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19 May 2016

What kind of EU: Democracy

Ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June the Evangelical Alliance is publishing a series of pieces exploring key issues relating to membership of the EU and how Christians might approach the vote. 

As an organisation we take no view on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU and the pieces represent the personal opinions of the authors. The first two pieces considered identity and freedom, and future articles will consider economics and the missionary context of Europe. 

Democracy has its first roots in ancient Greece, and it was through countless struggles between authoritarian rule and popular power down the centuries that democracy emerged as the primary system of governance in Europe.

This doesn't mean democracy is perfect, it is a system of governance that is applied differently across the world, and frequently in very imperfect ways. As Winston Churchill put it: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others."

England was described in the nineteenth century as the 'mother of parliaments', and the history of England and the rest of the UK is inseparable from that of parliamentary democracy across the world.

Who governs the EU?

A frequent charge levelled at the European Union (EU) is that there is a democratic deficit at its heart. If we can't effectively answer who governs the EU this charge is likely to stick. And based on the premise that democracy is beneficial to political systems, or the least worst option, deciding whether democracy is enhanced or undermined by our membership of the EU is a key issue to consider ahead of the referendum on EU membership.

Since 1979 the European Parliament has been elected every five years - most recently in 2014. However, on that occasion only 35 per cent of the UK electorate voted and the highest turn out has ever reached was 38.5 per cent in 2004. Across the EU as a whole turnout has dramatically declined, with average turnout for the first four elections at 59 per cent, but the last four at just 45 per cent.

As voters we have a say in who represents us in the parliament, and through national governments we have a say in the other institutions of the European Union, either by the involvement of government ministers, or their appointment of officials.

Our democratic involvement in the operation of the EU however is not enough to avoid the charge of a democratic deficit. For a government to be democratic it needs to have the power and the mandate to enact the will of the people.

For the EU this poses two significant challenges:

  1. Is it possible to effectively discern the political will of the collective population of EU member states?
  2. Does the EU have the power to enact and implement what might be necessary to respond to that will?

Why does democracy matter?

With such low turnout, and uncertain lines of authority and accountability, the democracy of the EU is an important theme to consider. Do we know who has authority over which decisions, and have we considered what effect those decisions have?

There are two sides to this equation: how much impact does the EU have on people's lives? And how much of a say do people have over what it does? The more impact, the more say - no taxation without representation, as the Americans said ahead of their late eighteenth century revolution.

Democracy matters because without it we don't have a say in decisions that affect us, unless we are the rulers or prepared to overthrow the rulers to rule ourselves.

The process

On a simple level EU institutions are democratic. They are either filled through direct election, the parliament; by national governments, the European Council and Council of the EU; or through appointments by national governments, the Commission and the Court. Therefore the primary way we can affect change in the EU is through the ballot box, either in voting for MEPs, or through national elections.

Decisions that are taken over new laws usually require the approval of both the parliament and the Council of the EU. On a few issues unanimous support of all member states is required, but on most issues a qualified majority of 55 per cent of countries making up 65 per cent of the total EU population is needed.

Voting is used as the way of determining decisions in the EU, so on that superficial level, the EU is a democratic institution, because we have a say on decisions which affect us.

You can take a look at our infographic which explains how the EU works here.

The practice

The problem with democratic legitimacy in the EU is the limited awareness the general public have of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and the impact they have on you and me. One hotly disputed statistic is how many UK laws originate from the European Union. Sometimes a figure as high as 70 per cent is quoted - this is incorrect, but determining the correct figure remains more tricky as it depends what you count, and whether a straight count of the number of laws is a helpful indicator. Most laws also require the adoption by the member states' national governments before coming into force, and in the UK there are dedicated committees to scrutinise measures which are being adopted. So our national political institutions also have a role in the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

The philosophy

God is interested in how we organise our society, so as Christians it is vital we ask how we are applying our worldview to systems of government. We have a responsibility to engage in the democratic process, but also to ask probing questions of how the system functions. If we're thinking about whether the governance of the EU has democratic legitimacy are we also asking similar questions about our engagement with local and national government? Because of the increased visibility of national political leaders we have a greater sense of connection to the decisions they are taking, but the visibility of how our actions at the ballot box affect the decisions impacting our life is also often more than murky. 

In a system of government that crosses borders there will always be some sovereignty that is lost as the decision-making is shared. The question relevant to the debate over membership of the EU is how much sovereignty are we will to sacrifice in the pursuit and maintenance of the Union?

Subsidiarity and the distance of decision-making

Subsidiarity is about how decisions are taken at the level closest to the people they affect as possible - this is a principle of EU law. It is deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching, and is a deeply attractive concept for empowering people. Decisions benefitting from a response at the EU level are decided there, but other decisions are taken nationally, or - so the theory goes - locally. The challenge comes in the practice. It is easy for most decisions to have an EU dimension, especially in a world as globalised as today, and connected as easily as it is. This means there can be a tendency for decisions to be taken further away from the people affected, and with the lines of authority and accountability longer and the longer they get the less clear they become.

To tackle this dilemma a second principle from Catholic social teaching comes into play, that of solidarity. This was described by John Paul II as "a firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good that is to say to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all." The challenge comes in the reality that we frequently do not act in such a way, and political decisions have a limited scope based on how far that solidarity reaches. Practically this means people in one nation would support income redistribution to support people in greater need within their nation, but frequently would be resistant to that occurring across borders.

The lack of an identity which is shared across the EU means many see economic redistribution across borders as justifiable only in narrow circumstances. One is through mutual economic benefit - so funds to poorer parts of the EU help build trade, and that trade is of advantage to the country providing funds. The second is through a more charitable approach, in a similar, although more restricted sense, as the moral argument for providing development support to countries across the world.

The future

There are functional reforms which could be made to the operation of the EU that might help increase the connection between voters and elected representatives, and there are possible ways of imagining  EU politics which might help. For example, we vote for UK parties at EU elections who then join pan-EU groupings in the European Parliament. These groupings share broad positions but do not run on a platform of policies for the EU which voters could choose between. The upshot is that any one countries' MEPs have minimal influence, on some votes they may be critical, but frequently they are absorbed into voting blocs which do not act with a direct electoral mandate.

There have been occasional proposals for a directly elected president of the EU who might provide the visibility and recognition across the Union. However, this has been frequently rejected as undermining national politicians, or creating an office that has visibility but no power.

One personal reflection from a self-confessed political geek is that I knew the name of one of my MEPs - I know a few more now after googling them - but I also do not know who my local councillors are. There are democratic challenges in how the EU operates and is held accountable, but these challenges are not unique to the continental institutions.

One priority for everyone should be to know more about the politicians who represent them at the different levels and institutions, and know what responsibilities different bodies have. For local council elections turnout is frequently no better than European Parliament elections, and the decisions taken by local authorities often have a far more direct impact on our day to day lives. Is this possibly a boring and difficult task? Frequently. But is it a vital aspect of increasing the democracy of our political systems? Absolutely.

If we want politicians that are democratically elected, who have the authority to enact what they are voted in to achieve, and held to account for what they do, then we have to take the time to know about them, their policies, and their powers.

A vision for the future of Europe which enhances democracy is as much about what we do as what the EU or member states' governments do


  1. Why is democracy important to our political system?
  2. What does the Christian faith offer to our understanding of democracy and government?
  3. What are the benefits to sharing political governance across national borders?
  4. What are the challenges and threats in sharing governance with other countries?
  5. How can democracy be strengthened at a local, national and EU level?
  6. What can you do to increase democracy in the areas you have influence and the opportunity to participate?

Points for prayer

  • Politicians at local, national and European level to be clear in what they stand for, what they want to do, and how our votes for them would affect decisions.
  • Voters to be informed about the key issues and impact that our votes could have.
  • For people to be inspired to take the step from learning about politicians and policies, to working out whether they could be the one to step up and take those positions of leadership and influence.

Take a look at our  May/June special issue of idea focusing on Europe, and more information about the EU referendum can be found here.