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The EU: more democratic than the US?

J Clive Matthews
26 September 2007
US vs EU

With all the complaints about the lack of democracy within the EU, it's easy to forget how little there is in other supposedly democratic organisations. Yes, the European Commission - one of the most powerful bodies in the EU - is unelected. But is that so unusual?

The US president is the top dog of the US executive. But the people do not directly elect their president. Sure, they VOTE for the president, but it is the Electoral College which actually makes the final decision. Hence Al Gore getting the majority of the popular vote in 2000, yet not winning the presidency (and that wasn't a one-off - see also Samuel Tilden getting more than Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Grover Cleveland getting more than Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and even - if you buy the tales of vote fraud - Richard Nixon getting more than John F Kennedy in 1960).

The rest of the executive is led by by the president's cabinet. Yet the US cabinet is solely appointed by the president - none of them are elected officials (unlike the UK where, as the executive is part of the legislature, the majority of members of the cabinet are democratically elected MPs). The president's choice of cabinet then has to be ratified by Congress.

How is this different to the EU system? The Commission has a strong case for being the closest the EU has to an executive. Its president is agreed by representatives of the democratically elected governments of the member states. These representatives are, arguably, equivalent to the United States' Electoral College voters. The Commission president-elect is then ratified by the democratically-elected European Parliament.

Then, of course, the president of the Commission appoints the commissioners - just as the US prsident appoints his cabinet. Only the Commission president has no say in who his commissioners are. Instead, the individual (again, democratically-elected) governments of the member states nominate their own commissioners. The Commission president then gives them their various positions. Again, these then have to be ratified by the European Parliament.

In the US, cabinet appointees all have to be ratified by the (democratically elected) Congress, just as European Commissioners have to be ratified by the European Parliament. Yet, arguably, for the US cabinet to have the same legitimacy as the European Commission, each (democratically elected) government of each US state would have to have the right to appoint its own cabinet member. So instead of Condi, Rumsfeld and the like, we'd have a bunch of people appointed by the state governments of Wisconsin, Idaho, South Carolina and the rest all vying for the president's attention. That would, technically, be more democratic than the current system, where the president's mates get all the best positions whether they've ever held elected office or not.

So then, considering that the president of the European Commision is chosen by agreement between the democratically elected representatives of the EU states, the commissioners are appinted by the democratically elected governments of the EU states, and both the president and the commissioners are confirmed in their positions by the democratically elected European Parliament, isn't the European Commission more democratic than the American executive, in which not even the president necessarily has to have a majority of voters behind him?

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