Brexit Exposes the EU's Democracy Problem

Crumbling EU tiles. Flickr/Derek Bridges

Most Europeans don't believe they have a say in Brussels.

In 2008, as parliaments were ratifying the latest European Union charter called the Treaty of Lisbon, Ireland decided to try something radical: put it to a referendum vote. What happened next seems downright portentous. Despite the endorsement of Ireland’s prime minister and major political parties, the treaty was rejected by a slender but decisive margin. Jaws hit the hardwood from Dublin to Brussels.

A week later, the European Parliament was in chaos. Nigel Farage and his fellow Euroskeptics showed up wearing verdant “Respect the Irish Vote” shirts. Prointegration MEPs dripped with disdain as they sought some way of continuing the ratification process without the required Irish assent. “I’ve listened to a whole series of undemocratic statements,” said one alarmed MEP, “and I’m taking good note of them.”

The Irish later reversed their decision in a second referendum, this time after an onslaught of pro-European campaigning, and the Treaty of Lisbon took effect shortly thereafter. But the initial Irish “no” illustrated something that Euroskeptics have long warned about: the EU’s so-called democratic deficit. Consider that there were only two referenda held on the Lisbon Treaty, they enfranchised less than 1 percent of the European population, both of them were in Ireland, and one of them swatted it down. That’s hardly a stentorian bellow of support from the vox populi.

Last week’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom unsettled financial markets and rumbled the underpinnings of the EU itself. And yet, as ashen Eurocrat after ashen Eurocrat deplored the result, it was difficult to imagine how they didn’t see this coming. The EU enjoys strong support from parliaments, but when it comes to actual European electorates, it has flimsy backing at best. Now, the people have finally thrown it a haymaker from which it may never recover.

Brexit and Ireland’s referendum aren’t the only democratic blows the EU has suffered. Before the Lisbon Treaty, there was the European Constitution, which also required ratification by all member states. This time there were more referenda and the results were once again mixed: while the Spanish approved, the French and the Dutch both voted it down. This was no tinny lilt of protest from the union’s western hinterland: France and the Netherlands are strong federalists and founding EU members. What happened? The causes are remarkably similar to those behind Brexit. In France, opposition to the charter ran deepest among industrial workers and farmers. Subsequent scholarly research suggests they weren’t targeting the constitution so much as the greater Brussels bureaucracy and their relinquishment of sovereignty to it.

That “S-word,” sovereignty, is rarely heard in our increasingly globalized and interconnected dialogue, yet it’s become the catalyst of much opposition to the EU. Fears of mass immigration are an important sidecar, but the driving concern is over a loss of home rule. According to a poll conducted by the seasoned Lord Ashcroft, a plurality—nearly half—of Leave voters in the Brexit referendum were motivated primarily by “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” The tab racked up by the democratic deficit had finally come due. Given their first chance in forty years to hold the entire superstate accountable, the British made sure they did just that.

Direct democracy has always been a crapshoot in the EU. The project, initially the European Common Market, was founded without a popular vote, and most of the countries that later joined the euro did so without consulting their citizens. Sweden and Denmark both held referenda on the euro and voted it down, the Swedes by a margin of 14 percent. Norway twice put the question of European membership to its people and twice came back with a no. The Danish last year rejected further EU integration in a vote that was seen as a test of the Union itself. Other referenda have been kinder to the EU, but the picture that emerges is one of an elite-engineered experiment with at best a shaky public mandate.

The EU has often been accused of being antidemocratic in the way it functions, and there’s something to that. Unlike in the United States, new laws are proposed by the European Commission—the EU’s executive branch—rather than by the parliament. Most of the Commission is insulated from popular will: Catherine Ashton, its first vice president, has never been elected to anything in her life. Yet in other ways, the EU is almost cumbersomely democratic, requiring the unanimous consent of all member states to make structural and security-related decisions, for example.

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