There are a number of ways in which the hands of the political class are said to be tied. Perhaps the main one is our membership in international—or “supranational”—institutions such as the European Union (EU). Though the following discussion will use the EU as an example, the points I will make apply equally to other ambitious political integration projects occurring in other parts of the globe. There seems to be an unswerving enthusiasm among the international political class for dividing the world into a handful of large regional blocks, as evidenced by all the effort invested in the establishment of the Union of South American Nations and the African Union.
These regional blocks serve many useful purposes. The abolition of internal borders facilitates trade and the free movement of individuals. Their institutions promise to act as a safety net against particularly egregious abuses by national governments. Their larger dimension also gives their members a better chance of making themselves heard in global forums. Among other advantages, this could make taking collective action on environmental and other regulatory matters substantially easier.
Yet—and as the case of the EU makes clear—this sort of integration also has other implications. They seem evident to most Europeans, but, strangely, only the parties on the fringes of the political spectrum dare point them out. Simply put, the process of integration has a huge cost in terms of the loss of political power by citizens. The more “integration” takes place, the more powerless they become. Decisions are increasingly made at the EU level—far removed from any form of democratic accountability, even by the shabby standards of national representative democracies.
Although this is a common-sense observation, it falls outside the realm of “reasonable” political debate in EU nations—with the notable exception of Britain.  If this is to change, we first have to distinguish between the multiple issues at play when we speak of how political integration threatens our democracies. Only then will we be able to have a meaningful debate about the participation of our countries in international projects of this kind.
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Looking at the case of Europe, a part of the problem is the multiple layers of unaccountability separating the top echelons of the EU leadership from the European citizenry.
The European Council is composed mainly of national heads of state or government, who are already largely unaccountable in their home countries and who become even more so in the context of the European Council. When they meet in Brussels, their detachment from the populations they are meant to serve becomes even greater. Not only are they operating in an environment that is far removed from the national democratic institutions they are nominally accountable to, but, upon returning to their home countries, they can always claim that Brussels “forced” them to implement any measure that proves especially unpopular.
The situation with the European Commission is not significantly better, either, since its members are appointed by national governments. While an incoming commission is subject, as a whole, to the approval of the European Parliament, its composition is ultimately the result of negotiations between national governments and the leadership of the main political groups in the European Parliament. What this means is that the top levels of the EU hierarchy are little more than extensions of our only-very-indirectly-accountable national governments.
Note that these are design choices: a supranational institution like the EU need not be so flagrantly undemocratic. It need not have these multiple layers shielding the higher levels of its decision-making hierarchy from public oversight. We could have more-accountable, democratic supranational institutions: the ones we currently have merely mirror back to us, in an amplified manner, the undemocratic nature of our own domestic political culture(s).
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Other problems, however, are unavoidable consequences of political integration. These are serious, inescapable limitations that are inherent in any larger, supranational political union.
The first of these is the centralization of decision-making. Once a central governing body of some sort is established, it will tend to accumulate power. This means that decisions that should have been made locally increasingly end up being made centrally. Put bluntly, citizens are no longer free to decide how they want to do things in their own countries. As one might expect, this process generates one-size-fits-all decisions that often fail to take into account the needs and issues specific to each nation.
A second, distinct issue is that centralization (further) insulates politicians from the citizens they represent. The greater the geographical and administrative distance separating them, the more difficult it becomes for politicians to be sensitive to citizens' concerns. The situation grows even worse as politicians spend an increasing amount of their time in international high-level summits, where they deal only with other foreign leaders—themselves also far-removed from those they represent. A world in which important decisions are increasingly made in settings of this kind is one in which we will all become more and more disempowered.
Third, centralization radically impacts the (relative) ability of different groups to influence public policy. The more centralized and, thus, more distant the political decision-making, the more asymmetric access to those decision-makers will become. For example, large corporations, international institutions and, perhaps, a few well-funded NGOs can afford to send countless lobbyists to Brussels to influence the decisions being made there. Citizen movements, unions and grassroots activists, on the other hand, will never be able to make themselves heard in a similar way. Large-scale street protests cannot happen when people need to fly, drive or walk thousands of kilometers to show their anger outside the doors of those in power. Centralization effectively means that the only way to be reliably heard is to hire professional lobbyists to represent you where the decisions are being made. That ensures that the voice of powerful special interest groups will always be heard loud and clear, while that of the citizenry will remain safely inaudible.
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With this said, the fact remains that supranational institutions serve a number of important functions. Careful balancing of the clear costs of political integration, on the one hand, and the reality of our need for international cooperation, on the other, is, therefore, in order.
Finding that balance, though, is very different from the unquestioningly pro-integration stance of the political class that rules most of our countries. This chapter advocates that, like the British, we must be willing to reevaluate our international commitments. After all, we citizens have the ultimate say on what our “international obligations”—that beloved scapegoat of our unaccountable leaders—really are.
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While Britain's willingness to rethink its EU membership is an example to follow, its approach is less so. With a handful of tabloids and opportunistic politicians largely setting the tone of the “debate” on this contentious matter, holding a traditional referendum seems a poor choice. Clearly, some other tool is needed when collectively deciding on issues that can have such far-ranging implications. That is what we turn our attention to in the next chapter.
26. ^ British readers might laugh off the notion of this being an admirable aspect of their political reality. While the title of this chapter is admittedly little more than a provocation, the truth remains that, in Britain, it is acceptable to openly discuss the country's membership in the EU. Contrast that with the situation in the rest of Europe. For several years now, many millions of Europeans—all the way from the creditor nations in the north to the indebted south—have been wondering when, exactly, they signed up for the rollercoaster ride that their EU membership has turned into. Yet, in most of their countries, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a vestige of euroscepticism in mainstream political discourse.