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Analysis #1

The EU's Democratic Deficit:

Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty

Christopher Bickerton and Lee Jones

11 June 2018

The political left has always been committed to democracy, because it is the only way that ordinary, working-class people can be empowered to change the way they are governed. The European Union is an affront to democracy - but not in the way that right-wing Eurosceptics think. It is not a supranational body, with "unelected bureaucrats" running things from Brussels. The EU is better understood as a network of national governments, which have retreated from their own populations into secretive agreements among themselves, insulating themselves from democratic accountability. Restoring popular sovereignty therefore means withdrawing from the EU.

When people are asked why they voted for Brexit, they rarely invoke specific features of the EU itself. Along with a central concern about high levels of net immigration, the dominant feeling was that the political class was out of touch with the lives of ordinary Britons. Echoing feelings that stretch from the United States to Italy, much of the Leave vote expressed disgust and disenchantment with the mainstream political establishment in Westminster. For many observers, this sums up the mistake of the Brexit vote: wishing to blame their own politicians, British voters blamed the EU instead. Yet, far from being a mistake, this attitude is in fact a very accurate assessment of the nature of the EU’s democratic deficit.

What is the EU?

For traditional Eurosceptics, the EU is something “out there”, a supranational entity which threatens British democracy by its multitude of regulations and directives. The EU has a democratic deficit because the unelected technocrats of the European Commission lord it over national governments and national parliaments. On this view, the problem lies in Brussels, not in London. This is completely mistaken.[1]

The EU is not a supranational entity that has somehow usurped power from member-states. The European Commission, the EU’s central bureaucracy, employs just 25,000 people – barely larger than the BBC. To believe that these “Eurocrats” have somehow managed to take over and run a continent of 741 million citizens is ludicrous. Similarly, Commission directives and regulations, and the wider body of EU law, the acquis communitaire, are not predominantly enforced by the European Court, but by domestic bureaucracies and courts. The European Court only takes up matters referred to it by national judiciaries.

The central agency in the EU is, in fact, the European Council, which consists of member-states heads of state/ government. As shown by its domination in the Eurozone and refugee crises, and now in the Brexit negotiations, where Michel Barnier is hidebound by the “Council Guidelines”, the Council runs the EU’s day-to-day affairs and takes all the most important decisions. The Commission may initiate EU legislation, but proposals cannot proceed without Council approval. Indeed, the Council has directly constrained the Commission’s growth since the early 1990s, preferring to create “de novo” institutions outside the Commission, which member-states can dominate, to advance European integration. These now employ 15,000 people, more than the European Court of Justice, the European Parliament and the Council combined.

Hence, the EU is not a supranational imposition from without. It is a mechanism by which national governments – the member-states – bind themselves to decisions made at the European level. These decisions can then be presented to national citizenries as “European” policies which member-states have no choice but to obey. The EU does limit sovereignty, therefore, but through a process of self-restraint and self-limitation by national sovereigns.


Why is this happening?

Fundamentally, this situation is the outgrowth of, but also further entrenches, structural transformations in domestic politics since the 1980s. European integration is the expression of political elites withdrawing from political accountability towards their own citizens (vertical accountability) and becoming more accountable to one another (horizontal accountability). This has vastly eroded popular sovereignty and democracy, allowing political elites to “lock in” policies that reflect sectional interests and do not command popular support.

This transformation is fundamentally tied to the reconfiguration of politics and political economy in the 1980s. The defeat of the labour movement, and its associated projects of national development and welfarism, has alienated many ordinary people from politics. Traditional social democratic parties moved rightwards, abandoning their social bases among the working classes. Their victory over the left in the Cold War also undercut many right-wing parties, and they also moved towards the “centre”. The result was “identikit” parties, increasingly professionalised, divorced from their traditional supporters, and offering broadly similar policy platforms. The great ideological clashes of the Cold War dissolved into the anodyne project of the “Third Way”. As the political elite retreated from the masses, across Europe, political party membership and electoral turnout fell dramatically as the people withdrew from politics. Increasingly, governments were left “ruling the void”, conscious of the now-yawning gap between rulers and ruled.[2]

The process of European integration, since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, has been about political elites seeking legitimacy in their relations with one another, rather than in their relations with their own, increasingly disgruntled electorates.

European integration has also been about “locking in” a particular set of policies, which also express the collapse of ideological contestation, the doctrine that “There Is No Alternative”. These policies are overwhelmingly neoliberal, designed to support the creation of a “single market” in capital, goods, services, and, to a lesser extent, labour. Through monetary union, the fiscal compact, and a wide array of regulations, national political elites have also sought to tie their own hands. The bureaucracies administering these regulations may be European-level, but the decision to create them comes very much from the member-states themselves. This has deliberately insulated vast areas of public policymaking from democratic scrutiny and contestation.


Of course, every democracy “locks in” certain decisions, most often through constitutions. However, where the balance should lie between what Bruce Ackerman calls the “constitutional” and “popular” pillars of democracy is properly for citizens to decide through democratic deliberation. It is not something that should be decided by national governments amongst themselves, in negotiations held behind closed doors in Brussels. EU integration entrenches the power of executives at the expense of legislatures, and governments at the expense of citizens.

Brexit is necessary but insufficient for democratic renewal

The EU’s structures allow political elites to make decisions in private amongst themselves, then return to their own populations and present these decisions as external impositions to which There Is No Alternative. Traditional, right-wing Euroscepticism is flawed because it accepts this illusion as real. In truth, “the EU” is not responsible for this transformation. National governments are resposible, for constructing the EU as a way to liberate themselves from accountability to their own citizens.

Accordingly, Brexit voters were quite correct to vote “Leave” out of dissatisfaction with British political elites, given that it is they – and their continental counterparts – who have made the EU what it is today. They are correct to see the political class as bankrupt and unresponsive. And the EU is not somehow collateral damage in a mindless populist backlash; precisely because of what it expresses and entrenches, the EU is a principal obstacle to restoring democratic accountability.

However, insofar as the EU is not an “external” constraint on democratic politics but reflects decades of internal political decay, it also follows that Brexit is no magic bullet for the restoration of popular sovereignty and meaningful democratic politics. It is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for democratic renewal.

The dreary debate over and shambolic execution of Brexit clearly exposes a political establishment that has no vision for independent statehood, with both government and opposition preferring to keep their hands tied by the closest possible association with EU structures. This represents a commitment to the status quo that was the very reason why people voted against the EU. It also reflects a total lack of experience – among both the political class and the civil service – in formulating meaningful policy platforms, since for decades major issues have been dealt with in EU-wide forums. There is a strong risk that Brexit will only further entrench the power of the executive at the expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

None of this is surprising: it reflects the degraded state of British democracy, stripped of the pretence that the EU is responsible for it. The task facing all true democrats is clear. We must initiate a political debate around the kind of post-Brexit Britain that we want. The status quo – in our economy, our politics and in our constitutional arrangements – is no longer viable. If taking back control is to mean anything, we must revitalise democratic debate and come up with genuine alternatives.


[1] For an extended version of this analysis, see Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See also James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).

[2] Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).

About the Authors

Christopher Bickerton is Reader in Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge. Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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