of 2007 been ratified via referendums, the constitutional space which the defenders of democracy have occupied would have been far smaller, and their ranks much thinner.
Instead, as the prime minister put it to the European Council, the matter of Britain’s place in Europe has been allowed to fester. So the country is once again faced with the fundamental dilemma of bodging democracy for supposed greater gains. The questions we ought to be asking, therefore, are the basic ones: Is the EU sufficiently democratic? Does it really bring benefits beyond the individual reach of its members? (This, surely, being the proper test of any treaty.) And do we share its ultimate supranational ambition?
The answer to the first is clearly ‘must try harder’. The second looks like the stock-in-trade of future history faculties; it’s difficult to believe the current debate will produce a definitive answer. The third is, in my view, yet to be asked. Thus the case for making a ‘leap into the dark’, as Bremainers put it, is not entirely compelling: it is unclear that what we are being asked to leap from is oh-so terrible.
Except that the argument for a Leave vote looks rather stronger if one believes the deal David Cameron reached with his fellow European leaders is not, in fact, ‘take us or leave us’.
When Boris Johnson appeared to suggest that a majority for Leave will result not in immediate preparation for Brexit but instead in a further round of negotiation followed by a second referendum, pro-Europeans immediately jumped on the London mayor for concocting yet another ‘Euro- myth’. Here, it was suggested, was the evidence par excellence that Boris is ‘an utter, utter, utter fraud and mendacious trickster’; a man who places his own ambition before the national interest; a political ‘phoney’ who will use his supposed charisma to hoodwink the voters into thinking leave does not always mean go. (Conversely, some long-standing opponents of the EU regard his comments as a potential trap: the opening up of a fall-back option for a pro-European establishment uncertain it can scare the electorate into line first time around.)
Having edited Sonia Purnell’s forensic biography of the mayor, Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition (Aurum Press, 2011), I struggle to disagree with Nick Cohen’s view that ‘Johnson bears few resemblances to Churchill, and far too many to Winston’s shifty sidekick Brendan Bracken’; Boris’s prime motive for backing Leave is surely that of furthering his ambition to become prime minister. But this is not to say I think he’s wrong about a second vote.
To win both the Tory leadership race and a subsequent general election, Boris must not only maintain his support among Eurosceptics but also emerge from the referendum on the right side of history. As a wily man, who has a surer understanding of European politics than most, he is presumably gambling that when faced with rejection the EU will stay true to form and re-negotiate.
The Remain side have reacted so vituperatively to this element of his position because it undermines a keystone of their strategy: 23 June must be seen as a ‘make or break’ moment – ‘Project Fear’ would be far less scary if the voters thought they might get to change their minds. But as with the stern warnings sounded during the Scottish independence referendum that Britain would never share the pound, it doesn’t bear much scrutiny.
Following every major setback in the EU’s history, certainly every rejection by a national electorate, Europe has returned to the table – or at least made a show of doing so. Indeed, Britain set the precedent, with the general elections of 1974. Even if the ‘fundamental re-negotiation of the terms of entry’ promised in Labour’s February manifesto fell short of its own billing, the Wilson government’s gains were not quite as ‘cosmetic’ as they have since been portrayed. Concessions were made on literal bread and butter issues, such as imports of sugar (which had been in short supply), the price of beef, and New Zealand dairy. There were also early steps toward Margaret Thatcher’s much-vaunted rebate and the prospect of generous hand-outs from the newly established Regional Development Fund; while the Lomé Convention of February 1975 secured a timely trade and aid deal for much of the Commonwealth (then, a key concern in British politics). Although the ink on the Treaty of Accession was barely two years dry, the Communities were prepared to help the British save face.
It would be two decades before Europe was troubled by a comparable instance of cold feet, but age and size had not made what was then still the EC obviously more unbending. When the Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the European Council came up with the Edinburgh Agreement, granting Denmark four substantial opt-outs, which subsequently secured a yes vote in a second referendum the following year.
Nine years on it was the Irish putting a spanner in the works, stalling the Treaty of Nice. This resulted in the largely symbolic Seville Declarations of June 2002, whereby the Irish government and the EU Council solemnly affirmed that the union had no power (which it did not) to compel Ireland into military action. A few months later Ireland returned to the polls. Spotting a pattern?
Since then Europe’s electorates have become ever less pliant. In 2005 the European Constitution foundered on referendums in France and the Netherlands. When it re-emerged, as the less contentious (because more impenetrable) Lisbon Treaty, it was again delayed by the Irish, who had presumably learned lessons from 2002 as they were subsequently granted legal guarantees relating to taxation, defence, education, the family and the right to life, as well as the retention of an Irish commissioner.
Of course none of these votes, except Britain’s in 1975, were on the issue of membership. But ponder this: if Europe’s second largest economy and leading military power voted to leave, does anything in the EU’s history suggest the other member states would blithely refuse to re-open negotiations to secure a different result?
Bremainers claim, understandably, that Brexit would endanger Britain’s long-term prosperity, but are generally less vocal about the risks posed to the rest of the EU. A precedent for de-accession (no, Greenland doesn’t count) should be cause for concern in itself, but for it to be set by Britain could be calamitous.
The UK is not troubled Greece, nor is it a small Scandinavian country jealous of its fishing rights; we are, at least in European terms, a great power. The departure of a G7 economy could have serious consequences for the union, in particular for the still precarious euro-zone. More than anything else, however, it is the historical symbolism of Brexit that ought to be keeping Europe’s leaders awake at night.
Nationalist Eurosceptics are quick to mention the war when lambasting the EU. It provides the origin story for a vision of Britain as a plucky, stubborn, freedom-loving island that would be better off keeping those troublesome continentals at arm’s length – rather like the Shire inhabited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits. But Britain’s record in modern European history is not altogether irrelevant. Fascism and communism were the twentieth-century nightmares against which the European project was conceived – and Britain played leading roles in resisting both. In many parts of Europe, particularly the east, the names Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher still conjure ideals of political freedom; the spectacle of their compatriots deciding that the EU no longer offers them a safer future could deal the project a profound psychological blow, just as it faces a rising tide of populist scepticism from both the nationalist right and the anti-austerity left. With a French presidential election due next year, presumably one of the principal winners from Brexit would be Marine Le Pen; others could be Alternative für Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party, or the new Law and Justice government in Poland.
Thus Boris has both history and political reality on his side: leave probably doesn’t mean go.
Should the Eurosceptics win on 23 June, they will call for an immediate repeal of the European Communities Act of 1972, or some other parliamentary commitment to bidding adieu to Brussels. But set against them will be a pro-European majority in the House of Commons and an EU suddenly eager to enter a new round of talks. At this point one of the more prominent Brexiters might come over all statesmanlike and back further negotiations, arguing that Europe should be given one last chance to change its ways. Who knows, he might even give the resulting deal a big, blond nod.
By which time, it is to be hoped, we will have some idea of what a good deal looks like.
Since Cameron returned from the continent, metaphorically waving his piece of paper, ‘the UK’s special status in the EU’ has supplanted ‘the long-term economic plan’ at #1 in the soundbite parade – yet that’s really all it is. The prime minister’s negotiations have resulted in a British exemption from ‘ever closer union’, but not from the law-making process that drives it forward. He has won some modest restrictions on EU citizens’ benefit entitlements. And non-euro countries will be given more explicit legal protection against further integration in the euro-zone (or, more bluntly put, a guarantee of business as usual for the banks). But this is not a ‘new settlement for Britain in Europe’, to use the language of the 2015 Conservative election manifesto; it is a ‘settling for’.
As Jeremy Corbyn rightly observed, the prime minister’s re-negotiation was ‘a theatrical sideshow’, aimed at placating wavering outers in the Conservative Party. Like Wilson in 1974-5, Cameron has pursued a quickie deal that enables him to bury the referendum early in this parliament; to do otherwise would have left too little time for his party’s wounds to heal over before the forthcoming Tory leadership race, and the general election in 2020. But whereas Wilson gambled that the public would be won over on trade, food prices and a better deal for the Commonwealth, Cameron has staked Britain’s future in the EU on taking away benefits from foreign workers and children (to paraphrase the current Labour leader). Possibly migration is 2016’s sugar?
The whole affair has been nakedly cynical. No wonder the subsequent campaign has so quickly descended into scaremongering. With Cameron unwilling to challenge his own party’s belief in the sovereignty myth – thus ruling out a view of EU law as a joint enterprise, not an imposition – the best strategy left to the government is to present Europe as the least dangerous of all possible futures. Freedom is most easily bought with security, after all.
Perhaps the prime minister is wise to adopt the role of the reluctant European, though. The case for the democracies club is not an easy one to make. Forty years ago, when some Britons believed they were living in ‘the sick man of Europe’, the then EEC offered access to Germany’s post-war economic miracle – today it is the euro-zone that is ailing. More profoundly, there was in 1975 a shared revulsion at the continent’s recent past: the struggle against Hitlerism, and the hungry years that followed, were closer to that Britain than Wilson’s referendum is to ours. But those horrors are now just a folk memory; as, indeed, the experience of the Cold War is also becoming.
A project as grand as the EU deserves eloquent champions: politicians with the philosophy, wit and nerve to construct arguments that soar above GDP and the European Arrest Warrant. Quite possibly such arguments would hover majestically for but a moment and then come crashing earthward, the idea of a federal Europe exposed as the elite folly its naysayers claim it to be. But in the process the voters would, at least, have been presented with a truthful choice of destinies, not harangued into believing the referendum is primarily an economic question. If their decision were to leave, that Britain somehow no longer fitted, so be it. C’est la démocratie.
As it is, Cameron has set up a false choice. And though he will likely win it, there will be no truce in the Tory Party.
The current referendum campaign probably represents British Euroscepticism’s high-water mark, but it is not the last hurrah. Soon after the vote to remain, a narrative of betrayal will take hold of the Conservative right (as happened on the Labour left in the late 1970s), and Britain will quickly resume its habitual role as the EU’s principal contrarian. Due to the ‘referendum lock’ in the European Union Act 2011, however, the wait until the next vote will be far shorter than thirty-nine years.
So why not bring it forward?
Britain will never settle the issue of its place in Europe until one side of the Tory Party triumphs over the other. For this to happen, the question of the EU’s democratic legitimacy requires a definitive answer. That means testing the limits of the other member states’ readiness to reform, but also forcing Conservative pro-Europeans to make a case for integration that goes beyond economics to present afresh the underpinning ideals of the project; to explain that Europe is not just a common market, but a common destiny.
To date our politicians have shown themselves unwilling to grasp that nettle. Or perhaps they are inadequate to the task. Either way, unless they rise to the level of events before 23 June, vote Leave – because this referendum is an affront to democracy.