In this article, Nick Brown argues that the EU is failing to reconcile two essential liberal principles, those of localism and of internationalism.
It is well known that Liberal Democrats are pro-EU. Some of us in our European fervour have even been known to get caught up in patriotic symbolism – I would be lying if I denied having joined a pro-EU march with the flag of Europe draped around my shoulders, or singing out the German words to the European anthem more than once. But in truth, remoaning out of a European identity does not help the European cause. The EU is currently failing the people of Europe. While it means our support for the EU needs qualification, it does not mean the project should be abandoned.
An important liberal principle is localising democracy. Liberals support the idea that as much government as possible should be done at the lowest level possible, so that people have as much personal sovereignty over their own lives as they can. When public services are provided according to a method ordained by politicians in a region or community as opposed to the nation as a whole, those services as well as the politicians themselves are more likely to reflect the best interests and wills of the people they serve. This is why liberals have and continue to advocate for more devolution in the UK, with some suggesting a new federal settlement.
A second principle that most liberals espouse is internationalism. International co-operation and integration to break down arbitrary barriers between individuals in different states is something that we support, as, again, it makes people more prosperous and enhances their liberty. And these two principles are not contradictory: it is perfectly possible and desirable to maintain international co-operation on areas like defence, trade and protecting human rights, while devolving the provision of public services and levels of government taxing and spending to the lowest level possible.
The problem with the EU is that it does not harmonise the two principles of localism and of internationalism. Those who speak of a democratic deficit in the EU are entirely correct. The executive branch of the Union, the Commission, is unelected, and while it is true that Commissioners are appointed by elected parliamentarians, these parliamentarians themselves are of questionable legitimacy.
Turnout across the continent is low (42.5% in 2014) and in many countries including the UK, the election is dominated by passionate Eurosceptics while mainstream voters pay no attention and do not bother to turn out, resulting in a parliament that is not truly representative. The other body with legislative power, the Council of the European Union, may be composed of elected representatives from the member states, but from their governments only. For myself and 58% of other voters in the UK’s last election, this means our representatives at the Council do not at all represent us and the story is similar across the Union. And while those who criticise the European courts as illegitimate and undemocratic clearly do not understand the role of courts, it is precisely because European laws are made by unrepresentative bodies that these common criticisms have emerged.
Of course, this lack of democratic representation in the EU would not matter if the EU was simply a multilateral treaty organisation. The United Nations is not criticised almost as often as the EU for being undemocratic, because it does not hold significant powers over people under its jurisdiction. The European Union, on the other hand, collects a significant budget from its member, the expenditure of which raises difficult questions of need and distribution. Though much of the money is spent on structural investment – a justifiable role of a central government – this coupled with the lack of democracy in EU institutions means that complaints about the EU taking away sovereignty are justified. But this should mean only personal sovereignty, and national sovereignty only by derivation from this, not for its own sake as nationalists call for.
It is as if in the formation of the EU, some sought a multilateral institution for creating a co-operative settlement on trade while some aimed for deep political integration and neither side got exactly what they wished for. The EU has some powers which are normally reserved for federal governments, while at the same time lacking the democratic institutions of one. To solve the democratic deficit, then, there are two clear options. Either we can reduce the powers of the EU to restore powers to places where they are democratically legitimate, or enhance the institutional accountability of the EU itself.
In order to achieve the best outcome for the European people, the latter is surely preferable so that individuals retain their autonomy while markets can further be widened to help achieve this. Directly elected commissioners, continent-wide party lists in European elections to encourage citizens to pay more attention to them, and other reforms could make the EU an accountable, local government for the people of Europe. This would further allow for appropriate powers to be given to the Union. For instance, continental defence and infrastructure spending could make the EU a well-functioning institution for all the people of Europe.
The current flaws with the EU do not mean we need to rip it up and start again. The EU may currently be failing, but it is not totally broken. To relate the matter back to Brexit, it is clear that rather than pulling out, we should have opted to stay, because working for reform from the inside is the only way to achieve an optimal settlement for Europe: one where power lies with the people and where continental co-operation is maximised simultaneously, to reaffirm individual freedom.