The EU and democracy: the EU as undemocratic and as antidemocratic?

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The packed launch event of Costas Lapavitsas’ The Left Case Against the EU earlier this week suggested that there is increasingly fertile ground for arguments against the European Union that appeal to Leftists. While these arguments have been made previously — indeed, nothing in what I’ve written here is new — it is crucial to continue to make them. As a second referendum looks ever more likely, socialists will have to arm themselves with a set of arguments aimed at convincing as many people as possible that the EU and democracy are incompatible.


The EU is incompatible with democracy in two distinct ways. It is undemocratic, suffering from a well-known “democratic deficit” such that its institutions are structured to give political power to unelected and unaccountable officials. But it is also anti-democratic: the effect of the EU on the domestic politics of member states is to downplay the importance of democratic decision-making processes in those states. It is this latter sense that is often overlooked in debates around Brexit: when we leave the EU, it will change (gradually at first) politics at the national level. And it is precisely this change that the Left should defend in arguments around Brexit.

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The undemocratic nature of the EU was widely recognised prior to the Referendum. It was painted much more frequently before June 2016 than after as an institution lacking the sort of widespread popular support that ordinarily legitimises our political institutions.

The acceptance of the undemocratic character of the EU by Remain voters with a sympathy towards the Left is problematic in and of itself. But it also reflects a wider trend in the understanding of what democracy is. “Democracy “as a concept has two interrelated elements: a popular sovereignty aspect (centrally voting) and an institutional element (including checks and balances, political rights, representative structures, and an independent judiciary). As Peter Mair traces in his Ruling the Void (Verso, 2013), in the post-war period of European democracy, and accelerating from the 1990s onwards, we see a clear shift from seeing democracy in terms of the former to understanding it in terms of the latter. In other words, the actual fact of publics coming out to vote (and derivatively their propensity to be members of political parties, trade unions, and other associative institutions of civil society) becomes increasingly peripheral to the conceptual understanding of democracy. Of course, the dynamic created here is clear: popular support (for instance voter turnout in national elections) eludes European political systems, and as a consequence it is argued by those in power to be a less important constituent element of what legitimates those systems.

The structural problems of the EU in regard to democracy are not difficult to see. The bodies of the EU’s “executive” (centrally the Council and the Commission) are not elected, while the bodies of the legislative are either not elected (the Council) or the process for their election is not democratic (the Parliament). Elections for the Parliament are not democratic in a constitutive rather than a procedural sense. As Costas Lapavitsas points out, the process for electing the European Parliament is not democratic because it lacks a demos — there is no European demos. Without a demos, democracy is impossible. As Lapavitsas puts it,

No class or other social divisions in Europe take a homogeneous “European” form, for there are no occupational, organizational, habitual, cultural, and historical norms able to create such an overarching social integration. Actual class divisions in Europe always take a national form, as do the party politics that correspond to these divisions. In Marxist terms there is neither a European capitalist class nor a European working class. (The Left Case Against the EU, London: Polity, 2018, p. 113.)

The democratic argument should have been the Left’s central claim prior to, and after, the Referendum.

Brexit has delivered a series of harsh lessons for the Left, but none more central than that it’s crucial to see and defend socialism as an extension of democracy (rather than a set of policies that help the worst off in society or address inequality — that’s left liberalism). The Left, though, in general continues to choose not to make arguments based on democracy or on class. Indeed, the main claim of the Remain campaign ended up being an appeal to the “Europeanness” of Remain supporters. The democratic deficit of the EU is widely accepted, but it is the Right that has generally been more prepared to organise on the basis of an appeal to the idea of democracy.

What goes less frequently analysed in accounts of the EU from a Left perspective is its role in the depoliticizing dynamic of contemporary European politics. The EU has a much greater effect on the national politics of member states than is often realised, although it is difficult to find many people on the Left who think through seriously the consequences of EU membership on the character of British politics. The critical point here (as argued by Chris Bickerton and others at The Full Brexit) is that EU integration involves a crucial shift from nation statehood to member statehood. Aside from legal and constitutional changes, there is a more profound political transformation. The EU comes to stand in for the national polity as a source of legitimacy for political decisions. The function of EU membership, seen from the perspective of democracy, has been to contribute centrally to the dynamic of the decreasing importance of popular sovereignty to what we understand as “democracy”. The EU offers a specific brand of technocratic legitimacy to national decisions made by heads of state, with the consequence of distancing the public from decision making. This is both a result of the distance between politicians and the public at a national level (and the concomitant lack of trust of the former in the latter), and a cause of it (which then reduces public trust in a removed and unresponsive political class).

The EU, then, is anti-democratic in the sense that it is part of a political dynamic aimed at eroding one of the two poles of democracy, namely that of mass participation or popular sovereignty at the national level.

In sum, the EU is not only internally fatally flawed with respect to democracy, but it also plays an important role in the erosion of mass participation at the national level. Therefore, quite apart from the travestying of democracy that a second referendum would represent, the Left should welcome the potential for repoliticization offered by Brexit.


Brave New Europe have re-posted this at: https://braveneweurope.com/george-hoare-the-eu-and-democracy-the-eu-as-undemocratic-and-as-antidemocratic. I’m a big supporter of BNE, which is a great source for articles and podcasts on European politics.

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