The EU’s democratic deficit

Next month we’ll be voting (well, about a third of us will) for MEPs to represent us in the European Parliament. Here in Yorkshire and Humber, we send 6 elected representatives to the EU after voting under a system of proportional representation. But what do MEPs do, and how much power do they have?

MEPs are elected for five year terms, but the power they have is actually quite limited. The cannot propose or draft new legislation or implement or enforce existing legislation. This role is reserved for the European Commission. MEPs are limited to amending or blocking legislation proposed by the Commission, and under certain circumstances can ask the Commission to prepare proposals for new legislation (although the Commission can refuse the request).

So if MEPs don’t have much power, where does power in the EU sit? The late Tony Benn famously set out five questions for powerful people:

  1. What power do you have?
  2. Where did you get it?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How can we get rid of you?

Applied to the European Commission, it could be concluded that they actually have rather a lot of power. As the executive body within the EU, they have the sole power to propose and draft legislation in a number of areas.

There are 28 Commissioners (one for each member state), one of whom is the president who is proposed by the European Council (which is made up of the heads of government of the member states). MEPs then vote to approve the person who has been proposed for president (currently Jose Manuel Barroso). The European Council then appoints the remaining 27 Commissioners, and MEPs then get a vote on whether or not to approve the whole Commission. The can’t vote to oust an individual Commissioner, and can only object to the whole Commission (they have never done this). Do they get their power from EU citizens then? Not really. Their power is bestowed on them by the heads of government’s of each member state.

They are not required to act in the interests of their home country. On the contrary. They are obliged to act in the interests of the EU as a whole. Who decides what is in the interests of the EU? Partly the Commission themselves!

Commissioners are nominally accountable to MEPs who have the power to hold a vote of no confidence on the Commission as a whole. This has never been used though, and an individual Commissioner cannot be sacked. They are definitely not accountable to you and me, although the legislation they propose and draft must be implemented by the member states if voted through by the European Parliament.

How can we as citizens get rid of a Commissioner? We can’t!

The EU as currently constituted is not democratic at all. MEPs have little real power, and could 73 people actually properly represent the whole of the UK even if they did? For Eurozone members, it’s even worse. Recent years have seen democratic governments in Greece and Italy ousted and replaced by unelected technocrats, and incredible pressure to subvert domestic democracy has been placed on Ireland, Cyprus and Portugal.

People on the left in the UK often seem quite happy with this democratic deficit because they like certain social protections that have resulted from EU legislation – protections they fear would be removed if they were left to member states. I think this just demonstrates a lack of confidence in their ability to argue their case and a lack of faith in the public to come together to vote out those that want to roll back those protections. It would be much better if national governments did have power over this kind of legislation where the answers to Tony Benn’s questions 4 and 5 could be “Us!” and “Easily!”




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