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Democracy: Would you vote for it?
The surprise (at least to many) election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States has thrown up some very real questions about what constitutes ‘democracy’, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine Executive Director Denis Horgan.
It is not so long ago that Trump, who looked to be heading for defeat, refused to say whether he would accept the result if he lost and, on several occasions, maintained that the election was being ‘rigged’.
That proved not to be the case, and losing candidate Hillary Clinton, for her part, accepted the result with grace.
Meanwhile, outgoing president Barack Obama said: “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country,” although Obama doubtless made the statement through gritted teeth.
Regardless of what one thinks about an American system that allowed Clinton (and others before her) to lose the electoral college yet narrowly win the popular vote, it is, as it stands, the long-developed and accepted system across the Atlantic.
And despite all the protests and ‘Not my president’ banners, Trump will take over the White House in late January.
Already the transition has begun, with Obama - as is traditional - aiming to help the next occupant of Washington DC’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as much as possible.
This has been the tradition since George Washington said that what is the most important about “this grand experiment”, the United States, is: “Not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president. The peaceful transfer of power is what will separate our country from every other country in the world.”
Meanwhile ‘Brexit' has thrown up issues all of its own. Protests and court battles and accusations of misinformation being peddled by politicians and the media… A lack of acceptance by many of the 48% (of those that bothered to vote) who opted to ‘remain’ that the 52% (of those that bothered to vote) who chose ‘leave’ actually a) understood the issues, b) really meant it or c) should even be listened to because the referendum is not legally binding.
And the mainstream media has come in for some serious criticism, not just regarding Brexit (over which much of the popular press is accused of being, at best, misleading and, at worse, blatantly lying), but in the US election of earlier this month.
In the latter case it was accused of failing to get the ‘message about the real Trump’ out there).
Journalists themselves can’t seem to agree, with, for example, even two writers working for a single media outlet differing.
One wrote in Politico recently: “So all the fact-checking of Trump’s lies, all the investigative journalism about his failures, even the tapes - none of it meant anything.”
Meanwhile, his colleague wrote that he disagreed vehemently, adding: “The press succeeded in exposing Trump for what he was. Voters just decided they didn’t care.”
Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and, with England being the ‘mother of all parliaments’ one would like to think he knew what he was talking about.
And the two votes clearly represented democracy as we understand it (whether we use first-past-the-post, proportional representation or whatever). There is no ‘democratic deficit’ in play here.
Next year, there are elections due in two of the EU’s largest Member States - Germany and France - and it will be interesting to see what happens in both cases as Europe appears to be lurching towards the Far Right.
Could Marine Le Pen cause an upset of volcanic proportions and take the Élysée Palace as president in May 2017? And will Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government fall, whether or not the Christian Democratic Union leader stands herself or not?
Time will tell. But at least the process will be (what we call) ‘democratic’.
And, crucially, transparent.
Critics of the European Union are often very swift to cite a perceived ‘democratic deficit’ and a ‘lack of transparency’. Those ‘faceless bureaucrats’ and ‘unelected men in grey suits’ are doing what they want, we are often told, with scant respect for the parliaments and peoples of the 28 Member States.
The above slings and arrows are usually aimed at the European Commission, the EU’s executive, but are such attacks fair?
Let’s take a look at (why not?) the UK system and compare it to the EU…
In the UK, voters elect members of parliament and the leader of the party with the most MPs (usually) becomes prime minister. He or she appoints a Chancellor of the Exchequer, the health, trade and defence ministers, plus the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and many others.
The government even appoints ambassadors (or high representatives), albeit with the traditional consent of the monarch. The electorate has no direct say in the appointees mentioned and the choices are not scrutinised (except by the media, of course).
The government also nominates an EU commissioner who is, in fact, scrutinised by the European Parliament. Lest we forget, the latter body consists of directly elected representatives from all 28 Member States, including a hefty number from the UK. As has happened in the past, the European Parliament can reject the candidate. The UK parliament is not in a position to reject, say, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary…
Still with me? Good. Meanwhile, three main institutions are involved in bringing about EU law. These are the Council, the Commission and, again, the Parliament.
The Commission can propose laws, the Parliament can amend them but, crucially, the process often begins (and always ends) with the either the full Council (made up of the heads of state and government of all 28 countries - put there via democracy, remember) or the 28 ministers with the same portfolio, let’s say ‘health’ for example, regularly meeting as the Council of Ministers (appointed by the democratically elected leader).
The Commission, while it has its own priorities and views depending on who is its president, cannot put into force laws that have not been thrashed out and agreed by a majority of the Member States (in some cases, agreement has to be unanimous). In the west, remember, ’majority’ represents ‘democracy’.
Those ‘faceless, unelected bureaucrats’ (ie the vast number of employees of the European Commission) essentially act under democratically formed guidance and are essentially little different from the UK civil service. And the much-maligned commissioners (who are obliged to act in the EU’s broader interests, not their individual Member State’s interest) are as ‘democratically elected’ as government ministers are ‘democratically elected’.
Talk of a democratic deficit is a nonsense.
It certainly should not be confused with the clear facts that citizens are often ill-informed, uninterested and, when they feel anything at all about the EU, often feel disengaged. A large number, like many of the missing voters in the US election and the Brexit referendum, decided that they just don’t care.
But those sad facts represent a different issue entirely. If there is any ‘deficit’ in modern-day democracy it’s caused by the fact that many millions of people don’t bother to make use of their hard-won right to exercise it.
As a multi-stakeholder organisation, the Brussels-based European Alliance for Personalised Medicine is made up of patients, researchers, scientists, academics, healthcare professionals, plus law- and policy-makers.
It regularly meets with the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament, Member State healthcare representatives and the European Medicines Agency, among others.
The Alliance is proud to have contributed to many amendments to regulations and guidelines affecting, in a positive way, the treatment and quality of life of 500 million potential patients across the EU’s 28 Member States.
None of this would have been possible without due democratic process and consensus.
The European Union, while it could do still more, has been very good for health. And you can vote for that.Author: Denis Horgan