Democracy and the Illusion of Sovereignty

As members of the EU we have leverage; outside we would merely have a warm glow of symbolic sovereignty, argues Dr Julie Smith.

Anyone listening to the current British debate on membership of the European Union (EU) could be forgiven for thinking that in some way ‘Europe’ was something inflicted on an unwilling country, for assuming that some unknown and unaccountable force called ‘Brussels’ imposed its will on the UK with little or no opportunity for British citizens to affect policy outcomes in any way. Michael Gove, a leading advocate of leaving the EU, has even suggested that voting to remain in the EU means ‘voting to be a hostage, locked in the boot of a car driven by others to a place and at a pace that we have not control over’[1]

Many of those most passionately advocating leaving the European Union focus on the importance of reclaiming British sovereignty, amid claims that the EU is undemocratic, bureaucratic and remote from its citizens. A vote to leave, they claim, would allow the UK to re-gain control over our laws and our Government. Yet, the problem they raise is a false one; the solution they peddle illusory.

The institutional framework of the EU is one to which the UK has signed up at every stage since entering the then European Communities in 1973. There is a pooling of sovereignty, for sure, but it is something that British politicians chose to accept at the outset and was clearly in place when the UK voted to stay in 1975. Debates may have centred predominantly on the economic aspects of membership, but those opposed to membership clearly discussed the threats as they saw it to national sovereignty.

The doctrine of the supremacy of EC law had been established before the UK joined but it only applies in areas where states have given powers to the EU – it’s not something taken gratuitously by faceless bureaucrats as those who wish to leave would have us believe. It is certainly true that more powers have been granted to the EU over the years, but they have been granted by each and every member state, not imposed from outside. Treaty reform requires unanimity among all member states – the UK has a veto. The House of Commons could have blocked treaty reform, but has so far never chosen to do so: our sovereign parliament has granted sovereignty to the EU; the EU has not usurped power.

Westminster could have blocked the Single European Act, which paved the way for qualified majority voting (QMV) in decisions on the internal market (as the single market is correctly known) and which is now the norm in most areas of EU policy-making. Yet, with the notable exception of Bill (now Sir William) Cash, few MPs raised any serious concerns at the time. Other treaties, including the contentious Maastricht (formally the Treaty on European Union) and Lisbon treaties, were also ratified by Parliament, not imposed by our European partners, far less by any faceless bureaucrats. What is more, the EU Act 2011, enacted by the Coalition Government, provides for ratification of any future transfers of powers to the EU to be taken by re ferendum. In future, the citizens, not Parliament, will decide on whether we should work more closely with our European partners – scarcely a hostage situation.

Moreover, there is a reversibility to all of this. No parliament can bind its successor. Parliament could repeal the 1972 European Communities Act; sovereignty has not been permanently ceded, though for decades no-one seriously believed that any such reversal would ever happen. The present r eferendum reminds us of this ultimate guarantor of British sovereignty. A vote to leave, however, would be all but irreversible for very clear political reasons – our erstwhile partners would be reluctant to countenance a plaintive UK returning to seek to renew our vows having once secured a divorce. A vote to leave is, thus, not something to be taken lightly.

For some, the return of the symbolic sovereignty that would be ours in the event of a vote to leave is a price worth paying, but it is surely worth considering some of those claims about the undemocratic and faceless bureaucrats we hear so much about.

Michael Gove, in line with the likes of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, has asserted that ‘It is a fact that the EU is a multi-national federation with no democratically elected leader or government, with policies decided by a central bureaucracy, with a mock parliament which enjoys no popular mandate for action….’[2]Leaving aside the spurious suggestion that the EU is a federation, Gove‘s comments on the nature of bureaucracy and democracy simply do not stand up to scrutiny. The so-called ‘central bureaucracy’ is the European Commission – a relatively small civil service that has the right to propose legislation. It does not decide the legislation. In the vast majority of cases, the proposals for EU legislation are decided under the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ whereby the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament co-decide. Both institutions comprise representatives from all member states. The UK has a seat at every table. Of course, we don’t always get our own way – that’s inevitable in a group of 28 – but we are on the winning side of 87 per cent of votes and have a lot more influence on the inside than we would following a vote to leave.

Far from being a ‘mock parliament’, the 751-member European Parliament has been directly elected since 1979 and has gained significant powers over the years. Indeed, I always find it ironic when fellow members of the House of Lords bemoan the EP’s lack of democratic credentials. Turnout might be low in EP elections, but it is an elected chamber, unlike the Lords whose democratic element is confined to 90 hereditary peers elected by other hereditary peers. The European Parliament has significant powers to amend and veto both EU legislation and the EU budget and to agree international treaties. MEPs wield considerable influence as long as they turn up, though UKIP MEPs are notably absent from many votes that affect the UK.

That the work of the EP is little known is less the fault of MEPs than of national media, which prefer to focus on the domestic, on Westminster. There is, it is true, a problem of lack of visibility and knowledge of who one’s MEPs are. I use the plural advisedly. Since 1999, MEPs in the UK have been elected on regional lists, giving political parties the opportunity to rank their candidates, who are elected proportionately. This system makes it harder to hold individual MEPs accountable as the territorial link is essentially lost. Yet elections do not have to be run this way – the new Labour Government opted for this system. It would be possible to replace it with something like the Single Transferable Vote systems used in Ireland and Malta, which have a far stronger elected territorial dimension.

Finally, let us turn to the appointment of the European Commission President and the College of Commissioners. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council (composed, let us not forget, of our elected heads of state or government) take the results of the European Parliament elections into account. It was on this basis that Jean-Claude Juncker was proposed and agreed as the Commission President in 2014. States are each entitled to nominate one commissioner. In the British case it was former Leader of the House of Lords, Jonathan Hill, who holds the important financial services brief. David Cameron opposed the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker at the time, but had the support only of the Czech Prime Minister. Other leaders accepted the idea that the Commission President’s mandate should be linked to the EP elections, precisely to try to ensure a more democratic element in the EU.

Daniel Hannan has ridiculed this approach, not least because the UK branch of European People’s Party (EPP), to which Juncker as a Luxembourg Christian Democrat belongs, received only 0.18 per cent of the vote in the EP elections. What this point fails to acknowledge is that the Conservative Party sat with the EPP group, which includes major parties such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union until 2009, and that had they remained with that group the Conservatives would have been able to participate in the decision to nominate Juncker as the EPP’s lead candidate for the 2014 elections. On this, as in so many areas, a seat at the table is essential.

The Conservatives’ absence from the EPP has weakened their influence in the European Council and, by extension, weakened the UK’s influence. In exactly the same way, by leaving the EU we would further marginalise ourselves. We might formally regain sovereignty, but at a very high price: formal sovereignty, but with far less influence in one of the key players an increasingly interdependent world. As members of the EU we have leverage; outside we would merely have a warm glow of symbolic sovereignty.