You can’t blame Brussels for Brexit

It is not clear that the EU is any less accountable than national governments

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, prior to a plenary session at the European Parliament on the outcome of  the Brexit referendum in Brussels, Belgium, June 28th, 2016. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, prior to a plenary session at the European Parliament on the outcome of the Brexit referendum in Brussels, Belgium, June 28th, 2016. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

 

The claim that the EU is undemocratic and unaccountable is made so often it seems to be an accepted background to any discussion of the union. The charges levelled against it assert that EU institutions are unelected, unaccountable, and that EU democracy is a sham.

These critiques are only partially true and in many cases apply equally to the government of member states.

All EU institutions consist of people who are either elected or nominated by those who are elected. The European Parliament is directly elected. The Council of Ministers consists of elected members of national governments. The European Commission is nominated by elected governments and is responsible to the European Parliament, which can force it to resign.

Political change in the EU happens slowly. If European voters swing heavily to the left there will not be an individual, satisfying moment of political theatre when left-wing forces take control. Instead, bit by bit as each country elected a left- wing government, the voting balance in the Council of Minsters would shift leftwards.

This lacks the political theatre of national politics but is democratic: European voters ultimately decide the make-up of EU institutions.

Significant powers

It is not clear the EU is any less accountable than national governments. The commission is accountable to the parliament, which has very significant powers to amend and veto legislation. National governments are accountable to their parliaments for their actions in the Council of Ministers.

It is true that most of dealmaking between states goes on in secret but this is hardly unknown in domestic politics. Indeed, although national governments jealously guard their ability to make private deals, in some countries, such as Denmark, there is significant accountability.

The Dáil, consistent with its poor overall performance in holding the government to account, exercises very limited control. This is the fault of Irish politicians, not the EU.

That said, there is a certain make-believe quality to European democracy. While the EU has institutions that look like those of a state, such as a parliament and a court, loyalty, identity and political debate remain largely national, though the euro-zone crisis has created something of a Europe-wide debate on the euro and austerity.

The disconnect between governed and governors in the EU is real and very worrying. But in recent decades, almost all democracies have seen a drift in power from parliaments to courts, international institutions and expert bodies whose decisions are insulated from democratic control.

Hollowed out

In addition, as the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair showed, political parties that connected the public to the political system have been hollowed out by drops in membership and the rise of a career professional politicians.

With declining levels of identification, voters behave increasingly like consumers who expect to be wooed by parties rather than citizens.

The EU system is slow to act and often paralysed by disagreement between member states. It has not succeeded in coming up with sustainable solutions to the such as the migrant crisis, the financial crisis or climate change.

However, we must not make the perfect the enemy of the good. In a globalised economic era where large corporations can easily intimidate individual states, the EU has allowed states win back some power to regulate business they would otherwise have lost.

The real question is whether the ability of EU states to deal with major issues would have been greater if they dealt with them separately. The answer to that question, is obvious.

Ronan McCrea is a barrister and senior lecturer in law at University College London

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