Democracy and sovereignty in the EU debate by Angela Caldin
These words have been bandied about on a daily basis over the past few weeks as we build up to the referendum tomorrow. It occurred to me today to think about what they mean in the context of the UK and of the EU.
The Cambridge dictionary defines democracy as ‘the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves’. This makes me wonder what kind of democracy we have here in the UK. First and foremost, we have a monarch as our head of state who is not elected, but is there through heredity. Secondly, we have a House of Lords who are not elected and whose membership is made up of Lords Spiritual (bishops) and Lords Temporal. Most of the Lords Temporal are life peers appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister or of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. They also include some hereditary peers. Under the House of Lords Act 1999, the right to membership was restricted to 92 hereditary peers of whom very few are female since most hereditary peerages can only be inherited by men. Not much equality there then.
Our MPs in the House of Commons are elected, but many people would claim that the system of constituencies and First Past the Post is unfair to smaller parties and makes the contest one between the two main parties only. Many advocate a system of proportional representation because under the present regime, laws are being passed by a majority based on 35% of the popular vote.
At the heart of the EU in Brussels, the commission of the EU, headed by 28 commissioners who are each appointed by the member states, proposes new laws, in areas where national governments allow them to. However, these proposals do not become law automatically as many people think. To come into force, they must then be approved by majorities in both the council of ministers, made up of elected EU ministers, and the elected EU parliament. Since 1979, MEPs have been elected by direct universal suffrage. Each member state establishes its own method for electing MEPs but the system chosen must be a form of proportional representation.
You can judge for yourself which of these two democracies is more flawed.
The Cambridge dictionary defines sovereignty as ‘the power of a country to control its own government’. Those who talk about regaining sovereignty seem to be focussing on control – they don’t want laws made outside the UK to apply here. Over the past decade about 13% of UK acts of parliament and statutory instruments implemented EU laws. EU voting records show that since 1999, the British government has voted no to proposed legislation 57 times, abstained 70 times, and voted yes 2,474 times. In areas such as social security, healthcare, education and criminal law, the EU has little or no say. Because of the special positions that the UK has taken, we have kept important aspects of what might be considered sovereignty: we retain control of tax and spending, because we are not part of the Eurozone and we retain border controls because we are not part of Schengen.
How much actual sovereignty would therefore be gained by leaving the EU? The world faces serious problems such as the steady stream of migration towards Europe, the increasing dangers of climate change and the constant threat of terror attacks, it makes sense that we can deal with these better as part of a larger collective than on our own. The UK, as a small country isolated from Europe, would have little clout on the world stage.