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Leave Argument: The EU is undemocratic

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Eurosceptics often claim that the EU is undemocratic. They argue that the EU’s decision-making procedures make it difficult for EU citizens to influence policy. Due to their complexity, these procedures also seem inaccessible to the ordinary voter. EU citizens do not feel that they have an effective way to change the course of EU politics and policy. Public disaffection has been expressed in the low turnouts at European elections, which reached an all-time low in 2014 with an EU average of just 42%.

The decision-making process

According to many critics, the European Commission enjoys too much political power for an institution that is not directly elected by EU citizens. The Commission President is elected by the European Parliament. The commissioners are chosen in a process involving the President, national governments, the European Council and the Parliament. Because its members cannot be put in place or removed by the European electorate, and its powers are extensive, critics suggest the Commission does not allow the EU electorate to sufficiently influence the creation of legislation.

EU citizens can try to influence policy directly via the European Citizens’ Initiative. Introduced in 2007, it allows one million EU citizens to call directly on the Commission to propose a legal act in an area where member states have conferred powers to the EU. Critics suggest it has not been successful. There are examples of campaigners facing legal hurdles, such as a lack of advice, and technical issues, such as a complex online signature-collection system. There are also different data requirements in different member states. Many Citizens’ Initiatives proposed so far have had little impact on EU legislation.

The laws that the Commission creates usually have to be accepted by two other institutions: the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union (the Council). As the only directly-elected EU body, the European Parliament is supposed to be the democratic forum for the people of Europe. However critics suggest that the Parliament does not have the power to adequately represent EU citizens. Only the Commission can propose new legislation. Whilst the Parliament usually has to approve this legislation, the influence it has over what is adopted can be small.

There are also policy areas, such as internal market exemptions or competition law, where the Council may consult the Parliament but is not bound by the Parliament’s recommendations. This effectively removes the only directly-elected body from the decision-making process. An LSE study showed examples within competition policy where the Commission had gone ahead with reforms without heeding the Parliament’s advice. In one example MEPs wanted a competition policy that contained protections for workers, SMEs, consumers, and the environment. The Commission only put economic efficiency as a priority. MEPs complained of imperfect transparency in the Commission’s management of the reform process and for being alienated by the Commission. According to critics, the lack of power given to the only directly-elected institution curtails the opportunity for public engagement.

Policy can also be created outside of the legislative process, via treaty recommendations and other agreements. One way to do this is via the European Council. This is made up of the heads of state or government from each of the 28 EU countries. The European Council chooses the EU’s overall direction and political priorities.

Critics argue that some countries, such as Germany, have too much influence outside of the legislative process, especially in the European Council. One example is the 2012 Fiscal Compact Treaty which committed signatories to balanced budgets, public debts less than 60% of gross domestic product, automatic penalties, and supervision by the Commission. It restricted the fiscal policy space of member states. Because it cannot be revised by the legislative process, which includes the directly-elected Parliament, and because some believe the treaty was forced through by Germany, signatory member states have lost their domestic fiscal power without having much influence over the decision to adopt it. However some member states, such as the UK and the Czech Republic, did not sign. It is also undemocratic because the unelected Commission has influence over the fiscal choices of elected national governments.

Examples of undemocratic decisions

Critics suggest that the EU’s decision making system has led to undemocratic decisions. For example, in 2010 Greece started implementing austerity measures as part of its bailout deal with the IMF, the European Central Bank and the Commission. With unemployment at over 25%, it was feared by some that these measures were doing more harm than good. A referendum was held in July 2015 in Greece where 61% of voters rejected the austerity measures. However the Greek government accepted bailout terms even harsher than those rejected in the referendum. These included supervision of government spending and EU control over the sale of state assets. With austerity measures harming Greece’s welfare system, employment rate and ability to generate wealth, critics argue that Greece has been forced to accept damaging economic policies that ignore the democratic choice made by Greek voters in the referendum.