In June 2016 a scandalised fellow academic asked me in a London restaurant why I was wearing a Leave badge. To my mention of the woeful lack of democracy in the EU he told me, as he would a backward student, that from my blinkered English position I clearly didn't understand the EU's fierce commitment to democracy. It was, simply a matter of being "differently democratic".
How right he was, in retrospect. Democracy EU-style is indeed remarkably different, as a couple of events in the last two weeks or so have shown.
In July Emmanuel Macron, Guy Verhofstadt and new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen all independently refloated a fashionable idea that has been doing the rounds for a long time in connection with Euro-elections: the transnational list. Under this scheme, which now seems to have something of a fair wind behind it, a proportion of MEPs would be elected on a pan-European basis. Voters across the EU would get the chance to vote for European political groupings on the basis of Europe-wide closed lists referring to a single pan-European constituency. The reason for the revival at this stage was simple: something had to be done with the seats about to be vacated by Brexit, and if they were going begging they might as well be transformed into new-style Euro-seats of this kind.
At first sight this seems an unusually liberal idea by EU standards. Long touted by, among others, the Lib Dems and the Greens, the transnational list system is said to be intended to bring people in the EU closer to the centre of power; to energise EU democracy; and to provide a more genuine political process within the EU. Look more closely, however, and a more accurate assessment may well be be that any democracy it does energise would be very different from the kind of democracy we are used to, and one pointing in a rather dangerous direction.
For one thing, closed lists themselves are democratically less than ideal. Instead of voting for a person you can find out about and decide whether to trust, you have to vote for a party and the slate of names it chooses to put forward. Moreover, if there are rules about the composition of the slate, such as requirements for gender or geographical balance (and there are suggestions there might be), then matters get worse. Not only does this proposal require you to back an idea rather than choosing a person to act as your representative; but the persons who ultimately do get elected are actually chosen with one eye on particular interest groups, rather than what the voters themselves want.
But it's not only the list procedure that is dubious here. The result would also be skewed. The lists would, we understand, be put forward by, and all votes cast for, Euro-parties: that is, political groupings explicitly non-national but instead European-based. (To be recognised as a Euro-party, a grouping has by law to have a presence in at least one-quarter of the member States, which means seven. Think a UK election where single-jurisdiction organisations such as the SNP, the Unionists or Plaid Cymru could not participate, and you will get the point.) The result is not hard to see. This proposal will sideline any idea of an MEP as a representative of any particular constituency. Moreover, in the nature of things it is not difficult to see who will be elected. It will be those whose policies are European rather than national; who believe in EU rather than national solutions to problems; and whose loyalties lie to the EU as an entity rather than to any national or local community. Nor, one suspects, is this unintended. A telling defence of transnational lists last year in Euractiv spilled a good many beans here; transnational lists were a good thing precisely because their effect would be to homogenize European political life in the same way as (allegedly) national political parties homogenized national politics. Put another way, the EU believes in the popular will, but only when it can be reliably harnessed to talk in solely Euro-terms and thus encourage the movement towards ever more Europe.
But, of course, all this assumes that the people actually should have a binding say. Another development a couple of weeks ago, arising this time from proceedings in the European Court of Justice on a so-called "citizens' initiative", sheds an interesting light on that question.
The EU these days likes to be thought of as favouring people power. Its commitment in this connection is showcased in its much-vaunted "citizens' initiative" procedure (for those who want to know, it dates from the Lisbon Treaty and now comes in Art.11 of the EU Treaty, supplemented by a Regulation remarkably tedious and bureaucratic even by EU standards). Slightly simplified, any seven EU citizens can officially register an initiative, which becomes valid provided they can within a year get least a million statements of support, including a minimum number from at least one-quarter of the member States. It can then be presented to the Commission.
The devil, as you may have divined, is in the detail. In particular, assuming the seven citizens jump through the bureaucratic hoops and get enough support, what then? You might well ask. In 2014 a Catholic-inspired initiative, duly registered and validated under the name Uno di Noi ("One of Us"), reached the Commission. It called for a ban on, and a bar on any EU financing of, activities involving destruction of human embryos, including any direct or indirect bankrolling funding of abortion.
This was, of course, as hot a political potato as could be imagined. Predictably the Commission, hating the idea and seeing political trouble ahead, dropped it as fast as it could and curtly refused to have anything to do with the proposal, saying the EU already respected human dignity and that was it. Not to be fobbed off, the petitioners sued in the EU courts to have the decision annulled. They made the fairly obvious point that, formal initiatives aside, anyone could always present a petition the Commission on anything at all, which the Commission for its part could accept or decline. If the sole effect of a formal one-million-person petition was essentially the same, giving the Commission power to say Yes or No, then the whole thing was an exercise in window-dressing and the citizens' initiative procedure a cumbersome white elephant.
A couple of weeks ago the matter reached the Court of Justice. The Advocate-General's opinion (which the court nearly always follows) was against them, and nicely illustrates modern EU thinking on democracy. Questioning the Commission's political decision to drop the matter, he said (rather in the manner of a shocked maiden aunt), was quite unacceptable. It would "disrupt the legislative institutional balance"; and – horror of horrors – would allow a group of citizens to insist on a power of initiative greater than the "democratically legitimised" Council (which currently has a monopoly of the power to initiate any legislation). What, then, was the point of the initiative procedure? Was it just a mere symbolic nod toward participative democracy? Perish the thought! It constituted, said the Advocate-General, an "institutional vehicle to allow for the emergence of policy issues"; it gave "visibility to matters of concern to citizens, which may not already be on the agenda of the institutions" and allowed "direct access to the institution that, in the particular sui generis EU institutional system, holds the power of legislative initiative". Or, forgetting for a moment the rather delicious element of double think here and putting the matter into plain English, the message from the EU great and good is this: let the people sound off (within reason), but make absolutely sure that the real power lies with those the Eurocrats can trust.
In short, the official line is that democracy EU-style is fine, just provided that the results can be carefully guided and will not take any genuine power away from where it really belongs, in the technocracy at the centre. Plus ça change ...