Brexit and national democracy

There are several ways to interpret the result of the British referendum on European membership. One is to treat it as a choice of national democracy over continental multilateralism. People equate European integration to a loss of control, to a diminution in their government’s power. The thinking is that national and EU-level politics are mutually exclusive. Democracy at home means less power for the Brussels apparatus and vice versa. Notions of “getting our country back” and reclaiming control over its borders and territory conform with this mindset. And this is not a British fixation. Many politicians across Europe raise similar concerns. The Brits just are the first to hold a referendum on it.

Seeing this phenomenon unfold, three main questions are posed:

  1. Does the binary hold true; or can there be a scenario where national democracy is complemented—and indeed enhanced by—Europe-wide governance?
  2. Is European integration the antithesis of national sovereignty or an extension of it; and can European integration be forwarded in the absence of sovereign nation states?
  3. What is there to national democracy that is absent from the European Union’s institutional order?

Let us consider each theme at some greater length.

Politics seldom is about binary realities

Nuance is the single most important charactestic of the political process. Unlike controlled experiments, politics involves a multitude of possible truths, while it lacks a single objective criterion to evaluate them. Put differently, seemingly opposed views on a given subject may both rest on some basic fact, hence the old addage that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

On the particular issue of the ostensible binary choice between national democracy and the EU we may consider the following:

  • Scope. The EU is, for all intents and purposes, a federal system. Different levels of government deal with different areas of policy. What is a purely local subject is handled by the local authorities. Nation-wide policies fall inside the jurisdiction of the national government. European or cross-border issues are examined and legislated upon at the EU level. This is also known as the principle of subsidiarity. It stipulates that all decisions be taken at the appropriate administrative level.
  • Vertical separation of powers. Implicit in the various scopes of policy is a bottom-up distribution of authority. Otherwise the scopes would overlap. The EU’s primary law ensures the vertical separation of powers by a series of constitutional provisions on what ‘Brussels’ can actually do. Without getting into the technicalities, the principle of conferral guarantees that European institutions exercise power only over areas of policy that they are authorised to. And “authorised” is the operative term, for it is the nation states (the EU Member States) that bestow legitimacy on those treaties. What conferral basically means is that what is not explicitly given to the EU remains with the national authorities. The exhaustive list of competences is rather short.1
  • Intergovernmentalism. One of the reasons “Brussels” is a misleading reference is that it makes it sound as though only technocrats get to decide on European policy. The truth however is quite different. The EU institutional order is such that national governments have the first and final word on virtually every policy. Notwithstanding the fact that nations are the founders of the EU, governments get to give the direction of European integration through the institution of the European Council. It practically is the entity that instructs the European Commission to proceed with a given piece of law or action plan. Speaking of the law, the national governments now congregating as Council of the European Union engage in co-legislating on all areas of policy (together with the European Parliament). Lastly, many important yet less prominent formations, such as the Eurogroup, rely on input from national governments. The notion of some bureaucracy in Brussels issuing edicts to elected leaders is simply misinformed.

Couched in those terms, we may begin to forward a counter-argument to the view that national democracy and the EU cannot coexist. There are basically three elements to the thesis that they do in fact reinforce each other:

  1. Standards. To the average citizen the discussion about European standards may seem to confirm the belief that the EU is but a bureaucrat’s power fantasy. Yet a more objective look at the matter will reveal how every citizen gets to benefit from such policies. Environmental standards and consumer protection are but a few. Also the effective abolition of roaming charges inside the EU is something the ‘average tourist’ greatly appreciates. The next big thing will be a single digital market. Once that is in place, everyone will be wondering how they managed to cope without it.
  2. Knowledge sharing. Coming from Cyprus, I can confirm that the EU offers a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of fellow Europeans. Best practices for individual policies are either embedded in EU programmes or are otherwise highlighted in studies by the European Commission (without prejudice to bilateral exchanges of information). Again, this may sound trivial, yet it goes to show how the common institutional space of the EU provides for the sharing of knowledge, while opening up opportunities for cross-border initiatives, as well as for drawing linkages between various social and economic actors.
  3. Democracy is a function of sovereignty. Some think of national democracy as a realm of endless opportunities. Once we get our country back, the thinking goes, we can do whatever we want with our lives. That is an oversimplification of international politics and indeed a dangerous folly if taken at face value. The boundaries of possibility in a polity are drawn by the relative power it can yield on the global setting. Take Brexit as a case in point. The British government will have to negotiate trade terms with the rest of Europe from a position of weakness. Similarly, it will have to find ways to cooperate with the rest of world and may once again discover that compromise is an essential feature of inter-state politics. Citizens will eventually recognise that they may only get out of their democracy whatever their actual sovereign control provides for. What the EU represents in this regard is a concerted effort by European nations to amplify their collective bargaining power in an era of globalisation. Doing so offers more flexibility to decide at home what is best for Europe, rather than have it imposed by the big powers of the world, be it other states or multinational corporations.

EU integration is based on national sovereignty

The idea that the EU is some foreign or external entity is not based on facts. European integration exists because the participating nation states want it to. The Union’s primary law is agreed upon by national governments and ratified by their respective parliaments. As mentioned above, national authorities are involved in day-to-day European politics. The role of the much-maligned eurocrat is to carry out the practical work required of them, not issue commands to the capitals of Europe.

But the interconnectedness of national and European politics does not end there. Take the European Parliament. It is the only EU institution that enjoys direct input legitimacy. Citizens across Europe get to vote on their representatives, the MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). Their role is to legislate on European policy. In this sense, they represent Europe’s interests at-large. Yet the practical mode of promoting the European good is by bringing forth—and then synthesising—the experiences and opinions of the nations/regions being represented by the MEPs.

Furthermore and lest we forget, MEPs are politicians. They too need to win votes. A good portion of that is achieved by listening to citizens in their constituency and bringing that feedback into the EU’s law-making process. Obviously the loop between the local level and the European Parliament is not as immediate as it is for the national parliament. That is to be expected though. It is not a deficiency of the system. You see the European Parliament has a different scope of action than the national parliaments. If it were to directly interfere in national affairs, it would be undermining the EU’s vertical separation of powers.

Similar arguments can be forwarded for less known entities like Europol, but I believe the point is clear: European integration and national sovereignty are intertwined.

What the EU democracy lacks

So far we are making the case for understanding things in their actuality. We are not being apologetic of the EU. Towards that end, there is a basic truth in the pro-national-democracy camp. The nation state offers an immediate option to get rid of the executive at the next election. Whereas with the EU things are much more complicated.

Europe does not have a single executive. It actually has two or, as I would put it, its executive branch features a certain bifurcation in its deciding and implementing functions.

There is the European Commission. This is the entity that does all the day-to-day work one expects from the executive. It initiates the legilative process, gets to monitor the implementation of European law, conducts studies and formulates action plans in an effort to pursue its Treaty-based objectives. However we cannot refer to it as a “European government” for a couple of reasons: (i) it does not enjoy direct input legitimacy, (ii) it does not have the first and final say over a range of policies. The former consists in the fact that the Commission’s leadership is effectively appointed in office by the heads of state of the Member States (though the spitzenkandidaten process has slightly improved things). As for the latter, it has to do with the other EU institution that has an executive role: the European Council.

The European Council is where the heads of state or government of all the Member States meet. What they do is decide on strategic aspects of the European integration process. Basically, European leaders define the direction the EU will take and, in many ways, provide an outline of the specificities that will characterise it. In practice this works as follows:

  • the European Council adopts a set of short-to-medium term priorities;
  • it then instructs the European Commission to flesh out the details;
  • the Commission will do all that is necessary and, if need be, will set in motion the required legal reforms.

Put simply, the European Council decides, while the Commission implements. This state of affairs is what qualifies the EU executive as a special case.

Coming back to the democratic aspect of it, the European Council as such cannot be voted out of office. British citizens cannot, for instance, vote against Ms. Merkel. That is for the Germans to decide. And as it is well known, there is no such thing as an instituted European demos that could directly elect its new EU government.

It is here where the complaints about Europe’s “democratic deficit” hold merit. Still though, and in light of all the aforementioned, it seems that fixing the EU’s institutional arrangements is far more pragmatic than any plan for abolishing the EU altogether.

European democracy will be an achievement

Something as grand and ambitious as the European Union cannot be developed overnight. This is in fact the case with every nation in Europe. It is not like they invented democracy the one day and enjoyed it ever after. Even recent history dating back to World War I tells us that normative achievements, such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights, are indeed that: achievements, which require great effort and persistence in order to be realised and sustained.

It is easy to complain about the inadequacies of the EU. But remaining at that level is counter-productive. The difficult task, the one that may yield longer term gains, is to think of—or act on—ways that can make meaningful changes to the system. Even those who outright support the EU recognise its flaws. They understand that there is a chasm separating the average citizen from European politics. It can be bridged though, provided the public dialogue shifts from exchanges in exaggerations and falsehoods, to the application of systematic and practical thinking.

Brexit could have triggered a general rethink of what it means to be European and to blithely pursue integration between the European nation states. Alas, the discussion was reduced to a war of misinformation. No side really won anything out of it. Only time will tell whether the rest of Europe saw in the Brexit referendum an example to be avoided, replaced instead by a broad-based movement for democratic reform and greater participation in the commons.

  1. For an in-depth analysis of the EU and its distribution of competences, consider my free book: Little Guide to the European Union^

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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