If not the EU, who will Britain blame for its democratic deficit?

Debating the ‘in-or-out’ question is only a smokescreen hiding the elephant in the room: the state of national democracy.

‘Technocratic’, ‘Elitist’, ‘Unaccountable’ - these are some of the many adjectives used to qualify the European Union and its democratic deficit. Those terms are certainly true and the current challenge to the EU is without precedent. The Eurozone crisis is a litmus test for European solidarity, while the distance between EU institutions and European citizens has never been so acute.

It was therefore no surprise to hear PM David Cameron call for ‘power […] to flow back to Member States, not just away from them’. ‘A lack of democratic accountability and consent’ was stressed as particularly resented in the UK and heralded as one of the reasons to put to referendum an ‘in-or-out’ question by 2017 to the British people. Above all, the speech was needed to respond domestically to the rampant Euroscepticism across the Channel.

Yet, this announcement hides a profound malaise among European democracies - to which Britain is no exception. Like many other European countries, Britain is affected by a global distrust towards representative democracy. The Occupy Wall Street movement, the St Paul’s Cathedral sittings or the demonstrations against the construction of a second airport in Nantes in France, are symptomatic of alternative modes of expression by an electorate disappointed by their elected representatives. Mass media have contributed to the rise of an ‘audience democracy’ which consecrates the reign of political communication and the demise of traditional representative democracy.

In fact, PM Cameron should be thanked for threatening to withdraw from the EU and by the same token calling for a UK-wide debate on the crisis of democracy at home and in the EU. Ironically, the UK could play the role of pioneer for other European countries suffering from the same sickness. Nonetheless, this requires leadership and guts from British parliamentarians and civil society to frame the terms of the debate beyond the electoral short-termism of PM Cameron and the Labour Opposition. Facing such a historical decision, the British public sphere needs to perform a proper health-check of British democracy.

Let’s start with the role of national parliaments, called by PM Cameron to play ‘a bigger and more significant role’ in a Europe where the UK could cherry-pick its fields of cooperation. This wishful thinking for a special deal at half-price in Europe is misleading for two reasons. First, while the delegation of some competences to EU institutions has in some instances been detrimental to the British Parliament, the root of the problem lies in an overwhelmingly strong British executive. Second, British Houses of Parliament have actually gained some power over the scrutiny of the executive thanks to the EU! 

Power flowing back to already strengthened European Governments?

While power has been devolved to the EU, European heads of state and governments keep a firm grip on policy-making. With varying degrees, both consensual and majoritarian democracies in Europe have undergone a phenomenon of 'presidentialisation' of the function of prime minister. In France, the election of François Hollande, who promised to ‘normalise’ the function of president, echoes the deep frustration that this personalisation of power (in this case Nicolas Sarkozy's 'hyper-presidential' governing style) has induced amongst citizens.

The UK has not been immune either, and it played a pioneer role under Tony Blair by concentrating power in the hands of Number 10 in two key ways.

First, the British executive, like many others in Europe, has used EU affairs to gain power in the name of presenting a strategic and coherent position in Brussels. The Cabinet Office European Secretariat has skilfully played this trump card over the rest of Whitehall and gained the monopoly over negotiating the UK’s position on EU dossiers. Under Blair, this strategy raised the opposition of the Treasury and the subsequent ‘five’ tests of Brown, undermining the coherence of the UK’s position at the time.

Overall this has exacerbated asymmetries of powers between Number 10 and the administration. Another instance of this over-centralisation was epitomized by the war in Iraq when the executive ignored the Houses of Parliament and public demonstrations.

Second, by delegating the regulation of public policies to agencies and other quangos, the UK government found a handy way to outsourcing accountability while preserving its central power. It allowed them to externalise costs to external entities, to outsource public expenditures, while ensuring that its commitment to a public policy remained credible. The ‘bonfire of quangos’ illustrates quite well this blame-avoidance for bodies accused of driving an unaccountable expertocracy. If anything goes wrong the executive can easily blame it on those expert bodies. This is exactly what happened during the summer of 2011 with the row between Home Secretary Theresa May and the UK Border Agency for relaxing border controls. This necessarily constitutes a source of frustration for parliaments when they want to scrutinise European executives.

Reproaching the EU for being ‘technocratic’ by delegating key policies of the internal market to non-elected bodies like the European Central Bank or the European Food Safety Agency is therefore reflecting a trend at UK level whereby, following the ideological discourse of New Public Management, the accountability of quangos is as much at stake as EU agencies.

The need for stronger Parliaments

A second reason for not buying the argument of powers coming back to national parliaments is precisely that European integration has helped them to gain powers over strong executives. The fans of the TV series Borgen know that the Danish Parliament is a place where consociational politics leads to a ‘better, kinder and gentler’ democracy. The scrutiny committee of the Danish Folketing controls the mandate of the government on EU affairs on every single bill discussed in Brussels. Similarly, following the Dutch ‘no’ to the Constitution in 2005, scrutiny of EU affairs was introduced horizontally in all committees of the Tweede Kamer. They have been able to play an influential role when ‘Europe hits home’.

In the UK, European integration has been instrumental for the Houses of Parliament in holding the executive accountable. The House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords’ European Select Committee conduct detailed and authoritative investigative studies and public hearings. European integration has considerably transformed the way national parliaments work and adapt in a multi-level governance environment.

Yet, the power of national parliaments over EU affairs is far from satisfactory. There are still very few plenary debates on EU issues in national parliaments, and not all parliaments have put in place tight control over the executive like the Dutch Tweede Kamer or the Danish Folkesting. What I am suggesting though is that instead of always blaming the EU, it is time to reconsider democracy at home and to strengthen the asymmetries of power between the Houses and the executive. Debating the ‘in-or-out’ question is only a smokescreen hiding the elephant in the room: the state of national democracy.

The need to deliberate on democracy in the UK and Europe

My argument is not to deny the existence of a democratic deficit in Europe. Rather, I believe that it is misleading to affirm power will flow back to parliaments when the latter have used Europe as a pawn on the domestic chess game. Once out of Europe, to whom will the power go back and how?

While of course a lot of water will flow under the bridge until 2017, the Brexit scenario should act as a wake-up call for British politicians. So far, like other European politicians, they have been extremely skilful in blaming it all on the EU. The working time directive has become UK’s pet peeve. Working hours are being imposed on British hospitals ‘irrespective of the views of British parliamentarians’. The prize of ‘Britain’s favourite scapegoat’ is distributed across supranational institutions like the European Court of Human Rights. Britain’s sovereignty and human rights tradition, we are told, was undermined when the Strasbourg Court condemned the UK for not allowing prisoners to vote.

A serious and careful reframing of the debate is needed. There is a good chance that the debate until 2017 will give rise to considerable domestic manipulation by and between the Conservatives and UKIP but also by the Labour party. Short-term electoral considerations will trump historical wisdom, hiding the need for a serious debate on the crisis of democracy in the UK and in Europe.

Citizens are ‘critical’, but still have faith in democracy as evidenced by Norris, for example in her book Democratic Deficit. The EU has introduced a multi-level governance dimension that challenges the terms of traditional representative democracy. The EU provides new channels of participation for diverse groups in society and has been portrayed as a ‘pluralist’ or ‘participatory’ democracy whereby civil society can influence policy-making.

Those alternative voices need to be heard. It is time to ‘deliberate’ about democracy in the UK and in Europe. Deliberative democracy as advocated by Fishkin should be structured around accurate information and a diversity of positions, with conscientious arguments by the public considered equally. There is no silver bullet to this kind of deliberation, but I believe that a first step would be more not less Europe, with a European Parliament electing the President of the Commission. Its ‘participatory nature’ would then have to be strengthened, to counter-balance the risk of an ultimately strong EU executive. Instead of asking British people whether they should stay or leave the EU, it would be wiser to ask them what kind of Europe they want and how do they want to anchor their own democracy to it.

Realistically, the EU will remain in the top charts of the UK’s pet peeve at least until 2017 and for a while beyond that. But then, if PM Cameron’s plans go smoothly, who will be blamed for British democracy’s deficiencies? Who will make the tabloid headlines? What sort of defence are British politicians going to propose instead of ‘Brussels has decided that’ to explain collective decisions in which they have been actively involved? Possibly the most risky strategy is to continue to blame it on the EU and to avoid a meaningful interrogation of British democracy. This is not only true for the UK, but has echos and parallels for countries throughout Europe.

About the author

Sarah Wolff is Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London and Senior Research Associate at The Netherlands Institute for International Relations.