EU facts behind the claims: democracy

Published: 25th Apr 2016

“The EU’s current institutions have serious failings and are undemocratic” (Leave)

“The EU has a better level of democratic scrutiny than any other international body: the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, World Bank etc.” (Remain)

Discussions about democracy are essentially about yardsticks. Depending on what you look at, and compare against, you will get different answers. And in that sense, both arguments set out above are correct.

The underlying reason for this is that people don’t agree on what ‘democracy’ is.

We know it is about people being involved in how they are governed, but there are many different ways to turn that into reality.

‘Democracy’ means different things to different people

To take the most obvious example, when we talk about democracies, we often mean representative democracies, where we elect people to represent our views and make decisions on our behalf.

That’s very different from a direct democratic approach where, like in the EU referendum, many or all decisions are taken by the population at large.

While we might accept Abraham Lincoln’s famous formulation of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, we seldom agree about whom ‘the people’ might be, let alone the other elements.

For some, ‘the people’ means an ethnic, linguistic and cultural community, with some kind of some shared heritage and history.

However, it’s also possible to argue that what ties “the people” together is accepting a set of rules, where culture is less important than participation in community life.

As a further complication, some might feel that such questions depend on what is being discussed. Do the same democratic standards apply when passing regulations about selling fresh fruit as for organising the use of military force, or for building a system of social security?

These questions are ones which confront all countries. The UK having a monarch and a partly-hereditary House of Lords would strike some as ‘un-democratic’ in comparison to an elected head of state or upper chamber, for example.

The EU has more democratic controls than a typical international organisation…

While all democracies limit the amount of power that any one person or institution has, they do that in very different ways.

The EU is an international organisation, like the United Nations or NATO, founded on treaties between its member countries.

The political leaders of those countries decide on the EU’s overall direction and political agenda, and national ministers are the main decision-makers when it comes to policies.

However, the EU far surpasses other international organisations in its democratic control, just as it reaches into far more areas of public policy than its counterparts elsewhere:

  • EU citizens directly elect the members of the European Parliament, which is a ‘co-legislator’ in most areas of EU activity. In other words, its approval is generally needed for new EU laws. These elections also then shape the choice of European Commission President, who needs to have the approval of the Parliament;
  • Citizens can ask for specific new laws to be considered by the EU, through a European Citizens’ Initiative, although this has not resulted in any new laws to date;
  • Member countries have accepted that the EU creates a set of legal rights, not only for states, but also for EU citizens, which they can rely on in court (‘direct effect’) and which cannot be overridden by those states (‘supremacy’ or precedence).

…but it’s not a typical international organisation

However, it is precisely because of the extent of these rights and processes that many observers question whether the EU should be judged by the yardstick of a state.

The EU court says that the treaties do, in effect, constitute a ‘constitutional charter’. The reach and depth of the Union’s activities make it look very different from other international bodies, which tend to have limited areas of responsibility.

Compared to a country, the EU has democratic shortcomings

Seen in that light, there are a number of key democratic shortcomings or failings, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellows Sara Hagemann and Simon Usherwood:

  • The European Council and the Council of Ministers (the two bodies where member countries meet) still hold many sessions in private or only partly make their records public, which makes it difficult to always know who has said what, or how individual countries have voted;
  • Much implementation of EU laws still happens under the opaque ‘comitology’ system, although it has been changed recently;
  • The European Parliament lacks some of the powers normally associated with national parliaments. It cannot formally propose new laws or raise taxes, for example;
  • There is no clear alternation of power. While different groups might gain more seats in the European Parliament, this is not necessarily matched by similar changes in the ‘executive’ branches of the EU—the European Commission, and the national governments in the Council;
  • The complexity of the system also makes it hard to ensure that EU funds are not misspent;
  • Perhaps most significantly, most EU citizens do not identify strongly with the EU, so some will argue that it doesn’t have the same legitimacy that national systems enjoy.

There are still questions about the right balance to strike

There is a tension that might be obvious from this list. The remedies that would most simply address them would also mean a considerable strengthening of EU powers, making it look even more like a state.

This dilemma has been seen most clearly with the increasing powers given to the European Parliament—which has nonetheless seen declining turnout for elections.

In the absence of a shared European community of the kind found within countries, it might not be possible—if at all desirable—to build a system that unifies people like many nation states have done. But this does not of itself mean that some form of democracy is impossible.

Dr Hagemann and Professor Usherwood say that the question is how to get the best balance in a system which seeks to address the needs of both states and peoples in Europe, especially within an EU that handles both mundane technical regulations and highly political questions.

Was this page useful to you? Yes  No


We aim for our factchecks to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed some relevant information, please email team@fullfact.org.