First things first, let us establish the definitions of what we are discussing. This is important as while everyone knows what these mean they can be used in questionable contexts.
Sovereignty – Supreme power or authority. A self-governing state.
Democracy – A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
A common claim about the EU is that it is undemocratic and while the EU is not a sovereign state, it is democratic. The UK, however, is a sovereign state and could be argued to be less democratic than the EU but that will be looked at later.
So, if the EU is democratic, how is it democratic and why should you believe me. The European Union has 28 members. Each elected head of state, be that Prime Minister, President, or Chancellor, make up the European Council which sets the priorities of the EU for a time, usually 6 months.
So far so good.
This priority is then given to the European Commission. Here is where claims of undemocratic behaviour begin. See the Commission is not elected by the public, it is appointed by the elected officials within the Union, such as heads of state and MEPs. The Commission looks into the priority it was given and comes up with a proposal, sometimes drafting a law or regulation, which it submits to the European Parliament, European Council, and the Council of Europe.
The European Parliament is the chamber for all 751 MEPs elected across Europe every 5 years. The UK has 73 MEPs. (The next election is in 2019).
The Council of Europe is a changing body of elected officials from each member state that are ministers of the relevant area of priority. So if the European Council thought certain trade regulations needed to be altered the Treasurers for each of the 28 members would form the Council. If the priority was about funding of art galleries it would be each members minister for culture.
The Commission itself can not vote on laws or pass laws by itself, it merely interprets the will of the elected officials, just like the Civil Service in Britain. More on the comparison of EU to UK governance later.
When a proposal is presented to the 3 elected bodies of the EU, European Parliament, European Council, and Council of Europe, democracy follows in the usual fashion. Your elected officials debate the pros and cons of the bill with occasional witty remarks and insults. The proposal can be sent back to the Commission for further work or will be voted on there and then. If the vote is over 50% the bill is passed. Sounds democratic to me.
On top of this, if you as a European citizen wish to make a recommendation to the Commission you can! Through the European Citizens’ Initiative, which works in similar fashion to the Petition Parliament website in the UK, any EU citizen can begin a petition for the Commission to look into and, if they think it requires legislation, will propose something to the 3 elected bodies to discuss and possibly legislation will follow. Successful counts of this are listed on the ECI site but the one I distinctly remember is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s FishFight. The aim was to alter EU policy regarding fishing quotas which had resulted in 50% of caught fish needing to be thrown back into the ocean, dead. FishFight was successful and the throwing back of caught fish is now banned. While this was a massive campaign it does show change can happen within the EU through the influence of its citizens.
But how does all of this compare to the UK system of governance? The UK has 2 main bodies that vote on legislation. The House of Commons and The House of Lords. Only the Commons is elected. The Lords are hereditary titles, bishops, and those who have earned titles through their career can also be in Lords. But it isn’t elected. Thus, arguably, undemocratic because not everyone can stand to be a member of it and no one votes on who occupies the seats in Lords. Both chambers debate and vote on laws while Lords spends about 40% of its time scrutinising the government and the Commons is the only one that can propose laws. So while it is unelected it has its benefits. On a measure of democracy, it is however lacking.
The drafting of laws and bulk of governance is delegated to the Civil Service, an unelected body of officials, the highest members of which are appointed by elected MPs. This is equivalent to the European Commission. An unelected body that interprets the will of Parliament and carries it out making sure it goes ahead as planned and drafts the laws on which to be debated and voted upon.
At this point they seem fairly similar, there is just one extra the UK has in its legal body. And that is the Queen. Okay so many would argue Her Majesty is a figurehead that has no real power, well that is not true. She has real power, our current monarch simply does not utilise all but the ceremonial parts or her power. The Queen’s very real powers are as follows; summon and suspend parliament, appoint and dismiss members of the Cabinet (including the Prime Minister) at any point, declare war, issue Royal Pardons, she is Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces, is required to sign in every law, and can veto any she does not like (though the last monarch to do so was Queen Anne in 1708). Oh and she is above the law so no criminal or civil case can be brought against her.
This is not an attempt to turn you into republicans, nor is it an attempt to convince you to vote to remain in the EU, though you should give a damn close look at why we should stay. Every system has its benefits and negatives whatever the level of democracy, which may very well be a future post. The aim is to inform you of the system of governance in the EU.
Sovereignty needs slightly less space. The UK is a sovereign state, the EU is not. In fact the EU is pretty much just an assortment of treaties that all member states have decided to stick to and in other times defer to over their own law. This isn’t a breach of sovereignty but a use of that sovereignty to say, democratically, we think this single law should form the basis for us all instead of us all saying different things in an attempt to make the political process easier. We do not lose sovereignty to Europe we gain it there by being a part of it. Everything the EU does has been agreed or at least voted on by UK MEPs and then whether the UK does it is agreed by our Parliament. We don’t have less sovereignty in the European Union we have influence within Europe.
Any errors, suggestions, or topics you would like to see discussed please leave a (preferably polite) comment below. Thank you.