People feel that decisions which affect them are taken elsewhere – ‘in Brussels’ – where they don’t understand how their countries’ interests have been represented. An individual person’s vote clearly has less sway in a large grouping like the EU than it has in local or national elections, but that does not mean that large groupings cannot be democratic. It means that it is harder to change their direction – but this can be a benefit in preventing politicians from trying to win short-term popularity at the expense of the wider collective interest, for example by advocating economic protectionism (188.8.131.52).
During the British referendum on whether to leave the EU, there was a much-quoted expression “being governed by an unelected bureaucracy”. A new political party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), was formed in Britain to exploit anti-European feeling and to regain British autonomy by leaving the EU; its 2010 manifesto stated that:
“UKIP wants Britain to regain three essential freedoms by leaving the EU: Freedom of Action… Freedom of Resources… Freedom of the People…”.
The British Conservative Party saw UKIP as an electoral threat and modified its policies to include a guarantee of holding a referendum if it were elected – as was the case.
Much of the EU’s unpopularity can be ascribed to a communication problem:
- Some national politicians try to increase their power by feeding nationalist sentiments, as was the case with both UKIP and the British National Party (BNP). The BNP Election Communication for South-East England for the European Parliamentary elections on 4 June 2010, was entitled The New Battle for Britain and included such slogans as “No to EU rule and the Euro”, “Yes to putting British people first”; the military flavour was enhanced by mention of “Trafalgar, The Somme, Dunkirk, D-Day, The Falklands”.
- Slightly less stridently, but insistently, many other politicians disliked the EU – ignoring its benefits. Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned partly in protest against Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to Europe, as described in his resignation statement:
“[she] seems sometimes to look out upon a continent that is positively teeming with ill- intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to “extinguish democracy”, to “dissolve our national identities” and to lead us “through the back-door into a federal Europe”.
What kind of vision is that for our business people, who trade there each day, for our financiers, who seek to make London the money capital of Europe or for all the young people of today?”
- As seen from the perspective of any individual country, it is not surprising that not all EU decisions are in its favour; that is the nature of any collective bargaining.
- Few national politicians try to explain or defend the multinational decision-making process. For example, some British politicians suggested that Brussels was handing down “crazy” regulations without consultation; this argument was refuted by The Guardian in an article headed Is the EU really dictating the shape of your bananas?
- The British government also interpreted some EU regulations in an unnecessarily restrictive fashion, and blamed Brussels for the result – as in an example quoted by The Guardian: Quote ‘Daft’ insurance rules cloud UK’s sunny staycation trend.
Clearly, improvement is always possible, and any system will suffer from human failings, but the most difficult problem remains the need to explain that the collective benefits are worth having, that national sovereignty has been pooled not lost, that national politicians are responsible for the implementation of regulations – and that not all aspects of governance are affected.