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Mumbling democracy

1 Nov 11 | Re: Difficulties of remote representation

How do you set up a parliament and make it legitimate? That’s a question that’s been bothering Westerners in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s also something that goes deeply into Britain’s relationship with the EU.

In Britain, there’s a huge discrepancy between the importance of the EU and the attention that’s paid to it. Decisions made in Europe have all kinds of consequences in Britain; and indeed, lots of people complain a lot of the time about perceived negative effects of EU legislation. Whatever the media might say, those decisions aren’t made by unaccountable Eurocrats. The Eurocrats are, in fact, accountable to the European Parliament, where we Brits are amply represented. Yet when the EU elections come round, there is little reporting of campaigns, no one knows who their candidates are, many people just pick the same party they’re picking in the local elections that happen at the same time, and only a grimly eccentric minority will ever contact their MEP to try and get their views heard.

What do you do if you give people a say, they steadfastly refuse to use it, and then they complain about the decision once it’s taken? A lot of people would just say more fool them. But from the average Brit’s point of view, it isn’t like that. It’s more like someone ran up to them in the street and mumbled a question that they didn’t really hear, they nodded politely, and then they later got told that they’d agreed to donate their house to a donkey sanctuary, or join the Mormons. People feel like they’ve been had; like they haven’t been consulted in a meaningful way.

More fool them, then? I don’t think so. My belief is that Brits don’t engage with the European Parliament, despite its great and growing importance, because it isn’t psychologically possible for them to do so. Most if not all successful parliaments around the world are the culmination of a great historical process, usually involving either hundreds of years of negotiation and compromise, or a cataclysmic popular uprising. Europe has the benefit of neither, so it feels made-up or ersatz. A parliament needs an epic; the EU only has Herman’s haiku. A parliament needs to feel like it’s been earned or won through struggle; the EU one has merely been established through negotiation.

No wonder, then, that people can’t pay attention to Europe, no matter how much its decisions affect their lives. History is important; history is lacking. Therefore, I contend that we should stop blaming the poor British public and admit that it is unfair to continue making important decisions in this way. I’m very much in favour of Europe, but an ahistorical, pop-up parliament is the wrong system. I suggest that each country should simply appoint a small number of representatives in whatever way it deems fair and let them make all the decisions (Britain could probably handle electing, say, eight people every few years, and even get excited about it). But any other system would do, really; this non-parliament needs to be abandoned forthwith.

Posted by BROOKLYN BRIDGES at 20:28

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