Democracy in a small enough context can mean that people can individually influence decisions that may affect them. It does not mean that they will get their own way, for of course they may be outvoted, so it may still happen that a democratic decision is imposed on the unwilling. Nor is there any guarantee that decisions will be good ones, for the majority may be wrong just as any individual can be wrong. But at least everyone has a chance to influence the decision. The tyranny of a majority you had a chance to be part of is somehow more palatable than a tyranny you were excluded from altogether.
This idea (sentiment?) has to be abandoned however when the number of people involved is too great. Even before that threshold is passed, decisions may be sufficiently complex that many individuals do not have the knowledge or experience to make an informed decision. They will then probably follow with their vote whomever they feel has the right expertise and commands their confidence. So we quickly arrive at the idea of representative or leadership democracy. If we cannot all participate in every decision, because of numbers or complexity, the next best thing is to have a say in who gets to make decisions. This is the basis of western democracy in its many forms.
The people get to choose periodically who will rule and crucially they get to remove leaders who no longer impress, so that the rulers must always bear this in mind in their decision making. Combined with checks and balances, such as divisions of power and rights of appeal, transparency and openness of information where these exist, this is the way most western states are organised. At its heart is the idea that power depends on and derives from the consent of the majority of the people for a given individual or group to lead, a consent which may be withdrawn if the results are unsatisfactory or unpalatable.
A significant part of the case against the European Union is that it has been deliberately designed to evade such democratic control. Despite the changes in the Lisbon Treaty, the unelected Commission not only holds great executive power and has the duty to enforce EU decisions against member states but has the sole right to propose legislation. Basically, much can happen just because the Commission wants it to happen and nothing can happen unless the Commission proposes it should. True, the European Parliament must now approve the appointment of the Commission initially and has the somewhat “nuclear” option to dismiss the whole Commission by a vote of no confidence. But whatever its supporters may say, this is far from being the same as the way governments are chosen in parliamentary democracies, where executive power goes to those who have participated in and won an election themselves. Besides, if the Parliament does refuse to ratify the commission it opposes itself to the Council of ministers rather than the Commisssion. And once ratified, to a large degree there are no democratic controls on the executive powers of the Commission. Yet it acts in many respects as the European Government. Indeed, it is charged to take its own view of what is best for Europe, in contrast to the council of ministers where national government interests are represented or the parliament which, however inadequately, represents the people directly.
Unfortunately, this is a highly technical issue which does not lend itself to soundbites. But significant reform in this area, possibly even abolishing the Commission or replacing it with a regulatory body without a stranglehold on legislation or wide executive powers, would go a long way to changing popular perception of the EU and making its institutions more accountable and responsive to its people. It should be central to the debate about whether the UK continues to be a member.
After all, that debate should not be about trade and whether membership adds or subtracts on balance from UK GDP, because nobody really knows about that and the putative answers that are touted are all compromised by self interest.
It should not be about whether the UK can again be a great power on its own, because the negative answer to that question is surely beyond debate and only nostalgia keeps the argument alive.
It should not even be about control of borders because as the current refugee crisis shows sheer numbers rather than laws are the issue there.
It should certainly not be about entitlement to welfare benefits which seems to have risen to the top of the U.K. wish list, maybe (is this too cynical?) because it can be settled very easily.
The debate should simply be about the way we in the UK relate to the rest of Europe. It makes no sense to have an antagonistic attitude to our nearest neighbours, we must surely cooperate on as many issues as possible. We must trade with them as much as possible and we need to find joint solutions to many problems, not least security and the environment, which in the modern world a single nation state cannot address in isolation. It does not necessarily follow however that we should all have the same laws, the same currency or the same policies, still less merge our national identities into a supra-national state.
But the combination of the Commission’s powers and the de facto position that it alone represents a European standpoint means that at the heart of all European legislation is a drive towards more and more integration – closer and closer union. It is no use the President of the Council (the key intergovernmental body) assuring the UK government that closer union is not an aim of the EU, nor the UK government interpreting that as an “opt-out” from closer union for the UK. The institutions of the EU and in particular the Commission enshrine integration as an objective and put incremental progress towards it beyond democratic control.
So the question is whether it is better for the UK to stay in the EU as it stands and try to reform it from within, or to leave and try to encourage it to evolve in a sensible, more democratic, non-integrationist direction from without. The pity is that the current renegotiation might have given us a unique opportunity to push for change, but it looks like the chance will be squandered for some relatively minor reform of welfare entitlements. It has to be said that a strategy of reform from within has failed miserably so far – and why wouldn’t it, when the powerful original members are pro-integration? Why then should we expect it to work in the future? Thus the choice is to accept a flawed and ill-founded set of institutions which reduce our freedoms and take us towards a destination none of us want, or leave and try to start again. Neither option is attractive or without danger. But Brexit may be the lesser of two evils.
One thing is certain. A “yes” vote in the referendum will mean business as usual. A “no” might mean that the will of the people is taken seriously in Brussels and Berlin and that renegotiation acquires new urgency even after the vote.