The EU Referendum, Democracy and Sustainable Development


Graham Smith is Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and a specialist in democratic innovation and citizen engagement, with a particular interest in climate politics and the representation of future generations. He is the Chair of FDSD’s Board of Trustees.

 Image, modified (CC BY 2.0)Natesh Ramasamy

Image, modified (CC BY 2.0) Natesh Ramasamy

Britain is about to make a fundamental decision about its political future. What is striking about the national debate is the obsession with the impact of the decision on the growth (or otherwise) of the economy and the capacity to manage immigration. Broader concerns about the impact of the decision on sustainable development are almost absent, and the arguments about democracy, narrow and short sighted.

This tells us a great deal about the limited nature of British public debate – or at least the obsessions of our political leaders and their assumptions about what is of interest to the public.

At first glance, it might seem that much of the debate is about democracy. It is the central plank of the Brexit argument. Leave the EU and parliamentary sovereignty, as well as the ability to control our own future, will be returned.

But democracy cannot simply be equated to national sovereignty.

Our complex world faces numerous challenges that extend well beyond the nation state, such as climate change, mass migration and increasing inequality. The referendum can be understood as a choice about how to respond to these different challenges; how we can move to a more sustainable and equitable future.

Those arguing for Brexit believe that the best way to deal with growing regional and global challenges is through concentrating power in the nation state.

The alternative recognizes that we need to build forms of governance that more effectively respond to the trans-national issues we face. We need to build new democratic forms of governance at regional and international levels rather than simply relying on nation states. National executives and parliaments will have a role to play, but we also need to consider how to build new publics around these issues – engaging citizens and stakeholder groups (whether civil society or business) in responding to the challenges we face. National-based responses to trans-national problems are doomed to failure.

The European Union is the most developed regional infrastructure that offers democratic opportunities to shape a collective European response to climate change, social inequalities, mass migration and the like. It does not always do this successfully – take for example its ineffective response to the current migration crisis. That said, it has emerged as a leading voice in the global response to climate change.

Its structures and processes are not as democratic as they could be. The EU is a complex interaction of nation states, a parliament, a technocratic executive and stakeholder institutions. Arguably it gives too much influence to economic interests and not enough to engaging and listening to the voice of its people.

But we need something like the EU to develop collective democratic responses to the challenges we face if we are to realize a more sustainable future. We need to be involved in shaping the institutions of the EU to make them more democratic and effective. This is not a project to recreate the nation state at the European level, but rather to craft European institutions that engage citizens and stakeholders more effectively in realizing sustainable development.

Related links

For further thoughts on the implications of Brexit, see the Provocation by Charlotte Burns and Viviane Gravey, ‘The EU Referendum and the UK’s Environment: What are the Implications for democracy’. The report looks at three options for the UK from the point of view of their impacts on participatory democracy, as well as point to the tension between participation and stable long term rules for environmental protection.

One Comment

Robert Seddon

I’m not sure I entirely follow what’s presumably a highly compressed argument–especially the bits complaining about a focus on migration, then citing ‘the current migration crisis’ as an example of the EU’s role–but I get the sense that you’re broadly an optimist about what trans-national institutions can achieve when they get it right. I rather lean the other way, towards thinking that national democracies can localise mistakes and rethink faster–never mind building publics to suit, they have to satisfy organically existing ones–while still being able to co-operate. (The migration crisis, for example, would presumably still be some form of trans-national problem without the EU and Schengen, but they created the conditions for a trans-national blunder on Angela Merkel’s part.)


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