Our main intent is to objectively and necessarily critically look at Europe. However, we may be mistaken for an emphasis that appears to suggest we are looking mainly at the EU. We are not, but in this article by Europa United’s Brian Milne, it is central to an examination of democracy.

One of the omnipresent arguments raised by critics of the EU is that it is ‘undemocratic’. A question that must be raised in response is: What constitutes democracy? A democracy is a political system, or a system of decision-making within a country, institution or organisation in which all citizens, associates, members and participants share an equal proportion of power, thus responsibility. Since our context is contemporary democracies, we must take into account that they are characterised by two factors that differentiate them fundamentally from earlier forms of government. They necessarily have the capacity to intervene in their own societies to maintain the social order that is described as democratic. They also have the formal and internationally agreed recognition of their sovereignty by an international framework of similarly sovereign states, not all of which are democratic states themselves. Democratic governance is commonly juxtaposed with oligarchies consisting of a small group of people who take control of a country or organisation, not infrequently the military supporting a president or dictator, or monarchies which are ruled by a minority such as an aristocracy or council and, in some cases, entirely by the monarch. We expect particular characteristics and qualities to be present in the structures of a modern liberal democracy. They should be representative, transparent and accountable to the people who participate in them as citizens or some kind of associate or member. If these qualities are present, then democratic institutions normally enjoy legitimacy and authority. I propose to discuss the alleged absence or presence of these characteristics in Europe, concentrating mainly on the EU but also looking at influences on what we consider democracy to be.

The USA stands out before other states in that respect which, as I shall examine, is possibly the worst model we could ever choose. Let us begin with the EU, which on the face of it has a democratic structure. A common critique is that the European Commission is not elected although its members are delegated by member states and it is fully accountable to the European Parliament. All member states are represented in the Council of Ministers. Does that make it democratic or does it still have, as critics will argue, a democratic deficit? The EU is unquestionably representative, at least more so than many national parliaments, in that the European Parliament is made up of MEPs from all 27 EU member states, each elected using various forms of proportional representation. It is often argued that as a result, smaller states are over-represented in the European Parliament, and because voter turnout is typically appreciably lower than for national government elections. But that can hardly be justifiably claimed to be the European Parliament’s fault. All member states are represented in the Council of Ministers although, when the Council votes, smaller states have what appear to be disproportionate voting rights to prevent their interests being marginalised or simply dismissed by the five biggest states, who have roughly 70% of the EU’s population. If, when looked at objectively, we consider whether or not it would be justifiable for five nations to sideline twenty-two other member states we are confronted with a set of dilemmas. Are the interests of member states more important than those of the citizens of member states and how, if the EU is democratic, would different status of citizens depending on the size of their country be justified? In fact, if examined with an open mind, one will find that it is citizens who, in essence although allowing for extensive voter abstinence, come first.

Transparency and accountability

The EU fails a bit on transparency. Although the Council of Ministers holds public sessions, elected governments of member states are not enthusiastic about granting access to debates which are held behind closed doors, where most important decisions are made by the Council. Those meetings are not available online, minutes are not made public and representatives of the European Parliament are not allowed to attend. This is difficult to square with any claim that the Council is democratic. Yet the solution rests in the hands of national governments, who have only to call their government ministers, who make up the Council, to account for what they do in the name of their country, thus for the citizens they represent, in Brussels. But the majority of them are doing little, if anything, to remedy that. One of the other dilemmas arising in ensuring accountability is that, in the general absence of Europe-wide print and broadcast media, each country’s national press and broadcasters are expected to inform people about what goes on in Brussels. The present range of media are probably more right leaning, thus more concerned with their country than continent, with the smaller left doing something similar from another perspective. Centrist and liberal media that truly try to be impartial, thus inform what is actually happening rather than a version influenced by political position and proprietors, are few.

But there are opportunities for direct citizen involvement in EU matters. Citizens can lobby MEPs and it is often individual complaints from citizens that lead to groundbreaking legal judgments by the European Court of Justice. If an EU-wide petition attracts more than one million signatures from a range of countries, the European Commission must bring proposals about that subject before the European Parliament. The European Ombudsman also helps individuals pursue grievances which might involve maladministration by the EU’s institutions.

The verdict

Clearly the EU structure has defects when assessed using the normal values of Western democracy. Eurosceptics have consistently questioned the legitimacy of the EU. As part of membership, national parliaments have agreed to pool sovereignty in EU institutions, which they are perfectly entitled to do and have done so fully aware of the advantages and pitfalls in so doing. Several countries have asked their citizens to vote on decisions in referendums. Above all else, national governments in the shape of the Council of Ministers are the most powerful shared influence in shaping EU decisions rather than the European Parliament which has the right to object to EU legislation, thus bring the Commission to change it. By and large the EU has set out to be a democratic organisation. It has flaws, of course, but national governments tend to have just as many and not infrequently more. So is the EU really undemocratic? In contrast with the United Nations and its agencies or the World Trade Organisation, only democracies are able to join the EU. Theoretically, member states that backslide, thus abandoning democratic standards, can be sanctioned. That, however, is as yet somewhat open to interpretation, we have seen standards away from what are generally considered democratic in Poland and Hungary without sanctions being enacted.

Are there really unelected bureaucrats in charge?

The blunt answer must be ‘No’. When people talk about ‘the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels’, they tend to mean the European Commission. It is an organisation like no other that is something more than a civil service but less than a government. Composed of 27 commissioners from the member states, it drafts, enforces and observes EU laws; however it does not pass those laws. The commission is powerful in other ways: for instance, the EU competition commissioner can block mergers and fine multinational companies incredible sums, such as Intel who were fined a record €1.06bn for anti-competitive practices within the EU.

The commission cannot foist laws upon EU member states. For example, the commission spent eight years trying to get EU countries to agree to a law on cleaning up Europe’s contaminated soils, but eventually withdrew the bill in the face of an immovable blocking majority. Of course, one must bear in mind that the EU is not all of Europe, nor is it considered to typify how one views Europe. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are members of EFTA, either in the EEA or a signatory thereof, three countries, with 27 EU member states. Other countries are at present EU applicants. As a member of this bloc there are some required standards that appear undemocratic because they are obligatory. However, none of those standards or any other kind of European regulation is pushed by a powerful executive. At least, EU laws are agreed by two institutions: the council of ministers, comprising ministers from 27 EU governments and the European parliament. The European council, EU leaders meetings and the extension of agreements outside the EU/EFTA/EEA membership is done by agreement and not imposition.

MEPs have been directly elected since 1979, although voter turnout has been on a downward trend ever since. The European Parliament also has the power to dismiss the Commission and approves the appointment of the politicians who lead it. Since 2014, MEPs have chosen who gets to be President of the Commission, although that extension of the Parliament’s power has not exactly filled EU leaders with pleasure.

Is the USA more democratic?

So, to all intents and purposes, the EU is as close as any other body to an idealised vision of what democracy is. Yet it is still not trusted and the reference used for a model of modern democracy proffered by those who believe they know all about it will probably most often be the USA. They will probably also argue that the Constitution of the USA is effectively the document that best describes what a democratic country should be like. This is easily tested. If one loads the Constitution onto a computer, opens it as a text file then does a word search for ‘democracy’ it would be in vain. It is simply not there. The reason is that the founders of what is now the USA were vehemently opposed to the notion of democracy, saying that it was the second worst form of government after monarchy. Their greatest fear was that in a society where the majority had equal rights to powerful and wealthy minority who governed their country, they would be told what to do which may very easily not be in their best interests.

Thus those ‘Founding Fathers’ reviled democracies, whilst wishing to have democratic principles without the democracy.  For them it was as Plato wrote in The Republic, ‘And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.’ their position was that a democracy can easily be misappropriated as a means of establishing a totalitarian state. The Founding Fathers essentially understood this principle, possibly very erroneously, subsequently entirely rejected allowing their new, independent nation to become a democracy. They had few examples of that political system and the societies they engendered, but looked at the Greek and Roman histories and examples thereafter that had been demonstrations of instability and conflict, were rarely compatible with personal security or the rights of property and had usually been short-lived and came to violent ends in some cases.   They would have seen examples like the Golden Liberty, the so-called Nobles’ Democracy in Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was something like democratic for no more than ten percent of the population of the Commonwealth, the nobility, who elected the king. The other ninety percent of the population were excluded.

Then the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 saw soldiers from the Parliamentarian New Model Army and a faction of the Levellers freely were able to debate rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. The Levellers had a newspaper, The Moderate, that was ‘political’, broke new ground by starting political petitions, writing and distributing political pamphlets, then were the seeds of the opposing parliamentary grouping that became the Tories and Whigs in the English parliament. Although later, nonetheless that set in chain what became the Bill of Rights in 1689 that set out the requirement for regular parliaments that were the outcome of free elections (albeit by a minority for over two centuries), set the rules for freedom of speech in parliament and placed limits on the power of the monarch. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ from 1688 to 1689 in England brought the overthrow of the Catholic king James II, who was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. It contributed to making sure that royal absolutism would not prevail, unlike much of the rest of Europe at that time.

Closer to home and in their own history, William Penn had sought to construct a new type of community with religious toleration and a great deal of political freedom in the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania he published in 1682. It gave the colony a representative legislature and granted liberal freedoms to its citizens. Some of Penn’s pioneering ideas were later to contribute to the development of modern constitutionalism. Some significant ideas were for capital punishment to be applied to a strictly limited range of criminal offences such as murder and treason and legislated for freedom of worship in the colony to be unconditional.

James Madison, fourth president, who is also known as the Father of the Constitution, summarised what Plato had said over 2,000 years earlier when, in The Republic, he wrote that the loss of principles sends a democracy spiralling into tyranny:  ‘…the neglect of other things, introduce the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.’ In fact, consequently that word ‘democracy’ is  found in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution and Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution guarantees ‘to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.’ Madison said the people were to live bound by ‘republican constitutions’ that refer to both Federal and State Constitutions, but are not constitutions under a democracy.

Mass Political Parties

The Founding Fathers’ greatest failure of imagination was in not foreseeing the rise of mass political parties. The original parties unleashed an unanticipated cooling function, which bonded together various economic and regional interests through shared constitutional visions. The most significant movements for constitutional and social change in the nineteenth century were the product of strong, wide-ranging political parties.

There is a section which defines the form of government, though, and it clearly states that the people of the USA live governed by a republican form of government. So all the professional politicians who try to claim that the USA is a democracy are either ignorant or deceitful, and either way they should not be holding high office if that is what they believe.

Modern democracy is perhaps in a number of ways quite the opposite of ancient democracy. A modern democracy demands a constitution, there must be individual rights and liberties, there must be equality before the law with those rights and liberties, so too there must be civil rights and liberties, furthermore there must be human rights and there must be the rule of law to enforce and protect all rights and liberties. In a democracy, government is expected to be transparent and accountable. Outside of government there should be institutions of democracy such as a free and independent news media and widespread participation in labour unions. Ancient democracy disenfranchised a large part of a population, had no constitution and no branches of government or civil service beyond the governing body itself. Elections were reserved only for those voters eligible for direct democracy. It was exactly what the Founding Fathers of the USA feared in many ways, in that they were susceptible to mob rule and occasionally descended into chaos without a carefully regulated electorate.

Democracy or Mob Rule?

In the beginning, ancient philosophers speculated about the nature of ideal government, concluding that monarchy is best and democracy equivalent to ‘mob rule’. Consequently democracy had a bad name for more than two thousand years. However, early on ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ appeared to mean almost the same thing which, whatever it actually was, ‘democracy’ was the Greek word for it and ‘republic’ was the Latin.

By the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, the derogatory understanding of democracy changed to a desirable and favourable one. I would call it the true beginning of modern democracy when the word changed from being a bad idea to good. Since then political scientists and philosophers have attempted to give democracy ‘flesh’ by defining what its principles are plus sorting out to bad from the good, so that the mob rule ancient democracy feared would be excluded, making modern democracy the opposite of that. One of the qualities that demands that has not exactly worked out is that citizens should be properly informed in order to vote appropriately; to that end there must be a free and independent news media run by professional journalists with investigative powers and the freedom to tell truths. Unfortunately, corporatisation of media has ended any real prospect of that happening. Democracy is now a word many media use to justify political actions that are far from truly democratic but that we have, at this point in time, no real ability to challenge.

We also regard the Nordic/Scandinavian countries and Switzerland as model democracies. Citizen participation in governance is far more extensive than other European states. The Swiss have a federal popular initiative that is an instrument of direct democracy allowing citizens to propose changes to the Swiss Federal Constitution. A vote must be organised for every proposed modification that collects 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months. The Swiss also have up to four referendum days each year when there are proposals for changes in laws such as the initiative proposed to end the free movement of people into Switzerland from EU countries this year. The northern European states are somewhat less ‘generous’ with citizens’ initiatives but the possibility does exist in most of them; yet there is a certain amount of political regulation as we have seen in the case of right wing parties that have been more or less outlawed over recent years.

The forthcoming election in the USA is putting any democratic credentials they claim to have on trial. The exclusions, the reasons for them particularly, will tell us more. However, it is very clear that the use of the word ‘democratic’ would be disingenuous if anybody attempted to describe what is happening now as being that. If anything, once the result of the election is clear it is more likely that the USA will be more divided rather than less, precisely what the majority of European states wish to avoid. For our European democracy to survive, the fact that countries are different in a number of essential areas, that is to say law, constitution, welfare, education and other areas that allow us to claim we are democratic and that those nations in the EU share a democracy of different denominators. That, perhaps, provides one of the strongest arguments against ever becoming a federal state rather than the present union. On existing evidence it would appear that federal states historically and in the present are those that reject democracy, preferring a republican system.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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