New Internationalist

Is the European Union damaging to democratic rights?

January 2012

Anti-poverty campaigner John Hilary and politics professor Carlos Closa go head-to-head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.


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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ALTER-EU Check out RevolvingDoorWatch

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.


Yves Logghe / Press Association Pictures
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.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 449 This feature was published in the January 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Jane 03 Jan 12

    In all aspects of life the EU is trying to take over and take charge even in conditions that it does not know about or understand. For example as a private pilot I am concerned about safety, as is general amongst pilots. In Britain we have weather that is worse and less predictable than much of the continent along with fairly crowded airspace, especially around London and Merseyside. Yet with these conditions, which one would expect to contribute to accidents, Britain has one of the best safety records. One reason for this is our IMC - an instrument rating for private pilots specifically produced for British conditions. Europe wants to get rid of this and impose one which has obviously been written by desk bound pen pushing jobsworths who appear to have zero knowledge of the air. The reasoning given is that all states must accept all ratings. Now, despite living in the flat lands of the aircrowded South East, I accept that there are some pilots who fly in mountains and need to have specific skills for this, consequently requiring a mountain rating. There are members of the EU who do not live in the temperamental weather and crowded airspace of Britain who do not comprehend that we need a specific rating to cope with this. Hence, despite our accepting ratings needed by other countries, they block our requirements. That is one example of EU infringing on our rights.

  2. #2 kieran cairns 03 Jan 12

    Congratulations to both John and Carlos , more tete- a-tete than head to head : meaning you are in agreement rather than in conflict ,albeit looking at the problem from different angles .
    I would go further than John by suggesting the ’ steer ’ given to the Council of Ministers cmes from the Bilderberg group ,the masters of the finance houses and global corporations , who are the architects of the forthcoming New World Order. Originally Anglo- Americans now International , who wish to develop F ederal Unions nominally as trading partners , but eventually as political blocs leading to a one world government . This , of course , will entail erosion of sovereign democracy . This erosion may be meaningless to 99% of people as they go about their every day lives , delighted to see the end of conflict based on petty nationalism . ( I am from N.Ireland} which would be the outcome or fiscal, monetary and political union . Carlos , of course , is quite correctwhen he cites the forces of global corporations as the threat to democracy and in an ideal world the forces of democratic pluralistic processes would be the counter balance and gaurdian of democratic principles .
    The elites of the Bilderberg group , the Fascists . the Fabians , the Communists etc. all start with the good intentions of raising the living standards and eliminating injustic and poverty , however , history has taught us these do-gooders and saviours of their nationsend up mass murderers , who develop a super elite far removed from the masses .
    The EU will not dissolve , the Money Changers , as always , will manipulate the money supply the ’ business cycle ’ and through fear tactics manipulate the citizens to accept eroded democracy [ e.g. note the collapse of America into a police state ] . Soon a concerned person will have to ’ break the law ’ to engage in meaningful politics . To complain or demonstrate will soon be classed as terrorism . Next will be pre-emptive actions to prevent ’ terrorism ’ , leading to censorship of opinion , to the rise of secret policeforves informer networks etc, Not to mention the justification of ’ outrages ’ turned on or off like a tap according to political expediency,
    All of the above I have witnessed in the passed 40 years in N,Ireland, All of the above can be applied to almost any human organization. People at the top will commit any injustice to protect their organization . they will destroy others allow the cover up of criminality etc. to preserve the ’ for the good of the majority principle ’
    The New World Order advocates sincerely believe they will improve the lot of mankind , just as shepards know best for their flocks , just as Stalin knew best for his comrades , Pol Pot for his people etc.
    Revolutions always go wrong . It is up to people like John and Carlos to discover why .Every member of the Bilderberg group , if questioned , wants humanity to be happy , no hunger , no injustice . It is the dream of a just society that haunts humanity since the development of consciousness , whether it is called the Kingdom of Heaven or the classless society .
    However the cost will be the loss of freedom and equality . The Bilder group know this and are willing to erode freedom and develop inequality . Some see this as a nightmare scenario , others as a reasonable price to pay . The game plan to develop a World Government seems to be an incremental strategy . The development of Free Trade Zones . The erosion of freedoms through fear ; fear of financial collapse , fear of terrorists etc. The development of political puppets to give the impression of democracy . The 4 or 5 Federal Unions mandated by the United Nations or similar group , ultimately guided by a super elite . They see an Earthly paradise ahead , historytells us this will deteriorate into bloodshed and tyranny . However John and Carlos must keep discussing , educating and encouraging .I see the New World Order as unstoppable , so John and Carlosmust find the answer to the question : why do revolutions always fail , Sorry for the Disjointed Rambling Kieran Cairns

  3. #3 Jaroslava Rudavska 04 Jan 12

    Institutionally, the EU's democratic deficit is inherent in the origins and the structure of the EC. We have to remember that the project of European integration was a response to the destruction of WWII where nation states were seen as an inherent cause of the conflict. Therefore the architects of the EC sought to remove the key functions of the state and transfer these to a supranational level.
    I think the first mistake is to approach the EU as something that operates in a power vacuum, but also to assume that the interests of the EU differ from those of the MSs. EU institutions operate in the way they do because the MSs made a conscious decision on how much power they should vest in them. Yes it would be nice to have more competition for political authority, i.e. the office and the direction of the policy agenda at the EU level, but there's a danger it would be at the expense of democracy at a national level.

    John's distrust of EU institutions should be tempered by the acknowledgement that they are still fairly new structures in political terms and constantly evolving. The EU is a response to the challenges of globalization and an ever more interdependent world. Without the Single Market, individual MSs would have had a tough time in competing with the US, Japan in the past and presently with China, India, Brazil. Of course, one size fits all policies can be unfair, but if it wasn't for the EU we would not have had equal pay for equal work as early as we did and many other desirable social and environmental standards.

    The important thing to remember is that, in many respects, the EU is ever more a reflection of the nation state and like any nation state it requires citizen participation to function democratically.

  4. #4 Chris 09 Jan 12

    Not a bad debate. However the focus solely on what would be considered social and economic rights obscures the area of civil liberties. This is an area in which the EU most certainly is damaging democratic rights. There are numerous examples from EU Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) policy that demonstrate a disregard amongst the secretive and largely unaccountable EU institutions for the rights they are legally required to uphold. For example:

    Data Retention Directive (Directive 2006/24/EC) - requires the mandatory retention by Member States of individuals' telecommunications data

    Council Framework Decision 2008/977/JHA of 27 November 2008 on the protection of personal data processed in the framework of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters - does the opposite of what the title says

    Passenger Name Record (PNR) deals with Australia, Canada, and the USA - requires the passing of personal data obtained by airline companies to other governments, ostensibly for the purposes of investigating crime and terrorism - there are demands for such schemes to be extended to intra-EU flights, as well as rail and maritime transport

    Not to mention the vast number of computer systems, databases and surveillance networks that have been constructed at EU level for the purposes of 'securing' borders against migrants, leading in particular to hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

    I could go on...

  5. #5 Karsty 23 Jan 12

    I'd say the EU is the ONLY agency with real executive power that has done anything in recent years for workers, consumers, animal rights or the environment in the UK. The Human Rights Act and Working Time Directive, much-loathed by free-market Britain, are surely steps in the right direction. I don't see the UK government doing anything to stop companies like Ryanair conning consumers, or UEFA running their own feudal fiefdom - only the EU has the muscle to rein in supranational actors like these. Now they're even pushing for that NI favourite, a financial transaction tax: unimaginable this could be promoted by UK politicians. And just yesterday I was reading about a Croatian chicken farmer bemoaning that with EU accession, he will have to buy bigger batteries for his hens...

    Maybe EU institutions are too far removed from citizens, and its directives too often come across as bureaucratic decrees. Whether individuals & corporations are inherently greedy and can only be improved through regulations, is a philosophical question: but I don't see the EU as more imposing than national governments when it come to their own interests. If direct democracy generates the sort of media-fuelled hysteria we sometimes see in the UK, give me technocrats any day!

  6. #6 Katarina 31 Jan 12

    At the moment, the globalization is being used as a scapegoat for the policy makers to further the powers of the EU, yet historically we have seen progressive economic globalisation happening over a lengthy period of time. We should think of globalization as an on-going process to which we need to adjust our economic policies rather than a one-off event which we should resist. Yet, in the eyes of an ordinary citizen, this adjustment is being done in rather a peculiar way on the EU level and the Frankfurt group is just one example of the shady dealing of the powerful states on behalf of all the member states.
    Although we cannot compare the EU to a ‘proper’ parliamentary state and cannot expect it to function on the same level, the current discussion of transferring further rights to monitor state budgets etc… is not only undermining the member state’s sovereignty but also deepens the issue of democratic deficit and creates further rift between the EU and its citizenry. Carlos calls for better citizen involvement yet many would argue that the EU citizen is more of a dream than a reality. There are not many people that would call themselves European, as John does, and it seems that there are even less people who are interested in participating in the EU functioning – as proven by a shocking turnout of 43% in the last European Parliament elections in 2009. Carlos mentions the lack of interest but forgets to mention that the national representatives often do not portray the EU in an objective light, readily pushing only those issues close to their party’s preferences.

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This article was originally published in issue 449

New Internationalist Magazine issue 449
Issue 449

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