European Union’s Democratic Deficit: A Critical Assessment

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12th Feb 2019 European Studies Reference this

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Introduction

The European Union is in a middle of a crisis. The worst part of its economic crisis has passed but it still faces even more severe issue: a trust crisis. People do not feel represented by the European Union and have turned their support towards populist and radical movements.

What is the basis of this crisis? Some authors incline to say it is the EU’s democratic deficit. Thus, since there is a wide gap between what EU citizens want from their politicians and how the EU bureaucrats and institutions act. This leads to a situation where the public’s opinion and desires are not taking into account by the body that should represent them[1]. Yet, first we need to analyse in detail what a democratic deficit means to then address this problem.

Democratic deficit is a tricky issue as it does not have a widely accepted definition between politics and law scholars. Depending on the author and its background, the term can be used with different connotations and meanings; hence, the results of the analysis tend to depend on the notion of democratic deficit the author uses[2].

Therefore, first, we shall develop our own democratic deficit conceptual approximation. Then, we will be able to lead a critical assessment on representation and participatory actual problems of the European Union. Afterwards, we will have all the tools necessary to address in detail if there is a true democratic deficit problem in the European Union and to propose some possible alternatives to solve it.

The European Union and Democratic Deficit

If a hyperbole is permitted, democratic deficit may have as many meanings as authors have discussed it. It is not an easy issue to address or to encompass in a single-simple definition. First of all, especially because, even though we can agree on some basis for democracy, in wide terms it is an ambiguous subject. So, what an author considers a democratic deficit will be highly influenced by what he considers to be a democracy.

One of the first scholars to use this term was British David Marquand. He used it to define the democratic legitimacy faintness of –then- European Community. He suggested direct elections for representatives before the European Parliament. When this was adopted, the issue around European Community democratic legitimacy arose even further, as for the European Parliament represented the voice of the European Community citizens but the Community was not ready to give more powers to the Parliament, causing more tension. After the approval of the Maastricht treaty, the problem grew. Two pillars were added to the Union (common Foreign and Security Policy and Home Affairs), and in none of them the Parliament had any control[3]. Other authors propose the democratic deficit problem in the terms of a backwards Hume’s is/ought as they consider there is a discrepancy between is and ought/ should in the European Union[4] institutions and democracy as the transfer of substantial amounts of political decision-making towards the supranational level on non-elected institutions has diminished the democratic influence and the basic control the citizens have on their political institutions.

It is obvious that at the first stages of the European Community it was reasonable and necessary to keep citizens away from decision-making as it was initially designed to be an economic community and not a political institution[5], but its goals mutated in time. The Community passed from a purely economic institution to a political one. As it was a community formed by democratic countries, one could expect that the supranational body they formed would also have democratic and participatory channels. Nonetheless, European Union turned into a bureaucratic and political giant that has slowly diminished the national entities and directly-elected supranational bodies -European Parliament- and passed it to its hands.

Yet, other approaches[6] suggest that, even though the democratic deficit issue is real, it has to be attributed to the Union’s member states, rather than the Union itself. Integration between European states was responding to a series of already-existing democratic legitimacy issues within the states. They argue that the Union is not democratic enough because the member states have not been able to democratise their integration. The issue of the lack of democracy within European Union institutions is not considered as the cause of the problem, but the natural consequence of the democratic deficit of European Union members.

This perspective must be necessarily rebuked. Even with their flaws, most of the European Union members have developed and stable democracies. If an institution poses itself as the supranational ruler of a continent and its legitimate representative, it must follow the same form of government that those national units it intends to rule, which is democracy. Where could European Union legitimacy come if not from its citizens? The Union’s decisions directly impact its citizens, as much as a national government decision, or even more. It also breaks citizens’ capacity to rely on the regular channels of influence –voting- to ensure they are being listened and to participate in political process[7]. The lack of democracy of the Union and is tightness to evolve and accept citizens demands only causes further disgust and loss of legitimacy. European Union is a sui generis institution, as it is not a state but it represents them and takes decisions in their name, therefore it should be held accountable for its decisions in direct elections.

One cannot fail to notice that there is a deep democratic deficit in the European Union from the turnout in its elections. Ever since legislative powers were transferred to the Council of Ministers of the European Union from the national governments, the setup of the European Union shifted from that of an economic block to that of a political one. The lack of democracy in the Union has been evident in the voter turnout. From the first vote in 1979, the turnout has been going lower and lower with the 2014 election having a disappointing turnout of 42.54%. Compared to the individual member nations where the average voter turnout is 68%, this is a sign that the members of the European Parliament have noted something wrong with the setup and are thus silently revolting. This has led to the debate as to what ought to be done to get the Union back on track. While one side states that reforms are enough to make the Union serve its needs, others think the European Union should be simply debunked. The fact that the European Union has a lot of benefits for its member states and the world in general, however, means that its abolishment is not the best solution. To get the best solution for the case, therefore, requires an in-depth analysis of how the Union works and where it is failing.

The Origin of the Democratic Deficit of the European Union

Looking at the origins of the European Union, it is easy to make the conclusion that it was primarily meant to be purely economic and the introduction of the political aspects only complicated issues. The Treaty of Paris in 1951 saw to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which was meant to provide a trading bloc for coal and steel in Europe as suggested by its name. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome saw to the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC’s original members were known as the European Communities. In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty would see to the establishment of the European Union. With the European Union came the introduction of European citizenship. The latest of the treaties in this regard is the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. While a lot has changed in the structure and function of the European Union to the present moment, some of the problems that plague the Union are the same. 

The Manifesto for the Young European Federalists by Richard Corbett first raised the issue of the lack of democracy in the European Union in 1977 where the term democratic deficit was first used. David Marquand would later use the term in reference to the workings of the European Economic Community. The coining of the term primarily focused on the European Parliament, which was previously referred to as the European Assembly, and why it had a deficit of democracy. The primary argument behind this assertion is that the Parliament was made up of members who had not been directly elected by the citizens of the European Union. As such, the European Union was not serving the needs of its citizens but those of a few people. Effectively, the European Union is thus not democratic enough given that it does not meet the definition of a democracy where there is a government for the majority. The fact that the majority is not represented through free and fair elections of the members of the European Parliament is one point to the fact that there is a deficiency of democracy in the Union.

The European Constitution

The European Union prides itself in democratic legitimacy through various aspects of the constitution. The first of these aspects is the European Parliament. The Parliament is subject to the electorates of the member states. The other organs are the Council of the European Union also called the Council of Ministers, and the European Council made up of the heads of national governments of the member states. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union appoint the European Commission members. This system of making decisions is supposed to give the European Union democratic legitimacy in the same way the US House of Representatives and the US Senate give democratic legitimacy to the United States. Decisions are thus to be reached by both bodies agreeing, and a third organ in this case the European Commission.

The intended democratic legitimacy has, however, not been entirely attained by the European Union. The construction of the Union itself has occasioned what the German Constitutional Court called a structural democratic deficit in the Union. This court established that the process of making decisions for the European Union was primarily those of an international organisation rather than those of a government. The difference is that, as an international organisation, the European Union based its democracy on the equality of the member nations rather than the citizens of these countries. It is thus difficult to reconcile the needs of the citizens and those of the member nations of the European Union provided its operation as an international organisation rather than a government. Similarly, the British Electoral Reform Society filed a report in 2014 to the same issue of the EU constitution having a structure which focused on the needs of the member states rather than the citizens. The report stated that, while the European Union has focused on upholding the principles of democratic engagement, accountability and representativeness, there is the need to focus on the needs of the minority in any democracy. The European Union, being mostly made up of minorities, thus needs to have a focus on serving the needs of the citizens rather than those of the member governments[8].

Democratic Deficit and the European Commission

One of the main structures put in place by the European Union in support of democracy is the European Commission. First, there has been criticism concerning the legitimacy of the European Commission and its role in the initiation of legislation in the European Union. However, this criticism does not have the backing of facts as similar bodies within national governments have yielded similarly poor results. However, its position as a body that legitimises the European Union and its take on democracy has failed by a large extent. The main weakness with such a body, as also noted in the case of the United States government, is that the regulations may be so detailed that the member states have little freedom in making their decisions on legislation[9].

While the issue of a democratic deficit was noted as far back as the 1970s when the idea of a united Europe was still in development, democratic legitimacy has always been an issue the Union has been dealing with ever since. When the Treaty of Lisbon was put in place, its primary aim was to provide room for better democracy in the region. The Treaty of Lisbon required that the President of the European Commission ought to take account of the results of the European Union parliamentary elections. This simply means that the President of the European Commission should be nominated by the  most dominant group in the parliament. This step effectively makes the European Union a political body rather than the economic one meant for the over watch of the economic activities of Europe. In fact, the European Union, owing to this kind of structure, has become partly a federation and also an international organisation[10]. The President of the European Commission would thus be partly elected and partly appointed. This position gives the president less power than is needed to win the confidence of the population, and too much power to earn the trust of the governments of the member nations. The resulting model is one where little democracy is accorded to the citizens of the European Union and their governments as well.

The European Parliament and Democratic Deficit

When the European Parliament was set up, a lot of people were ready to voice its weaknesses in seeing to the implementation of legislation. However, political scientists would come to the rescue of this organ by stating that, first, the European Parliament is different from the parliaments of single countries due to various factors such as the lack of a divide between the government and the opposition, the presence of a divide between the executive and the legislature, the presence of political parties that are decentralised, bipartisan voting, and the roles of the various committees. For this reason, the European Parliament has been compared to the US House of Representatives but with the advantage of not having a governing body over it like the latter house. The fact that the majorities in the European Parliament have to be built each time while depending on negotiations, persuasions, and explanations ought to make it better in function than the US House of Representatives. This is true given that the lack of interference between the executive and the legislature has made the European Commission and the European Parliament more effective. For instance, the member states of the European Union have less than 15% of their legislative initiatives becoming the law. This is largely due to the lack of support from the executive. The executive bodies, on the other hand, rarely require the input of the legislature in the same nations to pass amendments. The role of the European Parliament is the propositioned amendments to the existing laws. The success rate of these amendments is as high as 80% with the lowest levels recorded (mostly for the hotly contested topics) is at 30%.

To an extent, however, the structure of the European Parliament allows for a level of lack of accountability and weakness when it is compared to parliaments with an overwatch body like the case of the US House of Representatives.

Voter Turnout in European Elections and the Impact on Democratic Deficit

With any democracy, the legitimacy of the leaders in power heavily relies upon the turnout of the voters during elections. The European Parliament has had some of the lowest levels of elections voter turnout hence the reduction in its democratic legitimacy. This is based on the fact that the turnout of the European Parliament elections has been declining consistently since its formation. However, the President of the European Union, Pat Cox, said that the 1999 European Parliament elections and a far much better turnout than the presidential elections in the United States. Compared, the voter turnout for the presidential elections in the United States in 1996 was 49%. However, the voter turnout in the European Parliament elections for 1999 was at 49.51 percent. For both types of elections, this turnout was among the very lowest.

While both are at their lowest, it is difficult to use this as an excuse for the lack of democracy in the European Union. As a matter of fact, the case of the United States is very different from that of the European Union and the reasons for the low voter turnouts. For the European Union, the people have an option of whether to belong to the Union or not. And the way they can show their willingness to belong or not belong to the Union is through participating (or not participating) in its activities such as elections. The social aspect of the European Union, that of being accepted or rejected by the people, has been observed in the way the people have turned out in low numbers at each European Parliament vote[11]. The massive lack of knowledge for the common citizen of the European Union has led to the lack of participation by the voters. On the other hand, the United States electorate can have a low voter turnout for many other reasons none (or very little) of which is being against the union that is the United States.

As it is, the European Union is not a very effective and efficient democracy given that its workings are not in line even with the developing democracies of the world. First, it is torn between being a government, and an international organisation. Secondly, the citizens, having seen that the democracy of the Union does not work (and it is too complex to understand), are increasingly ceasing to buy into the idea of the European Union being there to improve their lives through fostering democracy.

Democratic Deficit and the Council of the European Union

Another organ of the European Union is the Council of the European Union. This Council is also part of the efforts of the union to foster democracy among the member states. Its primary role is acting as the voice of the member governments of the EU while adopting the laws European Union and coordinating the polices of the union as well. Depending on the policies of the union, the government ministers of the members states are the members or the Council of the European Union. The presidency of the Council is held on a rotating basis (among the states) with each president holding the office for 6 months only. The Council carries out voting on legislation and discussions with both exercises being held in public. The decisions are based on a qualified majority whereby at least 55% of the countries (which is about 65% of the total population of the European Union) are required. In blocking a decision, 4 nations are needed (being the equivalent of 35% of the European Union population). For issues that are of an administrative and procedural nature require a simple majority while a unanimous vote is needed for the very sensitive topics such as taxation and foreign policy.

While the structure of the Council of the European Union seems to read democracy all through it, the same weaknesses that plague the European Parliament plague it hence it is just another example of democratic deficit in the EU. For one, own-initiative reports from either the European Parliament or the Council of the European Union do not have legal consequences as such to the member states. Also, both bodies cannot play major roles in the amendment and repealing of legislation that is already in place. Lastly, and most importantly, the bodies do not address the needs of the citizens of the member nations. Looking at the structure of the European Union, it is easy to conclude that the reason it has not met the needs of the citizens is because there is too much bureaucracy between the top organs of the Union and the common citizens for the member states. The organs are too separated from the citizens in that the decision made take a very long route to reach the citizen. The representatives also have to make decisions which serve the needs of the Union and those of their respective countries; an issue which often introduces a conflict of interest.

What the European Union has Done to Better Democratic Legitimacy

All the concerns expressed here about the democratic legitimacy of the European Union have been expressed before by various persons and bodies and they have been heard by the people at the helm of the Union. For this reason, the Union has put in place various changes to the constitution with the focus being on doing away with the noted weaknesses in the laws and constitution of the Union in general. Among the changes made include the introduction of the Maastricht Treaty. This was a landmark treaty which is credited with the introduction of citizenship of the European Union. This citizenship would grant EU citizens voting rights to the European Parliament in each of their countries. Even municipal elections of the European Union were also included in the treaty. The treaty would also introduce co-decision procedure in which the European Parliament was given powers that gave it an equal footing to the Council of the European Union in making legislative decisions[12]. These steps would make the European Parliament much more functional and powerful but not powerful enough to overcome the issues of being a purely democratic entity.

 The other change made to the constitution of the European Union is the Treaty of Lisbon. Becoming effective from the 1st of December 2009, the treaty saw to better representation of the EU citizens both directly in the European Parliament and indirectly through the Council of the European Union. This was meant to foster democracy and representation. The treaty would also see to the implementation and acceptance of the co-decision procedure as the primary procedure for the legislative dealings of the Union. The Treaty of Lisbon is also credited with tremendously increasing the powers of the European Parliament by a large extent[13]. One of the main areas in which the Treaty of Lisbon helped focus on the EU citizens was in giving the citizens the right to make petitions to the European Parliament concerning any matters of material effect[14]. This increased the powers of the citizen and their levels of participating in the making of decisions. Further on, the treaty would ensure that Council of the European Union meetings which discussed public matters are made public for all to see. In this way, the citizens can better understand the debates and the workings of the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon also receives credit for improving on the role played by the national parliaments of the member nations in putting in place the laws and legislations of the Union[15]. Lastly, the Treaty of Lisbon is credited with giving the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union full legal effect. This meant that various steps taken by the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament would have full legal effect in areas where they apply[16].

Conclusion

The workings of the European Union in seeking democracy have been so far ineffective on various levels as observed above. While there is intention from the leaders of the European Union to remedy these weaknesses in the workings of the Union, the fundamental reason why there have been low levels of success when it comes to attaining democracy for all citizens is its structure. It aims to operate like a government yet at its basic form it is an amalgamation of governments. Each of these governments have different needs, goals, histories and fundamental principles. The rest is that the leaders of each country first take care of their countries’ needs before those of the European Union. Also, its structure makes it difficult to make laws that will lead to better governance as each piece of legislation needs to have the needs of the many member states at heart. With time, it can be hoped that better legislation will be enabled for all the democracy to be attained.

References

Avbelj, M. 2005. Can the New European Constitution Remedy the EU “Democratic Deficit”?. EUMAP.org

Campbell, M (2012) The Democratic Deficit of the European Union. Claremont-UC Undergraduate Research Conference on the European Union, p. 25.

Castro, C. (2015). Assessing the Democratic Deficit in the EU: towards a Participatory Approach. RIPS, 14 (1), p. 63.

Craig, P; Grainne De; P. P. Craig (2007). “Chapter 11 Human rights in the EU“. EU Law: Text, Cases and Materials (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 379.

Dilek, K. (2011). The Problem of “Democratic Deficit” in the European Union. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 1 (5) p. 244.

Electoral Reform Society — Close the Gap — Tackling Europe’s democratic deficit.

European Parliament: Relations with National Parliaments.

Innerarity, D (2015). The Inter-Democratic Deficit of the European Union: The Governance of Europe’s Economic, Political and Legal Transformation. Pp. 173-174.

Kelemen, R. (2012). The Rules of Federalism: Institutions and Regulatory Politics in the EU and Beyond. Harvard University Press. pp. 21–22.

Milev, M. (2004) A ‘Democratic Deficit’ in the European Union? Master Thesis, I.H.E.I. p. 10.

Schütze, R (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. p. 99.


[1] Castro, C. (2015). Assessing the Democratic Deficit in the EU: towards a Participatory Approach. RIPS, 14 (1), p. 63.

[2] Milev, M. (2004) A ‘Democratic Deficit’ in the European Union? Master Thesis, I.H.E.I. p. 10

[3] Milev (2004), pp. 11-12.

[4] Dilek, K. (2011). The Problem of “Democratic Deficit” in the European Union. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 1 (5) p. 244

[5] Castro, C. (2005), p. 66.

[6] Innerarity, D (2015). The Inter-Democratic Deficit of the European Union: The Governance of Europe’s Economic, Political and Legal Transformation. Pp. 173-174

[7] Campbell, M (2012) The Democratic Deficit of the European Union. Claremont-UC Undergraduate Research Conference on the European Union, p. 25.

[8] Electoral Reform Society — Close the Gap — Tackling Europe’s democratic deficit.

[9] Kelemen, R. (2012). The Rules of Federalism: Institutions and Regulatory Politics in the EU and Beyond. Harvard University Press. pp. 21–22.

[10] Charlemagne. 2013. A democratic nightmare: Seeking to confront the rise of Eurosceptics and fill the democratic deficit. The Economist.

[11] Avbelj, M. 2005. Can the New European Constitution Remedy the EU “Democratic Deficit”?. EUMAP.org

[12] Schütze, R (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–32.

[13] Schütze, R (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–44

[14] Schütze, R (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. p. 99.

[15] European Parliament: Relations with National Parliaments.

[16] Craig, P; Grainne De Burca; P. P. Craig (2007). “Chapter 11 Human rights in the EU“. EU Law: Text, Cases and Materials (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 379.

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