Mill and EU democracy

J Clive Matthews
21 September 2007
John Stuart Mill

"Political machinery does not act of itself. As it is first made, so it has to be worked, by men, and even by ordinary men. It needs, not their simple acquiescence, but their active participation" - John Stuart Mill, Considerations On Representative Government (1861)

One of the prime aims of deliberative polling is to get around the problem of rational ignorance, the tendency of voters in a democracy to ignore issues that affect them due to the perception that their vote, just one in millions, can have little impact. Without an informed public that feels that its opinion counts, the accountability of any government - or in the case of the EU, proto-government - is greatly diminished. When the electorate in question is nearly half a billion strong, and when the issues on which they are voting are as complex as those involved with the EU, rational ignorance becomes an even greater problem.

Mill was fully aware of the problem of rational ignorance, even though he would not have known it by that term, arguing that "representative institutions are of little value, and may be a mere instrument of tyranny or intrigue, when the generality of electors are not sufficiently interested in their own government to give their vote… Polular election thus practised, instead of a security against misgovernment, is but an additional wheel in its machinery".

It is strangely reminiscent of Giscard d'Estang's comment about how the governments of the EU member states relish the public's state of confusion over the union's direction and purpose. Without public understanding, public participation diminishes. The lack of democratic accountability within the EU is one of its most damning problems, yet - bar the occasional call for a referendum on the constitution / reform treaty - there is surprisingly little noise made about the lack of democracy from the EU citizenship at large.

Mill uses a classical example to illustrate the difficulty of democracy - one more than reminiscent of that used by Professor Fishkin to describe the thinking behind his deliberative poll:

"In the ancient world, though there might be, and often was, great individual or local independence, there could be nothing like a regulated popular government beyond the bounds of a single city-community; because there did not exist the physical conditions for the formation and propagation of a public opinion, except among those who could be brought together to discuss public matters in the same agora."

Replace "city-community" with "EU member state", that's Europe's problem in a nutshell.

The EU is supposed to work for the good of all its states and citizens. Yet with no pan-European media, no pan-European language, no pan-European political discussion, each member state is currently working more or less in isolation in pursuit of its own national interest.

In such a situation, is a pan-European democracy even possible? And is Tomorrow's Europe's attempt to create a microcosm of that ideal pan-European community - with language barriers broken and discussion fully encouraged - a useful tool to find out what the people of Europe really think, or does the artifice of the poll's makeup render any findings so disconnected from the current reality as to be irrelevant?

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData