Is The EU Really More Democratic Than The UK?

There’s an infographic making the rounds on Twitter which claims that the European Union is somehow more democratic than the United Kingdom by providing a side-by-side comparison of EU and UK institutions. However, upon closer inspection, its arguments don’t really add up.

The infographic starts by noting that the Queen is a hereditary monarch while the President of the Council of the European Union[1] serves on a rotating basis from among the heads of government of the member states. But this comparison is something of a non-sequitur because the two offices serve very different purposes. The British monarch is a ceremonial head of state who exists outside of politics. The President of the Council of the EU, on the other hand, is still involved in day-to-day politics since it must oversee the work of the Council.[2] It’s also debatable whether allowing each member state to hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU in turn is actually democratic. After all, the presidency is currently held by Romania, yet the vast majority of people in the EU had no say in choosing Romania’s Prime Minister, and the President of the Council of the EU isn’t accountable to the people of Europe or even the European Parliament.  

Also, the infographic’s assumption that the President of the Council of the EU is the EU’s head of state is difficult to sustain. The EU doesn’t really have a head of state in the classic sense of the term; rather, one could argue that the President of the European Council is the closest analogue since they are responsible for, among other things, representing the EU on the world stage.

The next comparison contrasts the office of Prime Minister of the UK with that of President of the European Council. It notes that the PM is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament while the President of the European Council is chosen for a 2.5 year term by a qualified majority of the European Council. But once again, the infographic is comparing apples and oranges. As with the office of head of state, the EU doesn’t really have a single head of government—instead, the position is essentially split between the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. And in any case, it seems strange to claim that the office of President of the European Council is somehow more democratic than that of UK PM since neither one is directly accountable to the electorate.

Next, the UK Cabinet is compared with the European Council. The infographic points out that British Cabinet ministers are selected by the UK PM, while the European Council is made up of the heads of government of EU member states. But while the UK Cabinet and the European Council have some similarities (i.e., they both decide questions of government strategy), there are key differences that make the comparison problematic. British Cabinet ministers are responsible for specific policy portfolios; members of the European Council are not. And while UK Cabinet ministers are accountable to the PM and to Parliament, members of the European Council are only accountable to their home states since they serve ex-officio. Consequently, it’s hard to see how the Council could be considered more democratic.

The following comparison is probably the most flawed. Under the heading of ‘head of legislature,’ the infographic juxtaposes the Leader of the House of Commons with the President of the European Parliament. This is a total non-sequitur. The Leader of the Commons is not the head of the legislature. Since the President of the European Parliament is that body’s presiding officer, the best UK analogue would be the Speaker of the House of Commons. In both cases, the officials are elected by parliamentarians, so, democratically speaking, they would appear to be on par with one another.

The infographic then moves to the legislature itself, noting that the UK Parliament has two houses, the House of Lords (unelected) and the House of Commons (elected through first-past-the-post), while the European Parliament is a single body elected through proportional representation. But once again, this comparison is misleading. In fact, the European Parliament acts as co-legislator with the European Council, which is an unelected body. And, unlike the UK Parliament, the European Parliament lacks ‘legislative initiative,’ which means it can only consider proposals submitted to it by the European Commission (though it can ask the Commission to submit proposals). Finally, while the UK Parliament ultimately determines the tenure of the British PM, the European Parliament cannot remove the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, or the President of the Council of the EU.

Next, the post of Head of the Home Civil Service is set against that of President of the European Commission. But as is often the case with this infographic, the author is comparing two different offices. The President of the European Commission plays a political role, whereas the Head of the Home Civil Service simply oversees the civil service.  A better EU analogue would be the Secretary General of the European Commission, who is chosen by the Commission. But if press reports are to be believed, the process of choosing a Secretary General isn’t exactly a shining example of democracy in action.

Ultimately, I would argue that the basic premise of the infographic is flawed. The EU and the UK are completely different entities, and attempting simplistic, side-by-side comparisons of their respective institutions is a pointless endeavor since you aren’t comparing like with like. Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, and neither one is objectively better than the other. There are many reasons for the UK to stay in the EU; this infographic shouldn’t be one of them.


[1] Although the infographic only refers to the ‘President,’ the fact that the office is said to be filled on a rotating business means the author is referring to the President of the Council of the EU.

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1 Response to Is The EU Really More Democratic Than The UK?

  1. Mark Loch says:

    Great analysis of a flawed comparison!

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