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Is the EU democratic? Does your vote matter?

Being a citizen of the European Union means that many aspects of our lives are regulated by a weird entity. It feels like a huge bureaucracy is making decisions over our heads.

Many Europeans think that their vote in the EU elections doesn’t count, and that the EU is not democratic. How democratic is the EU really? And, does your vote actually achieve anything? In democratic states, public policies are based on the will of the people.

But, the people are not a coherent thing. Countless different groups are battling for influence and power to establish laws and rules that benefit them. In a working democracy, there are checks and balances that are supposed to create a fair environment where these battles can be fought. Term limits stop factions from dominating too much.

But all of this ends at our borders. International politics are not democratic, but anarchic. No central authority is powerful enough to ensure fairness, or enforce laws, so the only law is the tyranny of the strongest, and anarchy. So for most of human history, powerful countries took what they wanted from others either by extortion or by violence.

After World War Two, the United Nations were founded to overcome this anarchy by establishing rules on how countries should behave. But since the UN has virtually no power, and its members often have opposing interests, it’s usually politely ignored.

The EU is a construct that tries to have rules and laws for its member nations that are actually enforceable, as the European Court of Justice is able to make binding decisions. Originally, the EU was founded to ensure peace between European nations and prosperity for the continent. But it’s also an attempt to gain international power for its members.

It’s like a super state and it’s striving to be democratic and legitimized by all of its citizens. To do that, it has to solve the problem of different actors wanting different things. Only, that its members are countries with very different priorities.

Is the EU democratic
Is the EU democratic

So, how does this work? Since the EU is ridiculously complex, and politicians are even worse than scientists at naming things, we’ll simplify massively and omit a lot of details. You can find further reading and explanations in our Sources Document.

OK, if you want to create a democratic union of independent nations, you have two options. One: Let everybody vote for national politicians who then make decisions for the Union together. Or, two: Let every citizen vote directly for an independent institution that’s able to make binding decisions.

Both approaches have their upsides and downsides, and the EU ended up with a mix of both of them. Next to the European Court of Justice, there are four main institutions that we’ll talk about today. The European Council, which is made up of the heads of government or states of the member countries.

The Council of the EU, with ministers from the member countries. The third one is the European Commission, which is the de facto government of the EU, having one Commissioner for each member state. And, lastly, the European Parliament.

Low tier or overpowered
Low tier or overpowered

The Parliament is the only part of the EU that is directly elected by you, dear Citizen, in the European elections. In principle, all of these institutions of the EU originate from your direct or indirect vote, be it at the national or EU level. But some do more than others.

For example, you vote for your national representative and therefore contribute to form a national government whose head of state has a seat in the European Council. These leaders choose the president of the EU Commission and its fellow commissioners, who eventually are confirmed by the EU Parliament.

So, this is a sort of indirect democracy. You didn’t vote for the Commission, but you voted for the people who appointed them and for those who confirmed and police them. So, in effect, 2.5 of the four main European Union institutions depend on the member state governments.

But since you, as a citizen, can only directly vote for the European Parliament, the question is, “​How powerful is it?” How much influence does your vote have? The European Parliament started out with very little influence but has become more and more powerful over the past two decades.

Today, it has to approve new laws which can be binding for the member countries. It also votes on how the EU budget is spent and on international treaties. All of this makes the Parliament very powerful and, thus, your vote very influential, even on an international level. Compared to national parliaments, one major power is still missing though.

The EU Parliament officially can’t propose new laws on its own which is often the core of the argument the EU is not Democratic enough and that the European Parliament should be given more influence.

Right now, the member states’ governments pretty much control the European Union. Giving the Parliament more power would make the EU, as a whole, more democratic but it would also take power from member states. It’s not clear which approach is better.

Ultimately it’s for the Member States and us as citizens to decide how the Union should develop. OK, so can we draw a conclusion here? As a whole, the EU is not as democratic as most of its member states. But it is democratic. If you don’t like decisions they make, regarding copyright, for example, you can look up what your representatives voted for and vote them out.

The struggle to make it more democratic is closely tied to who holds power over what. The EU keeps changing. You, dear Citizen, are not only voting on the current politics but also on what the system will look like in the future. There are many parties and politicians that vow to make the EU Parliament, and therefore your vote, stronger.

Many others want to keep it as it is, or even diminish it. It’s for you to decide what you think is better for the future of the Union. Currently, it’s equally important for the EU who you vote for at home, because these are the people who have the most influence in the European Union right now.

Opinion At home is also where the EU is often used as a scapegoat. Politicians, especially before national elections, like to pretend the EU is all-powerful and mix up rules and laws over the heads of the governments and citizens.

Although, often, they were directly responsible for what the EU did. Democracy is annoying and complicated, and often very boring. In the European Union, even more so than in the Member States. But, voting and caring about how our political institutions change and develop is one of the most powerful things we can do as citizens.

The last few years have shown that extreme things can happen through elections. We have to decide if we want to be an active part of this process. If we don’t take part in the struggle for power that is politics, others will. And we might not like what they decide for us.

What do you think about this? Remember to rate this article “Is the EU democratic? Does your vote matter?” and share it with your friends!

Credit: Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell

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