Take back control? Democracy and the European referendum 


CommonSpace is presenting the key arguments in the European Union referendum with exactly a week to go until the UK goes to the polls. Here we consider the issue of democracy. 

“TAKE BACK CONTROL!” is the slogan of those who want to leave the European Union. The message is first and foremost about control and power. Who should make decisions about the law, spending, and policy matters?

Opponents of the EU have persistently presented the EU as a failed and undemocratic institution. Supporters, while aware of its inadequacies, argue that the EU is necessary, democratically accountable, and preferable to the alternatives.

What democratic themes have dominated the EU debate?

Bashing the bureaucrats 

Hostility to the EU has festered among the right-wing tabloids for decades. The staff of EU institutions and its officials have become the target of criticism for their operations and accountability.

“EU officials are using our money to fund their jollies and exorbitant expense claims,” claimed Tory minister and Leave campaigner Priti Patel. 

The bureaucrats – the EU’s civil service – are not elected. Critics say they overstep the mark of normal civil servants by initiating legislation and enforcing secrecy around deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. 

Pooling sovereignty 

Supporters of the EU say that multi-national institutions are democratic, as they operate between elected governments, with an elected EU parliament to scrutinise the union’s behaviour.

The EU, in their view, is a form of pooling sovereignty – where governments share responsibility for better results overall.

Ex-Tory minister Ken Clare said: “You pool sovereignty to achieve common endeavour, yes, but also to protect & advance national interest.”

SNP, Scottish Labour and Scottish Green leaders say that pooling sovereignty on issues like workers rights, climate change, and the environment makes sense when challenges are cross-border.

Tensions between Brussels and Westminster: immigration and law

The independence referendum was dominated by policy divisions between Scotland and Westminster: the austerity agenda, Trident nuclear weapons, and different investment priorities. 

The Westminster political system, especially its Conservative MPs, has opposed moves towards further EU integration in the Lisbon Treaty and shared bail out packages, as well as speaking out against the scale of EU immigration. 

Ukip, which has surged in popularity over the past decade, promises that a vote to Leave means the UK can “control its borders” – code for reducing immigration. 

Reforming the European Union from within

While there is a variety of policy discontents on the Leave side of the referendum, there are various calls for reform on the Remain side. 

David Cameron fought for a UK ‘re-negotiation’ – but this focused on issues of freedom of movement and the right of new migrants to claim benefits in the UK.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith has criticised the transparency of EU decision making. Speaking to CommonSpace he highlighted political movements across Europe – from Greece to Spain – which are seeking to make the EU more democratic from within. 

English nationalism and the pride of ‘great British democracy’

“Our country has a glorious history. This is our chance to make Britain even greater,” claimed The Sun newspaper as it backed a Leave vote. “BeLEAVE in Britain”, shouted its headline – including a union flag. 

The editorial fits into the nationalist part of the Leave campaign – which presents Brexit as a move towards a more powerful, confident nation as a better democracy. 

However, just like the English edition of The Sun, many of these message interchange between Britain and England. The act of Brexit, for its supporters, is an act of popular rebellion. 

What UK democracy?

Brexit would bring more resources and power to a UK level. The consequences of this for UK democracy are unclear. 

Opponents of Brexit, especially voices in Scotland, point to the undemocratic nature of the UK system.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calls Brexit “a bid for a right-wing Tory takeover of the reins of powers in the UK”. The House of Lords, a totally unelected institution, has grown in recent years. The House of Commons, where the Tories have a majority, is not universally popular or considered to be in touch with popular opinion.

Those who are sceptical of Westminster warn that a vote to “take control”, would risk giving more control to people who will not act in the public interest.

Picture courtesy of Abi Begum

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