A difference of ideology I can tolerate. Even willful distortion from political opponents I have come to understand. But low quality journalism by those who should know better continues to really rankle.

So I was hopping mad earlier today when reading this piece by Gary Younge in The Guardian, a columnist I had previously respected, admittedly not on EU matters. How could he pen something so bad?

So Gary, like Andrew Marr before you, I am going to take apart your piece, line by line. A fisking, quoting all the main parts of the text in turn.

My issue was democracy. I didn’t like the fact that the European parliament could not initiate legislation;

This is an old nugget – the European Parliament is not a proper Parliament because it cannot initiate legislation. Sorry Gary, but who initiates all main legislation in the UK? The government, not parliament. What’s akin to the government of the EU institutions? The Commission. That initiates legislation.

OK, the House of Commons does – through Private Members Bills – have the power to propose, but in practice the government can stymie progress of these bills*. Meanwhile in the EU system there are all kinds of ways the European Parliament can manage to push the European Commission to act – through own initiative reports, through sunset clauses in legislation, and by using its budgetary powers to shape what the European Commission can and cannot do. In addition when a proposed law passes through the EU legislative process the European Parliament can amend it – often significantly – and MEPs that are rapporteurs (explained here – don’t be put off by the French title, these folks are significant) carry more individual clout than backbench MPs in Westminster.

Oh and what about on Brexit? The European Parliament has to approve the deal with the UK. In the UK Gina Miller had to go to court to even make sure the UK Parliament had the power to initiate the process!

that turnout for European parliamentary elections had fallen 30% since the first elections in 1979;

Turnout in national elections across Europe has been falling for decades too. And turnout in UK local elections is lower than in EP elections – are we calling those into question too? Also can you really blame the European Parliament as an institution for this when the coverage of EP elections in the media has been so low, and the UK has even been bottom of the pile when turnout is compared across the EU? Yes, it would be good to see turnout increase, but I do not think you can blame the EU alone for this issue.

the way countries that voted “the wrong way” on EU referendums were effectively instructed to vote again (Denmark 1992; Ireland 2001, 2008) and get it right;

In each case the country in question wanted to find a solution – it was not the European Union forcing a country to reconsider. Denmark’s opt-outs on justice and home affairs endure to this day, as do the changes to the Treaty of Lisbon that Ireland demanded. Plus should the European Union simply stop if one country wants something different? No. The European Union sought to accommodate those countries concerns and moved on – which seems reasonable enough to me.

the fact that Greece’s resounding democratic rejection of the terms of its bailout (2015) was treated with such contempt.

Ignoring that Greece’s political class lied its way into the Euro in the first place. Now I am no fan of the way Greece was treated, but the creditor countries have their voters as well – and the rights of responsibilities of both those people and Greek voters need to be balanced.

It felt increasingly obvious that this institution had growing control over our lives even as it became less obvious how anyone beyond its ruling bodies could directly influence it.

Gary – have you looked at how First Past the Post works in the UK recently? I have a UK passport and I have never lived in a key constituency. My vote has always been to all intents and purposes useless. Or have a look at something like Hugh’s Fish Fight to see how normal people working together can change the course of EU politics.

It’s never been obvious to me that the EU’s senior leadership could satisfactorily answer all of the late Tony Benn’s five essential questions for people of power, namely: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?

Unlike the UK, the EU essentially has a written constitution – its Treaties. Every single power the EU has, and how it can be wielded, is laid out there. Every Regulation or Directive adopted by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union must derive from a power in the Treaties. Maybe have a little read? As for accountability – the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament hold the Executive – the European Commission – to account with parliamentary questions and by grilling Commissioners in committee meetings. It’s pretty much all live streamed, if you wanted to look for it. Only the last of these five points is really valid – getting rid of people you do not like is a bit tricky, but in 2014 there was a reform – the so called Spitzenkandidat process to democratise the choice of the Commission President. Only the UK largely declined to participate. Oops.

I think if it [the EU] had been better we would not have left and we should have only stayed with the proviso that we would work to make it better.

Ah. So far in the column there are just complaints, no proposals. What would better actually mean? And any efforts to transform the EU into a genuine federal representative democracy have been resisted by the UK over the years. How would you improve it Gary? I’d be keen to know.

The lack of accountability and transparency in its institutions leaves it susceptible to a vast array of haters and hucksters

Perhaps this ought to read “the lack of understanding of its institutions by newspaper columnists like Gary Younge leaves it susceptible to a vast array of haters and hucksters“? I am serious here. Just look at the Brexit process for example. Which side has greater transparency, UK or EU? EU, clearly. Which side involves its Parliament more? The EU. Which side publishes its negotiation documents as a matter of course? Why, the EU of course, while the UK’s ones leak or have to be extracted from DExEU. Yes, the EU is not as simple to understand as it might be, but how many of us understand all the workings of the Commons as well – there we instead have a superficial familiarity rather than a deep understanding.

This became clear again last weekend in Italy, where Eurosceptic parties – who floated the possibility of a referendum on ditching the euro – fared best.

Although all of them softened their euroscepticism since the Brexit referendum. And support for remaining in the EU has been rebounding in the rest of the since the Brexit referendum.

Across the continent the institutions associated with the EU are more tolerated than loved, leaving the EU ruling more by ambivalence than consent.

Have a quick glance at Eurobarometer – p.19 in this PDF. In only a handful of EU countries are national political institutions trusted more than EU institutions. In more than 20 EU countries it is the opposite – the EU institutions are more trusted.

Back then, the possibility of far-right victories in the Netherlands and France prompted fear of Brexit contagion.

Are you saying that Brexit was a right wing populist phenomenon? And the relationship between populism, anti-establishment behaviour, and euroscepticism is a complicated one.

So long as Britain acted as a tragicomic, cautionary tale, the EU’s legitimacy has appeared unassailable and longevity beyond doubt. Neither is true.

A very UK-centric view. For the rest of the EU, Brexit is a side note. That the EU is unified in facing Brexit has won the EU some friends in narrow political circles, but it is neither here nor there when it comes to the EU’s reputation in the eyes of its 440 million non-British citizens. The EU will not succeed or fail only dependent on how it copes with Brexit.

A Pew Research poll from last year shows there is widespread desire on the continent for referendums on EU membership […] And even if there is little backing for actually leaving at present, it is not difficult to see where more support might come from.

Ask people anywhere whether they would like a referendum on anything and they generally reply yes. And I know it does not conform to your prejudice, Gary, but it is actually quite hard to envisage why any state would want to leave the EU just now, given the hash the Brits are making of their efforts to leave.

Only roughly a third of Europeans have a favourable view of the European Central Bank, European commission and European parliament, according to a 2014 Pew survey, while barely half like the EU as a whole.

While Pew’s 2017 survey found public opinion about the EU strongly recovering. Why did you not use the newer survey? Because it did not confirm your views?

majorities in 16 EU countries […] felt “their voice did not count in the EU”

Yes, this is a problem. But does one’s voice actually count much nationally? At least with a proportional election system my vote for the European Parliament counts. In the UK with First Past the Post I would argue it counts far less. Plus with high ranking Guardian journalists having such misconceptions, what hope the general public understands how the EU works?

There is no suggestion that the EU is vulnerable to another member state leaving in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Eurobarometer polls show that European citizens consistently have more trust in the EU than in their own governments.

Oh. Three paragraphs earlier you implied the diametric opposite of that. Which is it then?

Shortly before David Cameron announced there would be a referendum, Angela Merkel suggested he “couch the speech in an argument about Europe having to change” for the benefit of everyone. She was right. The fact that he failed to heed her advice is not just bad for Britain. It’s bad for Europe too.

Change! Reform thyself, Europe! But how? And in what direction? After 1179 words of Younge’s piece we are still none the wiser.

* – my understanding of how parliamentary time is allocated to Private Members’ Bills was incorrect in the first formulation of this paragraph. A discussion with Martyn Atkins on Twitter here set the record straight. The text in the paragraph above has been corrected as a result. Mark D’Arcy from Today in Parliament also commented. If you want all the detail then Cristina Leston-Bandeira tells me it’s in Chapter 12 of her book!

Note: the title of the original blog post, and the first paragraph, used the word “lazy” to describe Younge’s argument. I am told in this thread that using that term is a dog whistle. I have instead replaced it with “poorly researched and incoherent” in the title, and “low quality” in the first paragraph.


  1. ordinary nobody

    I’m sorry, but this is so wrong.

    Yes, governments have agreed to treaties, but where have the people been consulted?

    For the UK people, Tony Benn’s questions remain unanswered – the EU has been built by a mainly pro-EU political class that has never referred to the people: we have, in effect, a pro-EU stitch-up where the politicians are for the EU and the people sceptical.

    And I hear the gnashing of teeth – “Well, why didn’t you all vote for UKIP?” – but that’s not how politics works; there are other issues of equal importance.

    I have to look at things from a personal point of view – John Major made me an ‘EU citizen’; I had no wish to be one, but had no choice. I was treated as some kind of possession to be handed over for somebody else’s gain.

    And, apparently the EU parliament has recently been given extra powers – a treaty (Lisbon) that replaced a democratically failed constitution, gave those powers to the EU parliament, the people, once again, had no say.

    Finally, I will point out an observed contradiction – since the UK’s EU referendum result I have heard nothing but how ignorant the people of the UK are when it comes to all things EU, and yet, every five years, these same ill-educated people become the font of all wisdom when it comes to sending MEPs to the EU parliament.

    My belief is that the European Union is an unnecessary political construct – the technical standard setting and resulting regulation can be done on the same basis as other global bodies.
    The ‘democratic’ veneer that sustains the EU is just that – a veneer. We have a castle built by a political class, of which the people outside are occasionally invited in to choose the colour of the curtains.

  2. Shaki Miki

    The tone is just so wrong & patronising. An intelligent voice of the centre left deserves more respect. You may be up on the technicalities, but it’s graceless to attack with such glee. It doesn’t help the general cause. .

  3. thanks, good riposte to gary younge’s article which i also found particularly annoying and felt like a telegraph-style rehash of worn-out generalisations straight from the clichee remainder bin at his local poundland. wasn’t quite sure what came over him to regurgitate the exact same rubbish that led to peoples’ opinions being swayed against the EU over the decades and can only assume he was laid up with the lurgy and needed an easy piece to meet his deadline. still, it was embarrassing tripe though, the kind of stuff even my leaver friends have stopped regurgitating as they become more acquainted with EU structures & mechanisms through the interminable brexit saga.

  4. secret squirrel

    “Tony Benn’s five essential questions for people of power”

    Christ, I hate these. A politician saying something that sounds profound, but utterly banal in reality.

    Let’s look at the situation for the UK government:
    What power have you got?
    – To do anything that is not limited by treaties, the law (as it currently stands, the government can change that) and whatever it can get past parliament.
    Where did you get it from?
    – Anybody who commands a majority in parliament forms a government.
    In whose interests do you use it?
    – The people of the UK.
    To whom are you accountable?
    – Parliament
    How do we get rid of you?
    – “We” can’t get rid of you. A no confidence vote in parliament will do the trick. That last happened 39 years ago, the previous time was in 1924. Otherwise, we wait until the next general election.

    Now look at the EU commission:
    What power have you got?
    – To propose legislation within the terms of the EU treaties.
    Where did you get it from?
    – Commission members proposed by member state governments and approved by the EU parliament.
    In whose interests do you use it?
    – The people of the EU.
    To whom are you accountable?
    – The EU parliament and the member state governments of the EU.
    How do we get rid of you?
    – “We” can’t get rid of you. A no confidence vote in the EU parliament will do the trick. That has never happened in the time that this has been possible. The commission cannot however withstand the member state governments, which will provide a faster correction than the “people” ever could, should it be necessary.

    In short, Tony Benn’s questions were bollocks. The EU is no less democratic than the UK when you apply his questions. It’s barely more than shouting “four legs good, two legs bad” and thinking that it makes a real point.

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