Democracy does not start and end with proportional representation, and claims that the EU Parliament has more democratic legitimacy than the UK Parliament in Westminster are absurd
Continuing his argument against Brexit, Paddy Briggs makes a point on his “Letter from London” blog that I have seen recur several times among pro-EU advocates – namely, that it is the British parliament which lacks democratic legitimacy, and that the EU parliament (by virtue of being elected using a more proportional system) is actually the better and more legitimate of the two.
The European Union is not as democratic as it might be but it is still more democratic than the national parliaments of some of its members – including that of Britain. We choose who will represent us in Strasbourg and Brussels (the MEPs) via a fair voting system under which every vote counts. In Britain we have an unfair voting system and even a whole Upper House that is not elected at all!
It shouldn’t be necessary to refute this particular line of argument, but I’ll do so for the record, since a clear effort is underway to turn one of the key weaknesses in the europhile armoury into an unlikely – and misleading – strength.
Democracy is not just a matter of how proportional your electoral system is. You could have the most proportional system in the world, with MEPs allocated precisely according to vote share across the European Union, and you would still be light years away from democracy. Because democracy means so much more than just allocating seats in a legislature according to the vote share of the pitifully small percentage of people who bother to take part in European elections.
And what Paddy Briggs neglects to mention is the fact that the EU has a fundamental flaw far worse than the UK Parliament lacking proportional representation. The EU parliament lacks the first half of the word “democracy ” itself – it lacks a demos.
The unavoidable truth which the EU federalists and Briggs seem desperate not to acknowledge is that most EU citizens simply do not feel European first and foremost. Therefore, any attempt at supranational governance which forms a pyramid with the EU at the top, national legislatures beneath and regional and local assemblies below that is doomed to fail, because hardly anyone recognises the legitimacy of the top layer. Subsidiarity is all very well – Briggs talks it up in his piece, and makes valid criticisms of over-centralised British government – but it is irrelevant if there was never any requirement or demand for the Brussels top layer in the first place.
You can have the best parliament in the world, but if people do not feel a part of the organisation or state which it supposedly serves then it will inevitably become nothing more than an ineffectual talking shop for the failed elites and third-tier politicians who couldn’t make it in the premier league back home. Sound familiar?
Worse still, as the unwanted process of EU integration continues, we will likely see the remaining “moderate” parties squeezed out of the EU parliament entirely, and replaced by parties which – unlike UKIP – may actually be genuinely extremist in outlook, and fully deserving of Briggs’ scorn. At that point, it will be unthinkable to include the EU parliament in the European Union’s central decision-making, and the only part of the whole machine with any claim to democratic legitimacy will be cut out of the loop entirely to prevent Golden Dawn from determining social policy for the whole of Europe.
Paddy Briggs feels like a European citizen – one of my fellow Brexiteer bloggers might well describe him as a proto-EU national just waiting for the state to hatch. And that’s fine. But Briggs is in the tiny minority, and he should have the honesty to admit as much, and recognise that his “European first” identity is not shared by most people in Britain.
One might also mention that an institution can hardly be said to be “democratic” when it is unable to propose new legislation of its own, and is in effect merely a rubber stamp for initiatives cooked up by the European Commission or accountability-dodging national heads of government – again, nothing to do with the different electoral systems in Westminster and Brussels/Strasbourg. If somebody brings me home a surprise dinner from a restaurant of their choice, picked without my knowledge or input, and I only have the choice between eating that meal or going hungry, it can hardly be said that I have freedom of choice over my diet. The same goes for the EU parliament and the legislation which oozes through it.
Briggs goes on to say:
We now have a bizarre situation where the British Government, the leadership of all our respectable political parties, virtually every one of our national institutions, the majority of our Members of Parliament, virtually every major Business (and more) acknowledge the necessity not just of remaining in the EU but in improving the effectiveness of our participation.
But you could (and should) also interpret this statement as evidence that every group with entrenched establishment power – government elites, cultural elites, corporations – is in favour of maintaining the status quo, while euroscepticism is rife among individual private citizens. Which is, of course, actually the case.
There is indeed a divide on the question of Britain’s place in the EU, but the fault line does not lie between sober-minded rational people on one side and frothing-at-the-mouth eurosceptics on the other. The line is drawn between people who currently benefit from the status quo or might potentially lose money in the event of change on one hand, and the little guy – people whose very government is being ripped away from them against their will – on the other.
It is rather disingenuous to suggest that “every one of our national institutions” is in favour of remaining in the EU as though they independently arrived at this decision through clear-headed analysis, while deliberately ignoring the fact that many of these same institutions – from the BBC to universities – also happen to receive large cash grants from Brussels (or rather, from the UK taxpayer via the Brussels pork machine).
Ultimately, the EU referendum comes down to a question of sovereignty. The S-word. Forget the trumped up trade figures on both sides, which are unverifiable and can be fought to a draw. And forget the scaremongering, too. If you truly believe that most people in the UK feel European before they feel British (and I’d love to know who you are hanging out with, if so) then by all means vote “Remain”. You may as well, since the European institutions would indeed then have more legitimacy than the UK institutions – though I would love to see you now explain the low voter turnout in EU elections.
But if you believe – correctly – that the majority of UK citizens feel British more than they feel European, then you have a responsibility to vote for Brexit, because to do otherwise would doom us to remain part of an explicitly political union whose governance is undemocratic by simple virtue of nobody believing in the EU as a legitimate, organic construct. To do anything other than vote for Brexit would be to condemn your fellow citizens to a future where our highest level of governance is at a level we do not recognise or feel a part of. And that would be truly anti-democratic.
I agree with many of Paddy’s criticisms of the current UK constitutional settlement, particularly with regard to the legislature and our unelected upper house. But it is a stretch too far to claim that the EU parliament is somehow more democratic than our own, when hardly anybody can be motivated to take part in EU elections, and even those who do would struggle to tell you the name of their MEP – certainly not the case for the Westminster parliament.
The British political system has many flaws (which is why I am attracted to the Harrogate Agenda as a sensible series of steps to improve our governance) in need of urgent remedy, but to claim that it is in any way worse than that toothless talking shop of an EU parliament is quite simply divorced from reality, cherry-picking facts in support of a tottering narrative.
I hope that on reflection Paddy Briggs will recognise some of the shortcomings in his argument, and retract his assertion that the EU parliament has greater democratic legitimacy than that of the UK parliament. I don’t for a moment begrudge Briggs his sincerely held pro-EU position, but neither will I stand by while europhiles attempt to unfairly denigrate the United Kingdom in an attempt to make their rusting, 1950s anachronism of a European superstate seem more appealing by contrast.
The EU federalist dream must stand and fight on its own merits in this referendum – and its advocates should not pursue a dishonourable victory by attempting to undermine the good standing of the United Kingdom for rhetorical gain.
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