This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, a conflict that took millions of lives and maimed even more. It is easily among the worst wars in all of human history, and British and Commonwealth nations routinely pause to acknowledge the horror that scarred the European continent.
I recall this because last week was Anzac Day, the annual remembrance day for Australia and New Zealand. One of the many values that moved Aussies and Kiwis to join the British war effort was the fight for democracy. Both nations, along with many others, returned a little over twenty years later to do it all again – and once more the notion of a democratic life for free citizens hung in the balance.
Fast forward to today’s political debates and two things strike me about the ‘European question’. Firstly, that it is asked so often really does mark out sections of the British political class for whom this is not so much a subject but an area of devotion, raising as it does such heat on both sides.
The more serious and important point though is the unquestionable success of the European project on one of its central aims: to bind a continent together in peace. Every visit to the western front confronts us with hundreds of thousands of white stone headstones as far as the eye can see – a tangible reminder of what the absence of peace means.
Such noble and genuinely historic achievements do not make the European Union a body of unquestioning perfection however. Indeed it is a requirement for all organisations that claim to be democratic to regularly submit itself to scrutiny, reflection and renewal.
As Britain’s oldest democracy organisation, the Electoral Reform Society has been thinking about where the gaps are in accountability and transparency between EU institutions, national parliaments and – most importantly of all – citizens.
This week ERS released ‘Close the Gap’ – a report about tackling the democratic deficit in Europe and we hope it is a useful contribution to the debate. We do not have a view on whether or not the United Kingdom should be members of the EU but we do think that much could be done to improve democratic structures and give more voice to citizens who increasingly see many decisions taken (or being influenced) away from their national parliament.
The report sets out 12 ways to close the gap between British citizens and European democracy, workable solutions from empowering national parliaments to giving citizens more direct voice in Europe. Naturally we also recommend a change to the voting system to give voters more power over which individual candidates are elected. As we have seen, closed-party lists can result in some interesting selections being made. Using the single transferable vote, or at the very least an open list system, would be a big victory for voters.
We want there to be a debate about how to build a better European democracy for British citizens and will seek to persuade political parties on the merits of our 12 recommendations.
Labour has already started this process. In an important speech, shadow minister for Europe Gareth Thomas recently set out areas where Labour is heading. There are already four areas which would meet our proposals, including ending the charade of upending the European parliament once a month to Strasbourg. Other areas of agreement are things like giving the UK parliament pre-Council scrutiny time. We would like to talk to Labour about how to involve ministers in the devolved nations as well. There is plenty to be done.
Sometime these things may seem dry and not necessarily the top priority. But taking decisions on behalf of consenting citizens is a virtue we have paid a very high price for. So it is worth doing right.
Darren Hughes is deputy chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. He was a New Zealand member of parliament and a minister in the Helen Clark Labour government.
Photo: European Parliament
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