WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
Democracy is the idea that a society can be governed by its citizens. The idea was born in Athens in Greece 2500 years ago. The word comes from two concepts. Demos means “people”, Kratos means “ruling”. Democracy therefore means government by the people. In the words of American President Abraham Lincoln in his famous address at Gettysburg during the American civil war, it means "government of the people, by the people, for the people".
Democracy is the governing form in all 28 member states of the European Union. It is enshrined in their national constitutions. No country can become a member of the European Union without having strong democratic institutions.
The idea of democracy is in opposition to other ways of governing a society. That can be an oligarchy or plutocracy where small number of powerful or rich people decide instead of the voters. It can be a meritocracy where rulers are picked for their wisdom or supposed merit. It can be a dictatorship or tyranny where one or a few persons or a party decide without real control or even influence by the citizens.
Democracy is also in opposition to fascism, where a dictator or corporations govern instead of the voters, or to one tradition of Marxism, where the working class is supposed to govern as a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Democracy may take the form of direct democracy where voters decide directly in referendums. Or it can be indirect or representative democracy where voters elect representatives to an assembly or parliament to represent them. Or it can be a mixture of both these forms.
The essence of democracy everywhere is that the voters have the last word on the government and the laws of the country concerned. Voters can participate in elections, chose a new majority and then create produce a new government and new laws.
A stable democracy needs to be built on a community or a people where there is enough solidarity and "We-feeling" among its members as to make minorities freely obey the majority. Because of this solidarity, minorities are willing to obey the majority because they see it as "their" majority. At the same time majorities are willing to respect a minority because it is "their" minority. This solidarity gives popular legitimacy and authority to a democracy. A people or community which has such solidarity among its members is what the Greeks meant by a "demos" whose rule ,“kratos”, makes a democracy.
- "The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy".
In all EU member states the idea of democracy is implemented by different institutions with similar functions.
There is an elected legislative body most often called the parliament or in some countries the national assembly. This is elected by the voters in universal elections. It approves the government and the laws.
There is an executive body that is the government, which is held accountable to the national parliament. It is appointed or approved by the majority in the parliament. It is the case everywhere that the government must resign and leave office if a simple majority in the parliament so decides.
The government serves the parliament by proposing and implementing the decisions and laws of the elected representatives of the voters.
There is also a judicial body, an independent Court or supreme court, which decides on concrete conflicts regarding the interpretation of the constitution or law.
And there is a more or less clear division of powers between the legislative body, the executive and the judiciary as recommended by the French philosopher Montesque in the 18th century. This "separation of powers" between the three arms of government is generally considered to be essential for a parliamentary democracy.
In all 28 member states the elected members of each parliament can change or amend the law by a simple majority of members if they are not satisfied with its implementation by the government or an interpretation by the court.
In federal systems a new law may also require the support of a second chamber representing the participating states - democratic authority and sovereignty being divided between the federal level and the member state level.
The core belief everywhere is the same: There is no one above or beyond the voters. We, the voters, must decide. That is democracy.
EUROPEAN ORGANS WITH DIFFERENT ROLES
In the European Union we have institutions with similar names to those governing the national democracies. However, they have rather different functions.
The European Parliament does not decide the laws in the same way as national parliaments.
It offers MEPs greater influence in the daily life of citizens and companies - but not the power of starting or originating legislation as in national parliaments.
In the EU only the non-elected Commissioners can put forward proposals for new EU laws. And only in the so-called third reading is it necessary for the European Parliament to positively adopt a text before it can become law.
In the first and second readings a qualified majority of the Council of Ministers can decide a law without the positive support from the European Parliament. That is what the legal rules set out in the Treaties say.
In practice individual MEPs have a much greater influence on law-making than many MPs and even ministers at national level. 80% of all EU law-making under the ordinary legislative procedure is done by means of compromises between the representatives of the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.
These compromises are come to behind closed doors in so-called “trialogue”-meetings and offer the participating “rapporteurs” and “shadow rapporteurs” a personal influence on law-making which is much less common in national parliaments.
The European Parliament matters – and it is worth voting for for that reason, even if it is still very different from what we normally call democracy.
MEPs CAN PROPOSE AMENDMENTS
Members of the European Parliament can propose amendments. Between 1999 and 2004 the EP had 307 amendments accepted, 809 were agreed in a different form, and only 228 amendments were not accepted.
These figures show the important influence on EU legislation of the elected members of the European Parliament. An efficient and determined MEP can influence more laws at EU level than national MPs can do at national level. However, this is mainly by working as a political lobbyist convincing those who are non-elected and by participating in the trialogue procedure. It is only very seldom as an expression of normal legislative power.
The European Parliament is elected in the same way as the national parliaments. The MEPs have gained an increased influence on European laws over the years. But the power actually to decide the law is very seldom with the elected members of parliament.
The European Parliament can only “co-decide” the tip of the iceberg of European laws according to the treaty rules.
THE ROLE OF THE COMMISSION
The European Commission functions rather like most national governments in terms of its role in preparing new laws and overseeing their implementation. Yet the 28 Commissioners do much more than serving those who are elected. They decide by far the most EU laws and rules on their own - not the most important ones, but most of them. And these cannot be amended by normal majorities in the Council or in the European Parliament.
The European Commission's own legislative power is immense, as can be shown by some figures for the year 2008 which have provided by the Commission itself. In these figures the Commission has excluded all acts not published in the Official Journal and all routine management acts that are valid for a limited period only.
In 2008, the Commission adopted 574 regulations, 53 directives, 612 decisions and 24 recommendations - in total 1263 legal acts.
In fact the total number of Commission decisions is actually much higher. In 2008 the Commission decided 269 files through oral procedure, 3067 in written procedure, 2227 in empowerment procedure and 4008 in delegation to Commissioners or by sub-delegation to civil servants.
This gives a total number of 9571 files adopted in the name of the European Commission in just one year.
Also in 2008, the total number of implementing measures further decided by the Commission through the so-called comitology procedures was 2125.
The Commission has also gained strong powers through the so-called six-pack regulations of the Economic and Monetary Union. The Commission must now approve national budgets before they are delivered as proposals for the national parliaments, and the Commission can impose fines on member states that breach the ceilings for public deficits.
APPOINTED IN SECRET
These powerful Commissioners are not elected. They are appointed by the prime ministers and presidents behind closed doors in the European Council. Formally the appointment is through a vote by super qualified majority of that body.
Under the Treaty of Nice the appointment of a Commissioner required the support of 18 of the 27 prime ministers and presidents. Under the Lisbon Treaty, from 1 November 2014 it requires the support of 72% - that is, 21 of the 28 - prime ministers and presidents.
In addition, the 72% of the member states must also represent 65% of all EU citizens. Prime ministers and presidents vote in accordance with the number of their citizens from 2014 when the new voting system laid down in the Lisbon Treaty was introduced.
For law-making based on proposals from the Commission only 55% of the member states must vote in favour - that is, 15 out of 28 - in addition to the requirement for the governments of that 15 to represent also 65% of all EU citizens.
Commissioners cannot be sacked by national governments or parliaments. The non-elected Commission may govern for 5 years. Only in theory, the Commission may be sacked by members of the European Parliament.
This is because that would require a majority of 2/3 and an absolute majority of members - not a simple majority such as may sack a government in national parliaments. Minorities in the European Parliament have sometimes threatened the Commission with motions of censure, but even when applied they never succeeded.
The European Parliament cannot sack an individual Commissioner or establish another Commission. Only the prime ministers and presidents have the right to propose a new Commission if the European Parliament should reject their first proposal for a new Commission or sack an existing Commission by a 2/3 majority.
ABSOLUTE MAJORITY IN THE EP
Under the Lisbon Treaty the European Parliament has increased its influence dramatically on European laws. In 2013 the European Parliament participated in around 1000 so-called Trialogue-meetings dealing with legislation.
From 14 July 2009 to 12 August 2013 the European Parliament participated in 247 first reading agreements, 25 early second reading agreements, 25 second reading agreements and 8 third readings with conciliation committees.
In 2008 it influenced 48 regulations, 53 directives, 30 decisions and 1 recommendation - in total 132 proposals through joint decision making with the Council of Ministers.
In 2005 the total figure was only 61 under the so-called co-decision procedure.
Formally, the elected members of parliament can decide nothing without approval from the non-elected Commission. The elected MEPs can only propose amendments to the decisions taken by the non-elected. These amendments only count in the second reading when the EP is able to assemble an absolute majority of members behind them.
An absolute majority is equal to 376 of 751 MEPs.
Usually around 100 MEPs do not participate in voting at any given time. An absolute majority would usually therefore normally require compromise agreements between the biggest political groups in the European Parliament, or the support of at least around 60 % of the MEPs.
This is the reason for the special relationship between the two biggest groups, the Christian-Democrats and Conservatives in the EPP and the Social Democrats and Socialists in the S&D party, previously PSE. Between them these have normally more than 60% of the seats in the Parliament and they coordinate their amendments and votes.
If members would not coordinate across the political spectrum, the elected members of the European Parliament would have no influence at all.
CONCILIATION COMMITTEE AND TRIALOGUE
The Commission only needs to read proposals having an absolute majority of members behind them. Only those proposals can go from the second reading to the third reading in a so-called conciliation committee.
This committee is composed of an equal number of representatives from the member states and the European Parliament appointed under the so-called d'Hondt method (which favours the biggest parliamentary groups).
They meet to negotiate behind closed doors. In practice, the real negotiations are between civil servants from the different institutions and perhaps the Council President and one or more rapporteurs or group coordinators or shadow rapporteurs. At this level their assistants and outside lobbyists often have a real influence on the outcome.
Civil servants from all three institutions meet and decide upon most EU laws behind closed doors, most often without full oversight by the Commissioners, ministers or elected MEPs in the so-Called Trialogue meetings.
The representatives of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament may agree on a compromise. There are in reality few cases where the result is put to a formal vote in both the Council and the Parliament in a so-called third reading.
In the Council of Ministers the legal text of a ompromise law would normally require a qualified majority of members to get through. Under the pre-Lisbon system this was 260 out of 352 votes in a vote where,foer example, Germany,France,Italy and Britain had 29 votes each, Sweden had 10 votes, Ireland 7 votes, Luxembourg 4 and Malta three.
The Lisbon Treaty gave more voting power to the biggest member states by introducing a system of votes according to size of the population. This gives Germany 80.5 million votes as the biggest EU country, as compared with Ireland’s 4.6 million, from November 2014. This new system makes it much easier to reach an agreement in the Council corridors. It does not provide a bigger say for the the EU's citizen voters.
The ministers in the Council formally represent the governments of the 28 member states. However, only 15 % or so of all EU laws are actually negotiated in the Council.
The vast majority of laws – maybe even 85 % - are negotiated and in reality decided in some 275 secret working groups attached to the Council. These laws are initiated and drafted in the non-elected Commission with its 3,000 secret working groups, where is is still not known who all their advisors are.
ONLY FEW VOTES WITHOUT UNANIMITY
As well as the 132 legal acts carried out through co-decision with the Parliament in the year 2008, the Council of Ministers also adopted a further 137 regulations, 14 directives, 245 decisions and 8 recommendations on their own - this is not including the many implementing acts from the Commission.
This adds up to 404 acts from the Council on its own following proposals from the Commission, and 536 including the 132 acts adopted in cooperation with the European Parliament.
The Council only published 147 voting reports in 2008. The table from the Council showed 19 votes taken with on the basis of divergent opinions. 128 decisions were unanimous.
In 2008 of the 19 files that we could find, there were 8 countries voting against and 32 abstentions. Of 3,544 possible votes by the 27 member states only 40 were not unanimous, and only 8 countries voted against a file put for an official vote.
Clearly disagreements between the member states are usually settled behind closed doors. The public are not generally aware of them.
The figures prove that only a small tip of the iceberg of actual policy disagreements are being shown to the public.
The Lisbon Treaty has not changed the fact of secrecy in EU law-making, but disagreements with the European Parliament can now find their ways into the public media.
The vast majority of EU legal acts are never seen by an elected member of parliament before being adopted.
Thereafter EU laws can never be amended by the European Parliament unless the Commission decides so and puts forward a further proposal for an amendment and has that approved by a normal qualified majority in the Council of Ministers.
This is true for the 1,263 regulations, directives, decisions and recommendations decided on by the Commission alone during 2008.
It is also true for the 404 similar decisions decided by the Council on its own in that year. 132 files were opened for co-decision among 1799 different rules (not including 2,125 implementing rules decided in comitology).
DEMOCRACY IN THE TREATIES
Proponents of the Lisbon Treaty argued that it would increase the powers of the European Parliament. This is partly true. Members of the European Parliament have gained a lot more influence through the Lisbon Treaty.
There are 19 existing policy areas in which the European Parliament gained a bigger say. There are 49 new policy areas where the European Parliament also gained influence through the ordinary legislative procedure.
That was very good for the MEPs.
The problem is that voters and national parliaments have lost more power than what has been gained by the MEPs. In the 49 new policy areas voters could formerly stand for elections in their member states and change the relevant law.
Under the Lisbon Treaty voters can still stand for election but they cannot change the law in these areas unless they can convince the non-elected Commission and a qualified majority in the Council that that should be done.
THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT
This paradox is called the “democratic deficit”. It increases every time a decision is moved from the parliamentary democracies of the 28 member states to Brussels.
There are different democratic solutions to this deficit. Federalists would like to give the full legislative power to the European Parliament and give the European Parliament the right to establish a European government – the Commission – on the lines of what should happen in a national democracy.
This model could exist as a parliamentary democracy at EU level. The argument againstit is that the European Parliament may not (at least yet) have the same degree of popular legitimacy as national parliaments.
The turnout in European elections has fallen in each of the first eight elections, from 63% in the first direct elections in 1979, to 45% in 2004, 43% in 2009 and 42.54% in 2014.
Another model might be to give more powers to the national parliaments to control what their ministers decide at EU level and combine that with a requirement that all EU laws also must be approved by a simple majority in the European Parliament. Why not?
All laws ought to have a majority among elected members of parliament, here, there or in both places.