Should Britain Leave the EU to Regain Democratic Control of Our Lives?

Some people in Britain argue that the EU is undemocratic, or that it undermines democracy at the national level, and they use this as reason to want to leave the EU. Here's my take on this question.

The European Parliament has 733 members elected directly by the citizens of the member states. It legislates all EU laws. Importantly, the results of European elections, which take place every five years, are decided by proportional representation. The EU Commission is the executive branch of the EU. Commissioners are all appointed by the heads of governments of the member states. The President of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament after negotiations between the elected heads of government of the member states. There are three other 'Presidents', who head up the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council of Europe, but the President of the Commission is the titular head and most powerful EU official. He answers to the heads of government of the EU member states. No EU representative has their job as a result of birthright.

The UK Parliament in Westminster is divided into two chambers. The House of Commons has 650 members elected directly by British citizens. Results are decided by a First Past the Post system, which means it is possible for the party with the most number of votes to win fewer seats than the eventual winning party. It also means that smaller parties may win large numbers of votes but gain few seats. The Prime Minister is the head of government and is appointed by the Queen, and is nearly always the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. There is no direct election for the post of Prime Minister. The second chamber is the House of Lords. It shares the task of making and shaping laws as well as challenging the House of Commons. None of the members of the House of Lords are directly elected by the citizens of the UK. All are either hereditary peerages, or are appointees by the Queen on the recommendation of Prime Ministers past and present. The Queen, of course, is a hereditary monarch and is the Head of State of the UK. She was not elected by anyone.

An important issue is the role of unelected officials. The EU employs about 55,000 unelected officials to administer a population of 508 million people in 28 countries, and the UK government employs approximately 393,000 unelected officials - the Civil Service - to administer a population of 64 million in 1 country (or four countries if you take an alternative view). The EU's unelected officials are selected in a similar way that the UK Civil Service selects its employees; through open and fair competition administered by EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office. These officials are answerable to the elected members of the European Parliament or the European Commissioners. Similarly, members of the Civil Service in the UK are answerable to Parliament and the government of the day.

So, what does all this mean? Well, my understanding is that the EU is not really less democratic than the UK, and there is validity in arguing that it might be more democratic. For example, the issue of heredity and birthright is not an issue in the EU. The EU administration is, nevertheless, more geographically distant from citizens than the government in Westminster, but I think that it fulfils a vital role in tacking difficulties that national governments would have trouble tackling as effectively. Pollution or climate change, for example, don't respect national borders and need effective international cooperation which the EU can provide.

Moreover, and this is the important issue for me, the great majority of British people consent to Civil Servants - unelected officials - making decisions about our lives every day of the week. I don't see much difference if EU officials are doing the same thing, about issues and problems that are important to us and are additional, or supplementary to what the British government and local authorities also provide on our behalf. In summary, therefore, I don't think remaining in the EU presents Britain and British people with a democratic deficit. If anything, I think it enhances our democracy and provides more in the way of political methods and opportunities for resolving our common concerns. But more on that another time.