Life as a Politics teacher has been somewhat challenging over the past couple of months, with seemingly everybody you meet asking you for your well-reasoned standpoint on the impending EU referendum. However, despite reading widely, talking to many colleagues and friends, watching endless panel debates online and even teaching an entire year group about the arguments on both sides of the fray, I have been struggling to make up my mind as to which side to back.
The economic arguments for remaining in the single market appear convincing, yet the lack of ability to set up a system of sustainable migration is frustrating. I am by nature an internationalist – I have travelled to 31 countries so far, with two new countries lined up for this summer – yet see international cooperation as very different to being integrated in a pan-European state. The logic behind the ‘pooled’ sovereignty argument makes sense, yet I fear for our parliamentary sovereignty. So which way to go? Does one stick with the status quo or leap into the unknown? After much internal debate and conflict, the conclusion for me is clear: I will be voting to leave on June 23rd. I shall now aim to outline why.
Any student of Politics will tell you that political systems around the world tend to be made of up three branches: the executive (‘the government’), the legislature (parliament/congress) and the judiciary (the supreme court). The European Union is no different with its European Commission, European Parliament and European Court of Justice. It even has its own a flag, anthem and currency (this should end any arguments that the European Union isn’t a form of super-state). The only thing that the European Union is lacking to become a fully-fledged state is a common fiscal policy (tax-raising powers) and a constitution (though the 2007 Lisbon Treaty rescued many aspects of the EU constitution which rejected via referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005). This is no secret or a right-wing fantasy; this is the vision of a federal Europe that is still openly supported amongst European leaders, not least in France and Italy. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, is a devoted federalist. Perhaps the notion of a democratic, federal Europe is not very controversial to many Brits, and I accept this. Many people might support this notion of political harmonisation in the ever more complicated world we live in. However, the fatal flaw at the heart of the European project (and thus the ‘Remain’ campaign) is that we are not voting on whether to be in/out of a democratic Europe; we are voting whether to be in/out of an undemocratic Europe.
Whilst the European Parliament has never attracted an electoral turnout of over 40% (compared with 66.4% in the 2015 UK General Election), and the role of the European Council/Council of Europe is about as clear as mud, my main source of consternation lies with the European Commission – the de-facto government of the European Union, made up of 28 unelected European Commissioners. According to their website, the main roles of the European Commission are to:
- propose legislation which is then adopted by the co-legislators, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers
- enforce European law (where necessary with the help of the Court of Justice of the EU)
- set a objectives and priorities for action, outlined yearly in the Commission Work Programme and work towards delivering them manage and implement EU policies and the budget
- represent the Union outside Europe (negotiating trade agreements between the EU and other countries, for example.)
This sounds very much like a European government to me and in many ways this could be wholly justified if it was elected much like other governments around the world. But it isn’t. Each country within the EU nominates its own Commissioner every five years. Worryingly, national appointees to the Commission are often senior politicians who have just lost an election, such as Neil Kinnock who was made Britain’s EU Commissioner in 1995 having lost the 1992 General Election. This isn’t just undemocratic; it’s anti-democratic. As Jeremy Paxman outlines in this video (watch from 15 mins), Britain’s current Commissioner, Lord Hill, has never held elected office.
Of these 28 unelected appointees, one becomes the President of the Commission having been approved by the European Parliament (and proposed by the European Council before that). This role is currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg – the 8th least-populous country in Europe. As such, whilst not directly elected by the people, I suppose Mr Juncker can claim some semblance of democratic legitimacy based on his majority support of MEPs in the European Parliament. However, the other 27 Commissioners are then divvied out amongst the various departments at the behest of the President. In short, political appointees with zero democratic mandate or legitimacy take charge of European Union departments (and billions of euros worth of spending) in areas from Transport to Agriculture & Rural Development. This is hugely problematic. As the leading article in The Times said yesterday: “The institutions that run the world’s biggest trading bloc foster democracy in new member states but are themselves undemocratic, meddling and short-sighted”. This statement is backed up by the Electoral Reform Society who argue that: “a serious democratic deficit at the European level”.
I believe that, amongst the melee and hyperbolic campaigns on both sides of the EU referendum debate, we have lost sight of the wood for the trees. In supporting a federal Europe we have abandoned one of the very principles that we hoped the European Union would foster: democracy. As I write these words I can hear the collective moans and see the eyes rolling in front of me: ‘it’s a price worth paying’…‘we have to take the rough with the smooth’. I must admit that the thing that has shocked me most about the EU referendum campaign has been the total ambivalence towards the notion of democratic legitimacy and accountability. I’ve been struggling to get my head around this, not least because the history of Europe is that of a struggle for self-determination and opposition to unelected elites. Moreover, as Professor John Thorley says, “democracy gives you something to be proud of and defend – democracy gave birth to art, architecture, drama literature and philosophy”. Why then are so many people blasé about voting for Britain to remain part of an institution whose core is so undemocratic? Francis Fukuyama, the former US State Department official, argued in his seminal work The End of History, that the capitalist democracy represents the final and highest stage of the development of human political and economic institutions; arguing that rule by an unelected elite in Europe is ‘a price worth paying’ seems at odds with human progress more widely.
Democracy is a commonly used term in politics and the word itself can be described in various different ways. Common conceptions of democracy may include the notion of ‘free, fair and regular elections’ or ‘government of the people by the people, for the people’ as the great Abraham Lincoln outlined. Nevertheless, at the root of all definitions of democracy, no matter how refined or complex, lies the idea of ‘popular power’ in which power rests with the people. This idea of popular power has been central to democracy since the Greeks invented it in the fifth century BC, as the translation of the word ‘demokratia’ shows – rule (kratos) by the people (demos). To support a seemingly benign unelected elite of European Commissioners who ‘know best’ is to support a line of argument that dates back to the creation of democracy in Ancient Greece. It was Plato, and Thucydides before him, who outlined his disdain for democracy as it put power in the hands of the uneducated masses. Instead, he argued for a ‘guardian class’ – essentially an aristocracy of the intelligent – to rule the feckless masses. Later, Aristotle – a student of Plato’s – in his work The Politics outlined his desire for a government ruled by a meritocratic aristocracy; a regime made up of the best simply on the basis of ‘virtue’, as opposed to the guardianship proposed by his teacher. The dislike of democracy evoked by Plato and Aristotle contrasts with the great Athenian leader, Pericles, who in his famous ‘Funeral Oration’ outlined the his support for this new concept of democracy:
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability, which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty
The emotional attachment Pericles showed towards democracy is not unique to him. During World War Two, excerpts from Pericles’ ‘Funeral Oration’ were displayed on placards in Britain to spur on the Allies to identify with the free Athenians of the ancient democracy and thus fight against the Nazis more effectively.
‘But still’, I hear people protest, ‘they (the Commission) don’t effect our lives’, citing Boris Johnson waffling on about regulations on bananas as evidence of the mundaneness of the issues the Commission deals with. The question then has to be asked: how can we argue that the European Union is so vital if those statutes, directives and regulations which stem from Brussels are so unimportant? Surely if the EU is only concerned with small matters like the straightness bananas then do we really have so much to lose if we leave? Of course, this is nonsense. The EU deals with significant issues and has far-reaching powers. The undemocratic nature of the Commission also raises practical implications. How can the European Commission criticise foreign nations for not adhering to democratic principles when it is itself entirely undemocratic? At least in China and Russia they make efforts to pretend that they have democratically elected leaders!
What we should all want for Europe is peace and prosperity, underpinned by democratic governance. Whether that’s part of a European state or as a looser collection of nations comes down to ideology. Pro-Europeans see the completion of a federal Europe as the answer to the democratic deficit outlined above. As the Electoral Reform Society outline:
It is relatively straightforward to imagine how the structures of the EU could be transformed into those of a federal state, with the Commission becoming a government, the Council of Ministers becoming a Senate and European political parties formalising themselves into genuine transcontinental parties
However, in reality there appears to be little sign of a European identity and little sign of a desire for a federal Europe amongst the European peoples, with antipathy towards the EU at an all time high. This creates a central problem to the European ideal: if European citizens do not want a federal Europe, then a democratic state should not be imposed undemocratically. The most obvious way of making the Commission more accountable is to make the President directly elected by the people of Europe, however, whilst direct election may provide the Commission President with more democratic legitimacy, it would also be likely to produce centralisation of power into one person’s hands. As Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former Director of Strategy, convincingly outlines in his book More Human, we need a radical decentralisation of power in Britain, not further centralisation at a supranational level.
To conclude, I refer to Anthony Arblaster who made the observation that “in the West we have inherited from the Cold War the lazy assumption that if a government is not Communist, or is not that of an identifiable dictator, then it must be a democracy”. I believe that those who argue in favour of Britain being part of the European Union are, often unknowingly, making this same assumption. Perhaps worse, people have forgotten the importance of what Arblaster described as a “cherished political principle”. I fear that we are so preoccupied with short-term economic concerns (genuine as they appear to be) that we have lost sight of the superior principle of democratic governance. British/ European voters neither know nor care who their European Commissioners are or what they stand for. This is profoundly wrong yet the EU has no plans to deal with it. And, if you still aren’t convinced, perhaps ask yourself these three questions:
- Does the European Commission exercise real power over the lives of European people?
- Can I identify who the European Commissioners are in order to scrutinise their actions?
- Can I get rid of a European Commissioner if I don’t feel they are representing Britain’s best interests?
Whilst the importance of democracy should be at the forefront of people’s minds when they vote in the European referendum next week, I’m pretty certain it won’t be. Herein lies the great irony: that in giving people a democratic voice, they are on course to vote for a political union led by an unelected elite.