The more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, writes Pippa Catterall, the more it becomes judged by the normative expectations of how democratic states are. But it is as an international organisation that it should be judged.
No international organisation is ‘democratic’. Indeed, there is only one international organisation which even tries to be democratic, the one called the European Union. All international organisations increasingly have impacts behind borders, particularly those which – like the EU – deal primarily with trade, because of the way international trade has come to be dominated by regulations and standards. Only the EU has sought to give voice to those affected by such developments, in the form of a directly-elected parliament representative of the peoples it encompasses, rather than simply being beholden to its Member States. Yet this most democratic of international organisations is also the one which is most often traduced as ‘undemocratic’. Why?
The most obvious explanation is that it is not widely grasped that the EU is much more democratic than its analogues among international organisations. For instance, the irony of Leave voters calling the EU ‘undemocratic’ while wanting to operate under WTO rules instead, seems to be lost on them. The global protests which followed the founding of the WTO, not least in Seattle in 1999, demonstrated an appreciation then, among other things, of how deeply undemocratic the WTO was. It still is. Like virtually all international organisations, the WTO’s membership consists of legal persons, called states, rather than natural ones, actual human beings. The same holds true for those international consortia of trading states – such as Mercosur, ASEAN, the Cairns Group, and so on – which increasingly have become significant players in the diplomacy of world trade. The states which are members of these bodies may be mandated by their domestic parliaments on how they handle issues at the WTO and similar organisations, and they may be scrutinised on what they have agreed in those parliaments. However, if this is democracy it is an attenuated form.
The same observation could hold for all the other international organisations Leave voters seem quite happy for Britain to remain in. The UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, together with a host of other less well-known bodies, are all organisations which – at best – only allow states rather than peoples directly, to participate in their decision-making processes. To all of these bodies as well, Britain is a net contributor. That is not to say that there are not benefits to the UK from its membership of, for instance, the International Whaling Commission. However, neither the benefits nor the effects of British membership of the IWC will be apparent to the average Briton, if they are aware of it at all. They rightly do not perceive any discernible impacts on their lives of such membership, whereas they do think they are affected by Britain’s membership of the EU. So the second reason for the complaint that the EU is ‘undemocratic’ is the perception that it has imposed on people decisions that affect them and to which they have not consented.
To a large extent this perception reflects the peculiarities of an international organisation which tries to be democratic. Representation at the EU is both popular (through the parliament) and international (through the Member States). For the latter, there is a perennial incentive to blame the EU as an institution for decisions to which they have been party and usually supported, but which may be unpopular with sections of their domestic electorates. Britain is by no means the only Member State whose politicians have acted in this way. The democratisation of the EU through the gradual extension of the powers of the parliament has not prevented this behaviour by Member States. Indeed, as the intrusiveness of international trade and relations has required growing competences on the part of international bodies like the EU, so the incentives for Member States to play to the gallery of their national audiences has similarly increased.
In the process of acquiring these growing competences, the EU has come to acquire some, though only some, of the appurtenances of a state. This has become more apparent since the introduction of the Single Market, of which the Thatcher government were among the chief progenitors. The attempt to harmonise trade and related activities across all Member States involves the creation of top-level rules which apply as evenly as possible throughout. Such developments make the impact of the EU on citizens more apparent than with other international organisations. Yet, because it remains fundamentally an international organisation, it does not have a ‘government’ which can be voted out by the disgruntled. Its parliament makes laws and holds confirmation hearings on appointees, but those appointees are placed there by horse-trading between the Member States, rather than directly.
In that sense, the EU’s organisation falls someway between that of an international organisation (which few people expect to be democratic), and that of a state. However, the more the EU seems to resemble a state rather than an international organisation, the more it has become judged by the normative expectations of how democratic the former rather than the latter are. For those who see states as bodies where democratic accountability involves throwing out governments (something that cannot directly happen at EU level), the absence of such mechanisms can easily seem to be a democratic deficit.
Yet the EU is not a state, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Nor does it have the operational functionality of a state, which within the EU is delivered through its contracting parties, the Member States. The temptation to measure its democratic procedures by the standards according to which its Member States are judged – even though not all of them would pass – is understandable but misconceived. In origins and still in most of its characteristics, the EU is an international organisation. As such it provides benefits for those who live in its Member States through harmonising trade and exchange across their territories. Uniquely for an international organisation, it has a directly-elected parliament in which the rules governing those processes can be proposed, scrutinised and amended. Among the gallery of its peers – that is, other international organisations – it is a singular example of an attempt to democratise the processes which shape our globalised world. It is, of course, not without its flaws. But it is as an international organisation, rather than as a state, that those flaws should be judged. However, that will not stop its detractors misleadingly claiming that it is ‘undemocratic’.
About the Author
Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster.