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Democratic deficit in the european union


The European Union (EU) is a powerful politico-economical body that is comprised by twenty-seven member states. The attitudes towards the creation and, most notably, the expansion of the European Union are very diverse, ranging from overt support to complete rejection of the entire idea of creating an efficient politico-economical union. The European Union is frequently viewed as a practical tool of globalization, with many negative effects of globalization ascribed to it, such as the suppression of individual states' will, limiting their political and economical independence and even degradation and gradual extinction of traditional cultures and values.

The democratic component of the EU (in other words, the extent to which the EU follows generally accepted democratic principles) is one of the most controversial issue of present-day political debate. The advocates of creation and expansion of the European Union believe the process itself is logical and inevitable within the frames of speeding globalization; besides, they believe that as a single whole European countries will get more opportunities to increase their economic output, political influence and, undoubtedly, to enhance and implement commonly recognized democratic principles.

The opponents emphasize that one of the most obvious disadvantages of the EU is that it provides no functional and institutional (structural) basis for exercising democratic principles. Democracy itself is traditionally viewed as a form of government which is characterized by people's ability to influence directly or indirectly the supreme power functioning by free electoral system; in a democratic state the citizens feel they are the participants of the political process and not just observers on which the top level decisions are imposed.

The European Union has some supranational institutions that exist and operate beyond the structural reach of national governments. Such supranational institutions include such as the European Parliament, the European central Bank, the European Commission and some others. Thus, the member states of the EU cannot expand their own democratic principles to generate common sufficient democratic content of the European Union. The notion of democratic deficit is now often used with economic and political policies and structures of the EU.

In a very general sense, the economic deficit is a condition characterized by inability of all EU member states and national populations to participate equally in the EU decision-making and government; by extreme centralization of powers, by obscurity of the EU functional mechanism that stifles citizens' understanding and enthusiasm. This research paper aims at discussion of democratic deficit in the European Union, its negative results and ways to democratize the EU, which is especially important in the face of further expansion of the Union.

Democratic Deficit in the European Union

The need of democratization is not a new issue; however it is typically applicable to generation of democratic and constitutional mechanisms within a particular state, to enhance freedom of speech and religion, equality, free elections and other related elements. One needs to mention, though, the European Union is not a state, but a sum total of several states, so the approaches typically used to promote democracy nationally are not suitable for democracy promotion on supranational level. Thus, the notion of democratic deficit and solutions for the problem of democratic deficit should be studied through the prism of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism.

However, before discussing the aforementioned issues, it is necessary to give a clear definition to the notion of democratic deficit. There exist a great number of definitions of democratic deficit and many of them may be applicable to both states and international organizations and unions. The term democratic deficit has been in wide use in political debates since early 1970, when it was created by the British political scientist David Marquand. He used this expression to refer to weak political legitimacy of various institutions of the European Community, in particular, of a European Assembly which was chosen indirectly at the beginning of 1970s (Fabbrini 2005: p. 185).

Then the suggested solution for solving democratic deficit in the European Community was to have direct elections of the European Parliament members. It is necessary to mention, though, that as in late 1970s such elections were conducted, the problematic topic of the European Community (and later, of the EU) democracy started to attract even more attention. The point is that, despite the fact the European Parliament reinforced its political position being the only directed institution at the European Union level, its powers were still rather restricted.

The dispute over democratic deficit in the EU became more intense and more dramatic as the rate of the EU expansion and consolidation increased. After signing of the Single European Act in 1986 and especially after signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (that created the Euro currency, introduced the co-decision procedure and established the so called pillar structure of the EU), the claims that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy became louder. Alongside with the recognized democratic deficit and as its direct reflection, the European parliament remained rather weak; and much greater privileges were given to the executives.

Thus, the democratic deficit in the European Union may be defined as “a concept invoked principally in the argument that the European Union and its various bodies suffer from a lack of democracy and seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen because their method of operating is so complex. The view is that the Community institutional set-up is dominated by an institution combining legislative and government powers (the Council of the European Union) and an institution that lacks democratic legitimacy” (the European Commission)” (Democratic Deficit 2009).

It has already been mentioned that the European Union is a supranational organization, including such elements as the European Commission (legislative and executive body comprising 27 members appointed by the European Council); the European Council (formed by member states' heads or heads of government); the Council of the European Union (the Council of Ministers, also performing certain executive duties) and the European Parliament whose members are elected every five years by the citizens of the member states.

The structure of the European Union largely predetermines its acquired democratic deficit; in fact, many political researchers call it an institutional democratic deficit. To put it simply, democratic deficit is a side effect of transferring powers (such as executive and legislative) from national level to supranational level, to the above standing, superior Community decision-making apparatuses. Despite the fact this apparatus is composed by the representatives of member states, it still puts the EU power beyond the reach of the European people and national parliaments.

According to so called standard version of the EU democratic deficit (first proposed by Joseph Weiler in mid 1990s and upgraded by Andreas Follesdal and Simon Hix in 2005) states that one of the brightest reflections of the EU democratic deficit is the decrease in national parliamentary control. Simultaneously, in the result of European integration, executive power increases. The point is that in all member states of the European Union parliaments may control the executive power by hiring and dismissing the Cabinet of Ministers.

However, “the design of the EU means that policy-making at the European level is dominated by executive actors: national ministers in the Council, and government appointees in the Commission […]; the actions of these executive agents at the European level are beyond the control of national parliaments” (Follesdal & Hix 2005). It implies, that, while developing European legislation and implementing it in practice, the EU institutions (comprised by heads of states, heads of governments and elected executives) may freely ignore the position of national parliaments when deciding in Brussels.

Weakness of the European Parliament, compared with the European Commission and the EU Council of Ministers, is one more manifestation of the EU democratic deficit. The EU Parliament remains weak even after the series of the EU treaties intended to increase parliamentary powers. According to the opinions of researchers, “the EP itself has virtually no role in constitution making in the EU. The EP is reasonably important in terms of day-to-day policy making within the EU, of course. But it carries no weight in the discussion about the EU, since this is instead a matter for national politicians and national governments and, through these, for the Council and Commission” (Mair 2003: p. 61).

It means the citizens of the member states have a very little chance to influence the EU policymaking through the people they elect every five years in the European Parliament. Thus, the major democratic principle of vesting powers into the European people is almost inapplicable, both because of the EU institutions' neglect of national parliament decisions and to the overall weakness of the European Parliament. It is necessary to mention that some scientists believe that, taking into consideration the “parliament empowering” EU legislation, parliamentary weakness has reduced significantly, and is not the major cause of democratic deficit in the European Union.

The lack of transparency of legislative process is believed to be tightly linked to the EU democratic deficit. Not only people are deprived of their right to influence the EU decision making process through national or the EU Parliament, but the citizens of the member states also have no access to understanding of the entire legislation procedure. Lack of understanding is caused by the fact that a great number of the EU legal acts are discussed “behind-closed-doors,” which leads to insufficient transparency of the decision-making process for average citizens of the member states (Mitchell 2005).

For example, the Council of Ministers operates behind closed doors, and it is impossible for an average citizen to identify what politician agrees/or disagrees with a certain proposal and why. One should mention, though, that a few researchers believe that such non-transparent method of making decisions is quite appropriate and even useful, because otherwise the Ministers would find it hard to find a politically sensitive compromise.

In general, several political researchers, such as Moravcsik completely reject the idea of democratic deficit in the European Union, stating that the regulations, generated exclusively by the EU are not numerous are relatively weak (with exception of some vital areas, such as monetary policy, trade policy or competition policy) (Moravcsik 2009). Some other opponents of the EU democracy deficit theory as a negative phenomenon argue that state members willingly sacrifice some part of their independence (and, consequently, some portion of democracy that is obvious on national level) in the process of European integration because they believe the Union will provide them with greater political and economical advantages; and because these states fail to function effectively when isolated and completely independent.

Giving the part of their sovereignty to supranational institutions the member states of the European Union agree to become the parts of new and more effective regulatory framework which. It is supposed to protect the interests of each state and of all states taken collectively in the conditions of globalization when the states are gradually drawn closer to each other in political and economic terms (Ward 2002: pp. 2-3). It is necessary to mention, that even though some scientists and political and economical analysts make attempts to justify certain lack of democratic content of the European Union, it clearly points to the fact that the problem of democratic deficit is recognized and that many people feel something is wrong with the democracy treatment within the EU.

Democratic deficit is expressed not only structurally, but conceptually as well. The point is there exist no truly “European” elections. The citizens of each member state elect the European Parliament and the national governments whose leaders' sit-in the Council and whose duty is to nominate the members of the European Commission. However, in fact, all the elections are “national” in their core and each party promotes most important domestic issues rather then general European issue during the election campaign. This is the reason many Eurosceptics believe that there exist no “European” people, only “Germans,” “French,” “British,” and the like.

“People are still national in their outlook. A British citizen would not vote for a foreigner. I cannot see European democracy working” (Mulvey 2009). Democratic deficit in the EU is also generated by people's psychological treatment of the EU institutions and policies. The point is the EU governing center is literary too far away from the citizens of the member states; the EU structure looks different to the one of the member states. There is a risk the citizen of the member states will never be able to understand how to arrange the European Union into the democratic frame, because the Union remains obscure and distant from national voters (Craig & De Búrca 2003: p. 168.).

As a result of structural and psychological isolation of the EU governing structures, certain policies might be implemented on the European level that have little or no support in particular states. In fact, it is hardly possible the EU will reach the same level of democracy as certain individual states; however, researchers propose several possible solutions.

They are the following: federal state model, which presupposes that “legitimacy is split and shared through a dual popular sovereignty (state and union level) and is implemented through a system popular and state representation at the federal or union level” (Milev 2009); the economic community model (market is separated from the state, no EU political control over the economic integration) and the intergovernmental model (which views national level as a generator of legitimation).

Finally, the practical tool – the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into effect on December 1, 2009 – is supposed to reduce democratic deficit in the EU, to increase the power of the European Parliament (making it equal to the Council in power possession) and to provide more rights and clarity for the citizens (The Lisbon Treaty: More Powers for the European Parliament 2009).


Nowadays EU plays an important role in shaping political and economical environment of the globe; however, the greatest effect is definitely produced on member states, in particular, on their citizens and mechanism of state functioning. The European Union should not be perceived too generally and too superficially, that is, as a mere international organization. In fact, EU is a relatively new form of unionizing of different countries that have some form of common legislation, single market, common currency and other elements that clearly define the European Union as a consolidated and centralized union.

The structure of the EU and the way it operates resulted in the emergence and recognition of so called democratic deficit in the European Union. The phenomenon is perceived as rather negative, however many researchers believe it is almost impossible to make the EU mirror national standards of democracy. The Democratic deficit of the European union is expressed in the number of ways, such as comparative weakness of the European Parliament, inability of the citizens and parliaments of the member states to fully participate in the decision-making on the European level, lack of transparency of the EU policymaking for the ordinary citizen and psychological and geographical remoteness of the EU's operational center.

Some Euroenthusiasts, though, believe the democratic and sovereignty sacrifice that member states make to become the members of the EU will later bring them more advantage. However, low turnout for the EU parliamentary elections (in 2009 less than a half of 375 million Europeans voted (Q&A: European Elections 2009 2009))