It is time for Britain to “Brexit,” taking our leave of the European Union. This is not because of any particular EU policy regarding migration, the EU’s big budget, or other controversial topics. Instead, it is because of a fundamental flaw in the makeup of the EU: namely, under its rule, Britain is no longer a democratic country.
I base my argument on what I think is a very minimalist theory of democracy. For the purposes of this essay, let us take the very weakest possible definition of democracy: a system of government in which, if 100 percent of citizens (politicians and voters alike) believe a law should not be introduced, it is not introduced.
Of course, there are many ways of being more democratic than that. One could talk about political parties winning mandates based on the support of majorities, elected representatives that specialize in looking out for what people want, or referenda on individual proposals that require a simple majority of 50 percent of votes plus one. Instead, I am opting for a very easy criterion for institutions to count as democratic: it only requires that if every single citizen disagrees with a proposal, that proposal is not made into law. If an alien dropped into your garden and asked you what type of government you had, it would mean you could tell him yours is democratic. If he then asked to go there, you could take him to the sovereign institution that follows that rule.
But this is not the case in the EU. The EU does not meet even the most minimal requirement of a democracy. This is why it is a hotbed for feelings of disenfranchisement across Europe, and why Britons such as I should vote to leave.
What’s Wrong with the European Parliament
The main institution through which a people, when in unanimity, can affect political outcomes democratically is the legislature. That is why in Britain we used to be able to say that parliament was sovereign. In a country like the United States, this is still the case. If all Americans (both politicians and voters together) are in unanimity that a law abolishing private property should not be introduced in Congress, it is not.
In the EU, the corresponding institution would be the European Parliament. However, the democratic criterion falters on three counts. First, not everyone in Europe knows that it exists. Analyst Valerio Volpi points out that only about 90 percent of Europeans say they have heard of it. After we get past that hurdle, we see that the average voter turnout for representatives to the European Parliament has been in constant decline across the EU as a whole, year after year. For the most recent 2014 election, average turnout was 43 percent. For British citizens, it was a paltry 36 percent. The single largest party Britons voted for was UKIP, a party that wants Britain to leave the EU and whose representatives refuse to support the EU legislative process.
But let us assume that turnout in European parliamentary elections is always 100 percent in the UK, and that everyone who votes wants to comply with parliamentary procedures for passing legislation. We then run into the second issue: UK representatives will (rightly) fill only 73 of the 751 seats in the European Parliament (10 percent). So even if all Britons strongly disagree with proposing a law, they still have very little chance of influencing the outcome.
So let us also assume that unanimous agreement among all British representatives can manage to sufficiently influence parliament. We then run into the third problem: the European Parliament does not have the power to introduce legislation anyway.
The European Parliament only processes legislation proposed by the EU Commission. As John Pinder and Simon Usherwood explain, “The Treaty of Rome gave the Commission the principal right of legislative initiative, that is, to propose the texts for laws to the Parliament and the Council.” In his book The Engines of European Integration, Mark Pollack explains that this was based “on the plausible assumption that the Commission, like the members of US Congressional committees, is a preference outlier with a strong preference for further [EU] integration.” Because there was fear that a European Parliament could strangle the agenda of integrating European states, it was deemed safer to have the EU Commission set what legislative proposals should be debated.
So if I say to the alien in my garden that I live in a democracy, I am not so sure where I should take him to prove it. How about I take him to the EU Commission?
The problem with this plan is that the EU Commission is made up of twenty-eight members, and—following the Treaty of Nice—only one is from the UK. Now suppose I compromise and say, well this is our one, so he (Jonathan Hill) is my leader? This would not work so well, either. Upon taking office, Mr. Hill actually had to solemnly declare that he would think and act fully independently of the UK’s interests—a requirement that seeks to ensure that the Commission works in the general interest of the EU. So legislative proposals ultimately come from a body for which all members must solemnly declare their support in furthering the EU project. Members of the European Parliament only debate what legislation is set by the Commission, and the Commission does not allow its members to disagree with any fundamentals.
Redefining "We the People"
Let us return to the minimalist definition of a democracy I set out at the beginning: if 100 percent of us believe a law should not be passed, it is not. This criterion is not met for Britons in either the European Parliament or the EU Commission.
Many would argue that my notion of “us” or “the people” is wrong. What I should be asking is whether 100 percent of EU citizens can affect whether a law is introduced and passed. Yes, indeed: it is this redefinition of the people that is required by the EU project. Because sovereignty is being transferred gradually to EU institutions, the institutions can only remain democratic if the notion of “we the people” conforms.
What is meant by “the people” therefore matters most of all. It must come before any debate on particular EU policies that one may or may not like. Whether a political institution is sovereign and democratic is inextricably bound to its notion of peoplehood. One must decide who the people are before asking whether a unanimous agreement among them leads to political change. Some who read this will think I am referring to the migration debate, perhaps assuming that I cannot appreciate a notion of Britishness inclusive of other cultures. However, it is not migration policies that interest me here but whether the EU can, on its own terms, articulate a notion of the people simply for use in the minimal notion of a democracy I have set out. The question is not who should be allowed in, but whether or not those who are in actually constitute a democracy.
The EU Is an Anti-Democracy Machine
On this front, we run into a particular difficulty: the current members of the EU are, ultimately, not the intended democratic community of the EU. An express aim of not allowing the European Parliament to initiate legislation was that it might inhibit integration efforts. Similarly, the EU is “resolved to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” (not merely the peoples of current EU countries).
What this means is that the definition of the people who, if unanimous, should be able to affect the outcome of their political system is transitory and open to ongoing interpretation. I do not mind if it is big or small, but the point is that it is not bound to the EU’s current citizenry. As things stand, the EU Commission may choose a policy because it is in the interests of the EU’s commitment to ever closer union, regardless of the interests of any member state or particular EU citizens. Unanimity among EU citizens is not sufficient grounds for not introducing such legislation in the European Parliament.
The French theorist Pierre Manent is most adept at explaining what this commitment to transitory peoplehood means in his book A World beyond Politics? There he states:
It seems that democracy, in the European construction, is striving to escape the sad necessity of having a body. So it gives itself a body without limits, this Europe with indefinite expansion, a Europe defined paradoxically as an indefinite expansion.
This is the EU as an anti-democratic machine. It is not anti-democratic due to any lack of institutional checks and balances but due to its commitment to separating a notion of citizenry from that of peoplehood, in order to ensure that the legislative process remains ultimately unaccountable.
Dr. Dominic Burbidge is Departmental Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford, and Researcher at Oxford’s Department of Politics & International Relations.