Friday, January 13, 2006

One favourite eurosceptic line is that the European Union has developed with barely any reference to public opinion, and in fact without democratic support. This kind of claim is usually tossed into anti-European arguments as an aside, and therefore too often goes unaddressed.

It is, however, complete rubbish. In fact, I can think of no other topic which has ever been subject to quite as many referenda as the process of building the European Union. Specifically:
  • Between 1972 to 2005, no fewer than 34 national referenda have been held in EU member states on the subject of European integration - be it accession, treaty ratification, or joining the euro. Averaged out, that amounts to (more than) one referendum every single year.

  • The average turnout in EU-related referenda is two-thirds; the highest turnout is 91%, and only 4 of the 34 had turnouts of less than 50%.

  • Of these 34 referenda, 28 (82%) have been 'yes' votes. Of the remaining 6 'noes', two were later reversed in subsequent referenda.
If anyone can think of a political issue that's received more endorsement by plebiscite than this over as long a timescale, I'd be interested to hear about it.

And besides, there's a more general point. We in the EU are all parliamentary democracies; the UK has a longer tradition than most. It is our elected parliamentarians who deliberate and decide policy on our behalf, and must account for their actions at election time. Nobody claims that the NHS is undemocratic because it's never been subjected to a referendum, yet our national policy on this continues to be shaped by elected governments. In the UK, even constitutional developments are rarely put to vote, and still this is not seen as an omission which undermines their legitimacy. And we joined the UN, the WTO, NATO, and countless other structures where we share our sovereignty without any clamour to hold a referendum.

As long as our government remains accountable to Parliament for British policy towards Europe, and as long as we continue to elect the House of Commons, the claim that the EU has poor democratic legitimacy is always going to be shaky. All the more so when we also elect MEPs to represent us directly at European level!