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Is the European Union damaging to democratic rights?

European Union


I consider myself a true European, both culturally and politically, and I have no time for petty nationalisms of any stripe. However, having spent much of the past 15 years fighting for fairer policies within the European Union, I now have a profound distrust of its institutions. Bitter experience has taught me just how great is the democratic deficit at the heart of the European programme.

The EU’s supreme policymaking forum, the Council of Ministers, meets in camera without any form of external oversight. The powerful but unelected European Commission closely follows the steer given to it by the tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who operate within the Brussels bubble. The European Parliament (EP) remains a toothless wonder, even after the recent Lisbon Treaty reforms.

I believe this situation to be so serious that we now need to re-examine our support for the EU itself. Our democratic rights are under real threat, yet there is hardly a mention of the problem outside the xenophobic ravings of the nationalist Right. The current crisis sweeping Europe has shown just how devastating the EU’s interventions can be. Surely we need to be able to control the monster we have created?


I have a naturally different point of view on the institutions. While the Council may not be collectively accountable, its members (Ministers) are nationally accountable to their own parliaments and, in some cases, these have developed strong control mechanisms. As for the Commission, demands for action come also from national governments and civil-society actors; in this respect, initiatives result from a pluralistic process, even though there remain important questions on accessibility. As for the EP, it has now reached the position of co-decider jointly with the Council.

I believe that some of the forces of globalization (such as, for instance, the unlimited capacity for action of the financial markets) pose the real threat to our democratic rights and the EU could be, precisely, a response to these forces. While citizens may cherish their small states, none of them can afford in isolation the kind of policies and responses that a quickly changing world demands. Naturally, there is a severing of the link between citizens and policies which derives from size and complexity. In my opinion, this is a price worth paying which requires improved transparency and accountability mechanisms.


It would be great news indeed if the EU acted as a force of resistance to corporate power in the global economy. Yet the reality is that the institutions of the EU have consistently sided with capital at the expense of workers’ rights, environmental standards and social cohesion. The EU’s policies on trade and investment, for instance, which I have fought against for years, have been relentlessly and exhaustively pro-business. In my experience, it is precisely because the EU is so anti-democratic that it can get away with such a flagrant disregard for people’s rights.

So you are right to say that the link has been severed between the people and the policies of the EU. But you are surely wrong to believe that this is a price worth paying. The transfer of power to Brussels signals the end of democracy in Europe, and no amount of transparency will bring it back. If we agree to such a Faustian pact, experience shows clearly that the only ones to benefit will be the financiers and their corporate friends.


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The question is whether nation-states are better dams against the forces of globalization. Do we seriously think that nation-state democracies can contain these forces? If the response is ‘yes’, I guess that those providing that response should be prepared to leave the Union immediately. If the response is ‘no’, then the question is how to improve EU policies and their democratic quality.

While you may be right that there is a pro-market bias in the EU (inherent to the common market logic), I don’t believe that the EU itself has eroded (as you seem to suggest) workers’ rights, environmental rights and social cohesion. Let’s remember: the EU has campaigned for equal payment without discrimination (a revolution in some member states), it has created environmental standards for the EU (with member states retaining their own if superior) and, finally, it has championed territorial cohesion by means of structural policies. Maybe we have not done enough, but this is not the same as to say that the EU causes a diminution in rights. We need a proper identification of the source of our problems, rather than finding an easy bogeyman (or woman) for them.


Algerian women’s rights activist Salima Ghazali addresses a high-level conference on human rights at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Yves Logghe / Press Association Pictures

I believe that the only true hope of resistance against the forces of globalization will come from the peoples of Europe and the wider world. That is why the popular uprisings of the past year are so important historically, from the Arab revolutions to the occupations being staged today in hundreds of cities worldwide. These are a clear signal that people wish to take back control over their own lives, and that our élites ignore us at their peril.

By contrast, we have seen the EU’s true colours with the formation of the shadowy Frankfurt Group. This cabal of just eight people have taken it upon themselves to dictate the future of our continent, without any reference to the peoples of Europe. Unelected and unaccountable, they represent the logical conclusion of the EU’s pro-business and anti-democratic tendency.

Whom should we trust? I would argue that there is only one sane choice, and that is to join the wave of popular resistance against those who would destroy our common future. Anything that takes power away from the peoples of Europe is a threat to democracy. The EU represents one of the gravest of these threats.


I agree that the uprising and movements all through the world derive from a huge sense of malaise, although I am reluctant to say that we can interpret their demands coherently. In some cases, they ask for jobs and bread; in some other cases, they have more developed demands and these do not necessarily coincide with one another. In all cases, though, they address politicians and business élites (including bankers). Even if the EU disappears, it is very unlikely that the reasons for these protests and their object (politicians) would also disappear. Hence, your diagnosis is wrong (let’s remember that protesters in London, for instance, marched against university fees, not EU policies). In an analogy, it is as if the Spanish government was doing very badly and, hence, the people would ask for the elimination of the Spanish state...

Better citizens’ involvement is badly needed at all levels, starting with the national one. I agree that the EU, like any other governance system, makes large policy mistakes. But I think it is irresponsible to promote the belief that by eliminating a specific governance system (the EU) our problems will be solved. I believe that we are in poor shape today, but I also think that it would be much worse without the EU.

John Hilary is the executive director of War on Want, an international anti-poverty charity based in London.

Carlos Closa is a professor at the Centre for Human and Social Sciences (CSIC) in Madrid. He directs research projects on reconstituting democracy in Europe, and on crimes committed by totalitarian states.

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