That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:


Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.

2 thoughts on “That “demos” thing

  1. Jon Worth

    An old post from me about the demos issue – using my father as an example!

    I also think this issue is uniquely complex to overcome in the UK as the EU in the UK is just framed as a competition of national interests. Within such a narrative there is no role for the European Parliament, or for the notion than we actually might all have some feeling of being Europeans.

    1. Chris Kendall Post author

      Yes, exactly, “I don’t feel European therefore you may not feel European either” – and as you say the framing perpetuates this. As I’ve said elsewhere I do think that ultimately this is a problem of Westminster exceptionalism, and it equally undermines local and regional democracy in the UK.


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