Is European Union undemocratic?

By John Moore

The bulk of Britain’s establishment is behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s, campaign to stay in the European union (EU,) though substantial sections are not, including several media barons and British manufacturers. The EU referendum debate has been dominated by the right in British politics reflecting the deep divisions especially within the Conservative party between those campaigning to remain - Britain Stronger for Europe – and those for Brexit – Vote Leave.

There is not a powerful left campaign for exit.  Apart from the small Labour Leave group, which began in disarray over which main Brexit campaign to endorse, other left Brexit groups are isolated or unhelpfully sharing platforms with rightwing Eurosceptics. 

Official Labour policy is for staying in.  Corbyn has endorsed this position – one of many compromises he’s had to make. Clear arguments against the EU can help expose the narrow limits of capitalist democracy, hemmed in by the British state and by the EU.  As Tony Benn said: “In Europe, all the key positions are appointed. The way Europe has developed, the bankers and corporations dictate terms.” Not that a Brexit would usher in democracy – but it would weaken the enemy, depriving the ruling class of its EU reinforcement.

Cameron’s deal on a range of opt-outs – including a halt to restrictions on the City, an ‘emergency break’ on benefits for EU workers, and limits on child benefits to the rate of the workers own countries – was intended to assist a vote to remain but that shoddy deal has been overtaken by events and the cut and thrust of the campaign.  Cameron’s deal has exposed the fact that there is some flexibility – not in the EU’s treatment of its poorer or more defiant members, but when it comes to ensuring a key anti-working class player like Britain remains inside to buttress the austerity drives underway in Germany, France and elsewhere. 

The refugee crisis has shown how quickly the EU’s humane window-dressing is abandoned, with the United Nations’ Refugee Agency condemning as illegal the EU’s latest scheme to ship millions of refugees back to Turkey.  The EU’s Schengen agreement on borderless Europe is de facto dead.  Staying in the EU feeds the right, as EU membership imposes restrictions on solidarity as well as on state spending, both of which are weapons against xenophobia.

It is the EU as an institution which is intensifying racism and xenophobia as EU countries compete within it to drive down wages and benefits in a race to the bottom.

The EU is anti-democratic

Left arguments against the EU should include basic democratic ones:

  • the EU has an unelected European Commission;
  • it has an unelected European Court of Justice;
  • a weak European parliament, which cannot initiate laws;
  • EU laws are made in secret by the Council of Ministers and can be imposed on nation states. 

The European Central Bank’s governors are all appointed – they’re the heads of member nations’ central banks.  The European Court of Justice consists of judges who are all appointed, and who have ruled against any checks on EU institutions and treaties, such as making them accountable to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The EU has already ousted several elected governments, in effect, conducting legal coups – in Italy, where it imposed a technocrat as Prime Minister, as well as Portugal, where the president blocked the formation of a Eurosceptic left majority government. 

In Greece, the EU overrode the democratic process in the most brazen manner.  Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called the Syriza election victory in January 2015 irrelevant, which in effect it was. Juncker said,  “To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”  

When referendums have produced inconvenient results – Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; Ireland against the Nice Treaty in 2001; and Ireland (again) against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 – these were re-run until the ‘correct’ result was obtained.

The EU constitution is the main anti-democratic straitjacket for ensuring capitalist rule.  It imposes on all member states a neoliberal economic model of privatizing public provision and capitalist monopoly.  Under the constitution, EU treaties are changeable only with a unanimous vote of all member states; a single country can veto treaty change.  So unless leftwing governments were to gain office in all 28 European countries simultaneously, EU treaty change in a progressive direction is impossible.  As the former head of the British Chambers of Commerce, john Longworth said, the EU is “incapable of reform.”

If amending the treaty is barred, trying to pass left-leaning EU laws within its terms is also virtually impossible.  If a national government puts forward a law allowing countries to nationalize public services, it would come up against the unelected EU Commission, which vets all proposed legislation put to the EU Council and parliament.  Only unanimous action from the EU Council (consisting of all the different national ministers) could push the proposal forward – and, again, any single country has a veto.

As for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - the EU-US trade treaty that will, among other things, allow corporations to sue governments where national laws impede their profits - Britain would never be able to withdraw while remaining within the EU.  It would take unanimous support from all member states, under Article 352, to allow Britain to leave.  Even outside the EU, leaving the tightly binding TTIP could prove extremely difficult.

Does the EU benefit workers?

Social Europe is often depicted as a haven of social-democracy against vicious Anglo-Saxon capitalism.  During Thatcher’s sustained attack on the working class, Social Europe – as drawn up by Jacques Delors in 1984 and sold to the TUC Congress in 1988 – appeared to offer softening measures.  Thirty years on, however, it is clear that the EU has not delivered as promised.

Social Europe has failed to safeguard the fundamental right to work.  The EU, with its low growth, has 22.98 million unemployed workers, around 10%. 

Social Europe failed to prevent the European Court of Justice from ruling that member states may not legislate to raise migrant workers’ pay to local levels.  Similarly, the Court has blocked unions from collective bargaining to defend local wage levels against ‘social dumping’.  This is a gift to the anti-immigrant right in their campaign against cheap foreign labour.

In Britain, Social Europe did not prevent Tony Blair from undermining workers’ protection through the introduction of ‘voluntary’ opt-out agreements with employers, building on Thatcher’s attacks on trade union rights.  

Social Europe has been exposed most clearly in the brutal treatment of Greece.  Yet many here still argue that conditions would worsen in Britain without EU ‘protection’.  This is despite the fact that zero-hours contracts have been legalised under flexible labour market rules and – as part of the EU’s blackmailing bailout conditions – collective bargaining has been outlawed in several peripheral EU countries.

Even relatively effective Social Europe regulations such as TUPE – allowing for the continuation of workers’ contracts when their employers change – was brought in for an anti-working class purpose, to smooth the way for the privatization of the public sector (and has since been eroded by European Court of Justice judgments), just as the Working Time Directive has established the 48-hour working week as a norm rather than a maximum.

Many of Corbyn’s social-democratic policies would be held back by EU directives – Social Europe notwithstanding.  Under Article 106, public monopolies are not allowed to hinder competition – a directive that has implications for the NHS.  The EU blocks utilities from being nationalised wholesale, as directives require third parties to be given access to the national grid.  Nationwide rail renationalisation would likewise be hampered because, despite Article 345 that permits nationalisation, the European Court of Justice ignores it in practice.  Corbyn would thus be restricted to partial rail nationalisation, or be forced to argue that nationalisation was in the national interest – which the Court could rule against.

Social Europe helped dampen working class resistance to growing capitalist exploitation – leading up to the Single European Act of 1992, when EU neoliberalism became fully institutionalized.  But a capitalist institution like the EU will not shield the working class.  That’s down to class struggle.

Indeed, progressive advance in Britain has been achieved above all by working class struggle: the right to form trade unions; the right to strike; health and safety at work; equal pay for women; a national minimum wage.  Successive Labour governments reinforced these rights through legislation.  These were not gifts handed down from the EU.

Can the EU be democratised?

Former Greek Finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 2025) believes the EU can be reshaped as a social democratic entity. 

DiEM 2025 is calling for a constituent assembly to deliver a fully democratic Europe by 2025. The European parliament would become sovereign, replacing the current pooling of decision-making between the 28 national governments.  DiEM 2025 claims that national governments would share power with the supranational parliament, though exactly how is not specified.

In reality the EU parliament would act as the legislature to a single European government, taking all the big decisions at a remove from the people.  National governments would have little power to overrule the higher body. 

DiEM 2025’s other demand is for transparency, with all trade talks conducted openly, all meetings of the secretive EU institutions streamed live.  This is no solution to the problem of secretive ruling class decision-making, which takes place outside official forums. 

What levers are there to achieve a ‘democratised’ Europe?  How would the left mobilise for it?  Turnout for the 2009 elections to the European Parliament was just 43%.  People need to be won to action where they feel it can have an actual effect; they simply don’t vote for something remote and meaningless. 

Corbyn's rise shows that people are willing to act when they feel something can be achieved, that is, within the context of a national class struggle they understand.  Internationalism is vital, but has to be worked for, not assumed – one has only to look at the lack of response of the European labour movements to the crushing of Greece to see how weak intra-EU working class solidarity currently is. 

Calling for the EU to be democratized – when unanimity is required for any such change – is reminiscent of Trotsky’s call to abandon Socialism in the USSR until all Europe simultaneously rose up.   One could wait forever.  Danny Nicol, Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster, describes the DiEM 2025 proposal as relying on “spontaneous combustion”.

In an EU composed of unequal member states, with German imperialism pre-eminent, it is the stronger powers which rule over the weaker ones, as Germany rules Greece.  This neo-colonial relationship would in no way be alleviated by a European government imposing decisions on member states – the same situation as now but lent ‘democratic’ legitimacy.

EU and the military

The idea that the EU is a force for peace is a myth.  Wars in Europe are on the rise and growing increasingly dangerous.   First, there was the dismantling of Yugoslavia, hastened by the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia by Germany.  Now, there’s the continuing war in the Ukraine, sparked by German ambitions to dominate Ukraine’s economy via the EU Association Agreement. 

It’s true that longstanding rivals France and Germany haven’t fought for over 70 years.  But initially that was because both countries had to rebuild their economies after WW2 – under US tutelage.  And because they had to confront the common enemy of Socialism.  More recently, it’s because France has accepted its position subordinate to a united Germany.

As the EU has grown, so has its military component, along with pressure for the establishment of a permanent EU military structure.  The Ukraine conflict has shown how closely intertwined the EU is with NATO – notwithstanding divergences between Germany and the US over levels of bellicosity.  NATO’s major expansion into eastern Europe includes troops and arms from several EU member states.  Most of the wars in the Middle East have been supported, or even led, by EU member states, alongside the US.

As for Britain, membership of the EU binds it into the Lisbon Treaty, which means Britain can be called on to aid a fellow member state – for instance, siding with possible future EU member Turkey in a war against Russia. 

This doesn’t mean that leaving the EU would in itself undermine British militarism.  Liam Fox, ex-defence secretary and a Eurosceptic, put it clearly: “The day after we were to leave the European Union, Britain still has a permanent seat on the [United Nations] Security Council, and we’re still in NATO.  We’re still the world’s fifth biggest defence budget, we’ve still got a ‘special relationship’ with the US, we’re still in the G7, we’re still in the G20, we’re at the centre of the Commonwealth…” 

On the other hand, 13 leading British generals have called for Britain to stay in, for military reasons, on the grounds that, “The EU today is a tool through which Britain can get things done in the world… Britain’s role in the EU strengthens the security we enjoy as part of NATO… and allows us to project greater power internationally.”

The head of the US army in Europe, Lt-Gen Ben Hodges has voiced a similar view, citing a resurgent Russia as a reason for Britain remaining. Nicholas Soames and Peter Mandelson, likewise, argued jointly in the Daily Mail that the need to confront Putin was a key argument for Britain remaining within the EU.

Germany, too, wants Britain to remain, in part to prevent the traditionally NATO-sceptic French from flexing their military muscles in Europe via the EU military entity they would seek to dominate. Remaining in the EU allows Britain to project itself more forcefully than it would otherwise be able to do – using its special relationship with the US to strengthen it in relation to rival powers in the EU, and using its EU membership to give it weight with the US.  Britain’s seat at the top table of nations is secured, apart from its existing nuclear status, through its membership of the two alliances.  Conversely, Brexit could create space to hold Britain’s military alliances up to question – both in terms of the damage they do domestically and to those on the receiving end.