An Affront to Democracy

by Andrew Stuttaford

Ahead of the upcoming elections, Open Europe takes a thorough, well-researched look at the EU parliament. The findings are not pretty:

The EP’s brand of supranational democracy has been constructed from the top down, which is illustrated by the high degree of consensus between the main party groupings. Despite representing national parties of different political traditions, the established centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Socialist and Democrat (S&D) party families voted the same way 74% of the time in the 2009-14 parliament, with a heavy bias for “more Europe”.

As Open Europe notes, European parliament has a specific (and lavishly funded) mission to foster a “European identity.” That’s whether or not that is something that voters actually, you know, want.

Supranational democracy is not democracy.

The European Parliament (EP) is the EU’s only directly elected institution. However, turnout across the EU has fallen in every election, from 62% in 1979, when the first direct elections were held, to just 43% in 2009. Under successive EU treaties, the EP’s powers to amend and pass EU legislation have steadily increased.

And this is not, as is so often claimed, a matter of ignorance:

For instance, when asked to name the EU institutions they were aware of, in Romania 81% and Slovakia 79% of people surveyed say they are aware of the European Parliament but only 28% and 20% turned out to vote in 2009…Nor does interest translate into turnout. In the Netherlands, 61% of those polled said they were interested in European affairs – the highest in the EU – yet the turnout of voters at 36% [was] one of the lowest.

By contrast:

In countries where the level of EU integration is politically controversial, voters have been much more motivated to express their view in referenda about how much power the EU should have, than in EP elections. For example, in France and the Netherlands, where anti-EU parties are topping opinion polls for the 2014 elections, 69.37% and 63.3% respectively voted in the 2005 referenda on the EU Constitution (which became the Lisbon Treaty), while only 42.76% and 39.26% voted in the previous year’s EP elections.

The results of those referenda were, of course, ignored.

There’s plenty more in the report — from sweet tax deals to procedural tricks — and it’s well worth reading in full. As did The Economist (discussed here), Open Europe makes the case for reform, setting the stage with this:

A recent Open Europe/YouGov poll found that 73% of Britons and 58% of Germans thought that either every country’s national parliament or a group of national parliaments should be able to block proposed new EU laws. Only 8% of Britons and 21% of Germans thought that the European Parliament, rather than national parliaments, should have the right to block new EU laws. The poll also found that, while Britons and Germans thought that the single market is beneficial, a majority of people in both countries wanted decisions over key issues such as EU migrants’ access to benefits, employment laws, regional development subsidies, and police and criminal justice laws to be taken at the national level rather than at the EU level.

Many of the reforms suggested by Open Europe (including greater national vetoes and reduced “co-decision” powers) are thoroughly worthwhile. But here’s the thing. They are not going to happen. They never can within the structure of an EU dedicated to “ever closer union.” To suggest reforms in the manner that Open Europe does is implicitly to assert that they are in some way possible with the EU set up as it is. They are not. And to argue that they could be is, no less than is the case with the (similar) reforms proposed by The Economist, to play Brussels’s game.