The possibility that the efforts of the UK to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) could be undermined by their unelected upper Chamber (the House of Lords) is indicative of the problems of the European Union itself. The power wielded by the unelected British Lords perhaps reflects the power of the mostly unelected (directly) “Eurocrats” that operate in Brussels. While the power of both groups is severely limited by democratic forces (the House of Lords is much weaker and can be overpowered by the elected House of Commons in Britain; the “Eurocrats” in the EU operate based on the directives and wishes of the fully elected European Parliament and elected heads of state), the impression that unelected elites in Britain and Europe are undermining the will of the people is being seized upon by Eurosceptics to generate populist support.
Last week the House of Commons supported the Government on the Brexit bill, including the majority of MPs from opposition parties. Understandably, they were at least partially motivated by wanting to avoid popular outrage in their constituencies, often where the majority of people voted Leave in the recent referendum – MPs were consequently scared that they could lose their seats had they voted against Brexit. The Lords face a different set of pressures, however; they are not elected so do not run the risk of losing their seats in upcoming general elections. Nevertheless there is a real risk that voting against the government and the results of the EU referendum could trigger the abolition of the House of Lords itself.
Most likely the Lords will try to amend and add conditions to the bill that ultimately triggers Article 50. Even if the Lords did block Brexit, they can only do so for a maximum period of 2 years due to the 1911 Parliament Act. After this period, if the Commons still wants to trigger Article 50, the Lords can be by-passed and the initial Commons vote would hold. There would be a chance that the Lords would thereafter be discredited in the eyes of the public.
This situation is not unusual nowadays in Europe. In France Marine Le Pen’s Front National is in the best position in years to be the first successful party in the country to win the election on an anti-EU platform (polls do not predict this outcome is very likely, however). In the Netherlands the Islamophobic and anti-EU PVV party (led by Geert Wilders) is expected to perform well in the upcoming elections. Further, in Italy, one of the most pro European country, Eurosceptic movements and parties such as the Northern League and the Five Starts Movement are gaining momentum – even if the M5S has not a clear agenda on the EU. Finally, all around Europe the more mainstream ‘establishment main parties’ – as opponents call them – are giving in to Eurosceptic temptations in their public speeches and acts to better appeal to the public.
As a result, the ‘true Europeans’ look increasingly closed off in their ivory tower – built by national governments and not by the EU itself – and increasingly under siege by thousands of people that erroneously use concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘referendum’ and ‘people power’ to question the legitimacy of the EU project. Just as these Eurocrats face important decisions between maintaining the European project and pandering to destructive populist forces, the Lords in the UK,find themselves in the position to choose between what is perceived to be the elitist Remain and the democratic Brexit.
Like in a real war, the only hope for the ‘true Europeans’ – in Brussels such as in the national Member states – is to take enter the battlefield against the Eurosceptics horde to repossess the flag of democracy. In a modern society, to fight for democracy and freedom is to win, and to remain in the tower blaming populism is to lose. The Lords in London are well aware of this and thus it is unlikely that they will oppose Brexit. What they will do it is to soften the bill in the interest of the British people Britons. The true Europeans will soon face the same dilemma: blaming the populists and appearing to be against democracy or fighting the populists in for the sake of democracy.