The European democratic divide: Why British pro-Europeans need to be more vocal


democracy, Europe, reform

Author(s):  Glenn Gottfried
Published date:  08 Mar 2012
Source:  IPPR

Glenn Gottfried analyses European survey results that show British citizens stand alone from their continental counterparts in what they think about the EU, the European parliament and democratic reform across the region.

The former foreign secretary Jack Straw caused quite a stir at a recent IPPR event when he argued that the best way to tackle the democratic deficit within the EU would be to abolish its only directly-elected body, the European parliament (EP). In comments picked up by the media, Straw said the EP should return to the days of indirect election, with its members drawn from national parliaments. This, he argued, would give the parliament greater democratic legitimacy.

His argument rested both on a lack of public interest in European elections and also on the contention that an indirectly elected parliament would be better equipped to tackle the issues vital to the EU – such as fighting terrorism and international crime – where the public support pan-European cooperation. His views provoked a strong backlash from a number of influential figures in the European debate and a response on these pages from a leading blogger on European matters.

This debate surrounding the democratic deficit in the European Union is nothing new, of course. The move to direct election of MEPs to the EP itself was an attempt to ease this concern by bringing European citizens into the heart of the European project. After 30 years of this experiment, it’s worth examining what European citizens think about both European democracy and the EP itself.

Cross-national data taken from several Eurobarometer surveys provides some insight into the minds of the European public and their evaluations of both the democratic deficit and role of the EP. Of particular relevance to the debate started by Jack Straw’s comments at IPPR are the views of UK respondents.

Interestingly when European citizens as a whole were asked if they felt the word ‘democratic’ accurately describes the EU, a large majority – 67 per cent – felt that it does, either ‘very well’ or ‘fairly well’, while only 24 per cent responded that democratic is either a ‘fairly bad’ or ‘very bad’ description. But the UK stands out as an exception. As figure 1 shows, in every other member state the majority of citizens recognise the EU as democratic, but in the UK the figure is 45 per cent, some 20 percentage points lower than the European average.

Figure 1: To what extent is it correct to say the EU is ‘democratic’, EU-27


Source: Eurobarometer 74.2, Nov–Dec 2010
Question: Please tell me if [democratic] describes very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly the idea you might have of the European Union.
Note: The two 2010 Eurobarometer surveys represented here are the most recent to have addressed these issues directly.

Looking specifically at the European parliament (see figure 2), Europeans on average tend to rate it as slightly less democratic than the EU as a whole: 63 per cent of those polled would describe the EP as democratic, while only 24 per cent would not. Again the UK stands out as the country that gives the EP the lowest democratic score. The lack of variation between responses on the EU as a whole and EP specifically per country suggests that in several member states European citizens have a difficulty in evaluating the EP as a distinct entity.

Figure 2: To what extent is it correct to say the European parliament is ‘democratic’, EU-27

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Source: Eurobarometer 74.3, Nov–Dec 2010
Question: Please tell me for if [democratic] describes very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly your perception of the European Parliament.

As the EP is the only directly elected institution in the EU, one version of possible democratic reform would be to strengthen the role and powers that it possesses in EU legislative matters. Over recent decades, the powers of the EP have expanded with each new treaty – in theory, and indirectly at least, this should have provided greater involvement for EU citizens in the law-making process.

Figure 3 reveals the response to a question about whether the EP should play a more important role within the EU. Overall most Europeans – 52 per cent – favour the EP playing a more important role, compared to just 22 per cent who would rather it had a less important role and 16 per cent who prefer the status quo. Yet again the UK stands out as the country with the lowest support for a stronger EP. More striking still is that most British citizens – 48 per cent – would prefer the EP to play less of a role, while only 32 per cent favour an increased role. These figures might begin to explain why Jack Straw is so sceptical about the EP.

Figure 3: Should the European parliament take on a more or less important role, EU-27

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Source: Eurobarometer 74.3, Nov–Dec 2010
Question: Would you personally like to see the European parliament play a more important or less important role than it currently does?

Overall, the data suggests that the majority of Europeans do not believe that the EU is as undemocratic as many of its critics suggest. But although the public are much less likely to describe the EU and EP as undemocratic this does not necessarily mean that they do not believe that the EU’s institutions should be reformed. This possibly explains why most responded that ‘democratic’ describes both the EU and EP fairly well – comparatively few said that it did so very well.

Additionally, the road to democratic reform may not simply be about improving the strength of the EP’s role, with only slightly above 50 per cent supporting an increase in its power. Europeans may prefer other options to address the democratic deficit within either the European Commission or the Council of Ministers.

On all of these questions, the UK stands isolated as the least likely to recognise the EU or EP as democratic while at the same time less likely to approve of democratic reform. It should also be noted that recent polling carried out by YouGov-Cambridge showed that three out of four individuals in Britain do not feel their voice counts in the EU and just 23 per cent support the idea of a directly elected EU president. Interestingly, however, the poll also shows that British citizens favour closer cooperation on a number of intergovernmental issues, reflecting Jack Straw’s views that the EU’s democratic deficit in British eyes can best be tackled at the ministerial level.

In conclusion, it is worth considering how British attitudes to the EU and EP, so different from those of their counterparts on the continent, are shaped.

Figure 4: Evaluation of national press coverage of the EU, EU-27

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Source: Eurobarometer 74.2, Nov–Dec 2010
Question: Do you think that the [nationality] press presents the European Union too positively, objectively or too negatively?

Figure 4 shows that UK citizens feel the press is not painting an entirely fair picture of the EU. Only one in three people answered that coverage is objective. Moreover, more British citizens see the press coverage as too negative – 27 per cent – than too positive – 9 per cent. So while euroscepticism may seem widespread among the UK public, some of this may stem from press coverage that the data shows the British public recognise is unbalanced.

But rather than complaining about all this being unfair, British europhiles need to be making a more persuasive case for the EU. Since the UK confirmed its membership of the EU in the 1975 referendum, there has been no major set-piece event to focus a national debate on the future of Europe. But that hasn’t stopped the eurosceptics from putting across their case relentlessly. By comparison, euro-enthusiasts have been overly defensive and have failed to put forward the positive case for a more integrated and democratic Europe.

Now they need to be more active and forthcoming in making the European argument to the British public. To that end, Jack Straw’s intervention may be seen as helpful. It has certainly ruffled pro-European feathers and provoked a riposte. Now that camp needs to unify and make its case to the British electorate more consistently and more positively.


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Glenn Gottfried, Quantitative Research Fellow