Why the EU Isn’t a Sprawling Mass of Bureaucrats Lacking any Democratic Legitimacy
“Unelected bureaucrats!” “Democratic deficit!” These are phrases that are often thrown around in the debate about the upcoming EU referendum. However, the myth that the EU is a sprawling mass of bureaucrats lacking any democratic legitimacy, is just that: a myth.
EU decisions are made by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The Council consists of ministers from the national governments of all 28 Member States, all of whom are elected by the citizens of their Member State. The European Parliament consists of 751 directly elected MEPs (that includes me) who are elected in five year cycles; the last election was in 2014 and the next will be in 2019. MEPs debate, amend, approve and reject legislation in partnership with the Council. Contrary to popular opinion the regularly maligned “unelected bureaucrats,” the Commission President and Council President, do not get a vote at all.
In fact the European Commission doesn’t even make laws – it only makes proposals. These proposals are then debated, amended and passed or rejected by elected national governments and directly-elected MEPs. Commissioners themselves are accountable to the European Parliament, which elects its President, approves its appointment and can dismiss it by a vote of no confidence – and has done!
The European Commission is best understood as the EU’s civil service. However, despite the size of the population it looks after, the European Commission administration is actually only a little larger than that of a single city council in the UK – including the need to translate and interpret between the 23 official languages in the European Union!
As times goes on, the European Parliament, which has only been directly elected since 1979, is slowly accruing more powers – slowly because the national politicians are resistant to award them to MEPs, often putting their own party-political interests first. In fact, the European Parliament is much better than national parliaments at saying ‘no’ to controversial proposals. Of the proposals that it does in fact accept, very few go through without significant amendment. However, even with all these changes and negotiations to legislation the European Parliament passed six times as much legislation as the UK’s House of Commons in 2011-2012 and held 17 times as many roll call votes. The European Parliament also has more Facebook likes than the Commons!
MEPs do a pretty good job of holding the governments in Council and the Commission to account and acting as a brake on policy-making and legislation. Time and time again the European Parliament has improved laws that were poorly drafted by the Commission, blocked bad amendments to laws inserted by the Council, and changed legislation to protect the interests of citizens across Europe. Approximately 25% of the amendments to legislation proposed by the European Parliament end up as law, which is considerably more than any national parliament in Europe. In this way, the European Parliament is much more effective than national parliaments such as Westminster, as there’s no compliant government majority to ensure that ‘bad’ or ill-thought-out proposals are whipped through. Just think about it: it’s headline news if MPs ever vote against the government’s wishes, but effective policy making is just another by-product of the European Parliament’s style of consensual politics.
I know what you’re thinking: this just sounds like the EU forcing its own will upon Member States and taking away our sovereignty. The reality is however, that nothing is decided at an EU level unless all member countries have explicitly agreed by treaty to do so. Even then, each and every piece of legislation that is made at an EU level is agreed by national governments. For more important matters like tax and foreign affairs, the requirement for this agreement is complete unanimity. Though they may not like to always say so, the UK government also has veto powers – meaning that in areas like tax, Britain can unilaterally block any decisions it doesn’t want, if it really didn’t want to.
It is certainly true that few British citizens know who their MEPs are. It is also true that European Parliament elections in the UK are always dominated by domestic issues, and by the performance of domestic politicians, rather than focusing on European and EU issues, or even on the performance of British MEPs. The elections attract a low turnout, despite the best efforts of politicians and activists up and down the country of all political backgrounds to change this.
One root of problems here is media coverage. It is not entirely the fault of the MEPs that citizens or national politicians aren’t always aware of what the European Parliament does. It could be said to be a fault of national politicians and national media outlets who refuse to spend any time covering what goes on in day-to-day politics in Brussels, or only cover it briefly and inaccurately.
Despite the dedicated work of Labour MEPs in the European Parliament on issues like the recent floods, the crisis in the UK steel industry, tax evasion and energy poverty, there is often only miniscule coverage of the work we do, whilst petty clashes of personality in Westminster are covered at length. Maybe if I or other Labour MEPs were to make controversial statements with a pint in our hands perhaps we might get media coverage?
It must also not be forgotten that whilst the phrases ‘democratic deficit’ was first used in 1977 (by my colleague Richard Corbett!) this was before the Parliament was created – and indeed, the European Parliament was created for exactly this reason. So whilst the catchy phrase ‘democratic deficit’ may still be thrown around, it really does not refer to the institutions we have today. We just need to help more people understand that, and what really happens in Brussels.