Skip to content

European Union Democratic Deficit Essay Definition

European Union

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
European Union

The concept of a democratic deficit within the European Union is the notion that the governance of the European Union (EU) lacks democratic legitimacy. The term was initially used to criticise the transfer of legislative powers from national governments to the Council of (national government) Ministers of the EU.

This led to an elected European Parliament being created in 1979 and given the power to approve or reject EU legislation. Since then, usage of the term has broadened to describe newer issues facing the European Union. However voter turnout has fallen consecutively at the seven elections since the first election in 1979 and voter turnout in the 2014 election stood at 42.54% of all European voters. This is the lowest of any national election in the 27 countries of the European Union where turnout at national elections averages 68% across the EU.[1]

Opinions differ as to whether the EU has a democratic deficit[2] or how it should be remedied if it exists.[3][4]Pro-Europeans (i.e. those in favour of the EU) argue that the European Union should reform its institutions to make them more accountable, while Eurosceptics argue that the EU should reduce its powers and often campaign for withdrawal from the EU.

Use and meaning of the term[edit]

The phrase "democratic deficit" is cited as having first been used in 1977 by the Young European Federalists in their Manifesto,[5] which was drafted by Richard Corbett. In 1979 it was used by David Marquand in reference to the then European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. He argued that the European Parliament (then the Assembly) suffered from a democratic deficit as it was not directly elected by the citizens of the Community.[6] 'Democratic deficit', in relation to the European Union, refers to a perceived lack of accessibility to the ordinary citizen, or lack of representation of the ordinary citizen, and lack of accountability of European Union institutions.[7][8]

Constitutional nature of the democratic deficit[edit]

In the European Union, there are two sources of democratic legitimacy: the European Parliament, chosen by the electorates of the individual EU countries; and the Council of the European Union (the "Council of Ministers"), together with the European Council (of heads of national governments), that represent the peoples of the individual states. The European Commission (the civil service of the Union) is appointed by the two bodies acting together. Democratic legitimacy within the EU can be compared with the dual legitimacy provided for in a federal polity, such as the USA, where there are two independent sources of democratic legitimacy, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, to become law, decisions must be approved both by one institution representing the people as a whole and by a separate body representing the peoples of the individual states.[9]

The German Constitutional Court referred to a "structural democratic deficit" inherent in the construction of the European Union.[3] It found that the decision-making processes in the EU remained largely those of an international organisation, which would ordinarily be based on the principle of the equality of states and that the principle of equality of states and the principle of equality of citizens cannot be reconciled in a Staatenverbund.[3] In other words, in a supranational union or confederation (which is not a federal state) there is a problem of how to reconcile the principle of equality among nation states, which applies to international (intergovernmental) organisations, and the principle of equality among citizens, which applies withinstates.[4] A 2014 report from the British Electoral Reform Society wrote that "[t]his unique institutional structure makes it difficult to apply the usual democratic standards without significant changes of emphasis. Certainly, the principles of representativeness, accountability and democratic engagement are vital, but the protection of the rights of minorities is perhaps especially important. The EU is a political regime that is, in one sense at least, entirely made up of minorities."[10]

European Commission[edit]

One assertion of democratic illegitimacy focuses on the role of the European Commission in initiating legislation. This criticism has, in turn, been criticised, using comparisons with the situation in national governments where few members' bills are ever debated and "fewer than 15% are ever successfully adopted in any form", while government proposals "generally pass without substantial or substantive amendments from the legislature".[11] The Commission is reestablished every five years. Individual members of the incoming Commission are nominated by national governments and the proposed Commission is (or is not) approved jointly and severally by the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament.[12] Parliament has the power to dismiss the Commission early (and has used that power).

According to R. Daniel Kelemen, fragmented power systems like the European Union and the United States may tend to produce more detailed regulations that give member states less discretion in implementation.[13]

In an attempt to strengthen democratic legitimacy, the Treaty of Lisbon provided that the nomination of the President of the European Commission should "take account" of the result of the European parliamentary elections, interpreted by the larger parliamentary groups to mean that the European Council should nominate the candidate (Spitzenkandidat) proposed by the dominant parliamentary group. However, this has also been criticized from the point of view of democratic legitimacy on the grounds that the European Union is not a country and the European Commission is not a government, also having a semi-judicial role that requires it to act as a "referee" or "policeman" rather than a partisan actor. The fear is that a "semi-elected" Commission president might be "too partisan to retain the trust of national leaders; too powerless to win the loyalty of citizens". This, too, is seen as a possibly insoluble problem resulting from the European's dual nature, partly an international organization and partly a federation.[14]

The Electoral Reform Society observed polling evidence from Germany which showed that support for the CDU/CSU (EPP group) ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections was higher than support for the Social Democrats (S&D group) and that there was little difference between their support in the opinion polls for national and European Parliament elections. This was despite another poll showing that S&D candidate Martin Schulz was more popular among German voters than EPP candidate Jean-Claude Juncker. They concluded that "this does not suggest that the majority of German voters are treating the contest as a chance to choose a Commission President." However, they recommended that the candidate model be kept with "a clearer set of rules for future elections."[10]

European Parliament[edit]

One assertion of democratic illegitimacy focuses on the alleged weakness of the European Parliament.[citation needed] This has been countered by a number of political scientists, who have compared the systems of governance in the European Union with that of the United States, and stated that the alleged powerless or dysfunctional nature of the European Parliament is now a "myth".[11] It is argued that there are important differences from national European parliaments, such as the role of committees, bipartisan voting, decentralized political parties, executive-legislative divide and absence of Government-opposition divide. All these traits are considered as signs of weakness or unaccountability, but as these very same traits are found in the US House of Representatives to a lesser or greater degree, the European Parliament is more appropriately compared with the US House of Representatives.[11] In that sense, it is now a powerful parliament, as it is not controlled by a "governing majority": Majorities have to be built afresh for each item of legislation by explanation, persuasion and negotiation.

Legislative initiative in the EU rests almost entirely with the Commission, while in member states it is shared between parliament and executive. However, in national parliaments less than 15% of legislative initiatives from individual members of parliament become law in any form when they do not have the backing of the executive, while most proposals by the executive are passed without major amendments in parliament. The European Parliament, on the other hand, can only propose amendments, but these proposals are successful in more than 80% of cases, and even in controversial proposals, the success rate is almost 30%.[11]

Liberal Democrat (ELDR)MEPChris Davies, says he has far more influence as a member of the European Parliament than he did as an opposition MP in the House of Commons. "Here I started to have an impact on day one", "And there has not been a month since when words I tabled did not end up in legislation."[15]

European elections[edit]

The low turnout at European elections has been cited as weakening the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament: the BBC commented that in Britain many more votes were cast in an election on the reality show Big Brother than in the 1999 European Parliament election. On the other hand, the President of the European Parliament [the 'Speaker'] compared the turnout for the European Parliament to the presidential elections in the United States:

Turnout across Europe (1999) was higher than in the last US presidential election, and I don't hear people questioning the legitimacy of the presidency of the United States
— Pat Cox, President of the European parliament[15]

In fact, the figures that are compared, the European Parliament voter turnout from 1999 (49.51%)[16] and the US presidential voter turnout from 1996 (49%)[17] are only marginally different, and the US voter turnout for 1996 was the lowest turnout in the US since 1924 (when it was 48.9%). The turnout in European elections has also been declining every election without exception to a low of 42.54% in 2014.[18]

According to Matej Avbelj (Director of the Law Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia), the EU democratic deficit can be viewed as having a formal component (which is likely to be remedied) but also a social component resulting from people's low acceptance of the EU, as evidenced by low voter turnout.[19]

Legal commentators such as Schmidt and Follesdal argue that the European Union lacks politics that individual citizens understand. This flows from the lack of knowledge of political parties and is reinforced by the lack of votes at European Union elections.

Council of the European Union[edit]

Voting in the Council (of relevant Ministers) is usually by qualified majority voting, and sometimes unanimity is required. This means that, for the vast majority of EU legislation, the corresponding national government has usually voted in favour in the Council. To give an example, up to September 2006, out of the 86 pieces of legislation adopted in that year the Government of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of the legislation 84 times, abstained from voting twice and never voted against.[20]

Development of democratic legitimacy and transparency[edit]

Over time, a number of constitutional changes have been introduced to increase democratic legitimacy:

  • The Maastricht Treaty introduced
    • the status of EU citizenship, granting EU citizens the right to vote and stand in elections to the European Parliament and municipal elections in their country of residence, irrespective of their nationality (subject to age and residency qualifications).[21]
    • the legislative procedure known as the "co-decision procedure", giving the directly elected European Parliament the right of "co-deciding" legislation on an equal footing with the Council of the European Union.[21]
  • The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on 1 December 2009 introduced
    • a separate treaty title confirming that the functioning of the EU shall be founded on representative democracy and giving EU citizens both direct representation through the European Parliament and indirect representation via national governments through the Council of the European Union[22]
    • the establishment of the co-decision procedure as the standard ("ordinary") legislative procedure[22]
    • a significant increase in the powers of the European Parliament[22]
    • the right of any EU citizen or resident to petition the European Parliament "on any matter which comes within the Union's field of activity and which affects him, her, or it directly".[Article 227 TFEU].[23]
    • making meetings of the Council public when there is a general debate and when a proposal for a legislative act is voted on. These debates can be viewed[24] in real time on the Internet.[25]
    • enhancing the role of national parliaments in EU legislation.[26]
    • giving full legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was solemnly proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission in the year 2000.[27]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Corbett, Richard; Jacobs, Francis; Shackleton, Michael (2011), 'The European Parliament' (8 ed.), London: John Harper Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9564508-5-2
  • Follesdal, A and Hix, S. (2005) ‘Why there is a democratic deficit in the EU‘ European Governance Papers (EUROGOV) No. C-05-02
  • Kelemen, Dr. R. Daniel; (2004) ‘The Rules of Federalism: Institutions and Regulatory Politics in the EU and Beyond‘ Harvard University Press
  • Majone, G. (2005) 'Dilemmas of European Integration'.
  • Marsh, M. (1998) ‘Testing the second-order election model after four European elections’ British Journal of Political Science Research. Vol 32.
  • Moravcsik, A. (2002) ‘In defence of the democratic deficit: reassessing legitimacy in the European Union’ Journal of Common Market Studies. Vol 40, Issue 4.
  • Reif, K and Schmitt, S. (1980) ‘Nine second-order national elections: a conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results’ European Journal of Political Research. Vol 8, Issue 1.
  1. ^"Voter turnout in national and EU parliamentary elections". Eurostat. Retrieved 29 August 2016. 
  2. ^"The Myth of Europe's Democratic Deficit"(PDF). Princeton University. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  3. ^ abc"Press release no. 72/2009. Judgment of 30 June 2009" (Press release). German Federal Constitutional Court – Press office. 30 June 2009. Retrieved 6 August 2009.  
  4. ^ abPernice, Ingolf; Katharina Pistor (2004). "Institutional settlements for an enlarged European Union". In George A. Bermann and Katharina Pistor. Law and governance in an enlarged European Union: essays in European law. Hart Publishing. pp. 3–38. ISBN 978-1-84113-426-0.  
  5. ^first use of the term “democratic deficit” BY RICHARD – 10/10/1977 POSTED IN: ARCHIVESPolitical Union.
  6. ^Marquand, David (1979). Parliament for Europe. Cape. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-224-01716-9.  
    Chalmers, Damian; et al. (2006). European Union law: text and materials. Cambridge University Press. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-521-52741-5.  
    Meny, Yves (2003). "De La Democratie En Europe: Old Concepts and New Challenges". Journal of Common Market Studies. 41: 1–13. doi:10.1111/1468-5965.t01-1-00408.  
  7. ^"Glossary: Democratic deficit". European Commission. Archived from the original on 27 May 2009. Retrieved 6 August 2009.  
  8. ^Chryssochoou, Dimitris N. (007). "Democracy and the European polity". In Michelle Cini. European Union politics (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-19-928195-4. 
  9. ^Schütze, Robert (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 74–77. ISBN 9780521732758. 
  10. ^ ab"Electoral Reform Society — Close the Gap — Tackling Europe's democratic deficit"(PDF). Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  11. ^ abcdKreppel, Amie (2006). "Understanding the European Parliament from a Federalist Perspective: The Legislatures of the USA and EU Compared"(PDF). Center for European Studies, University of Florida. Retrieved 26 September 2008. 
  12. ^"Organisational structure". European Commission. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  13. ^Kelemen, R. Daniel (2012). The Rules of Federalism: Institutions and Regulatory Politics in the EU and Beyond. Harvard University Press. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-0-674-01309-4. 
  14. ^"A democratic nightmare: Seeking to confront the rise of Eurosceptics and fill the democratic deficit". The Economist''. Retrieved 3 October 2014. |date=26 October 2013|
  15. ^ ab"The EU's democratic challenge". BBC News. 21 November 2003. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  16. ^"European Parliament election turnout". UK Political Info. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  17. ^Voter turnout in the United States presidential elections
  18. ^Euractiv.Com (25 May 2014). "It's official: Last EU election had lowest-ever turnout". Euractiv.com. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  19. ^Avbelj, Matej. "Can the New European Constitution Remedy the EU 'Democratic Deficit'?". Open Society Institute. Archived from the original on 7 June 2009.  
  20. ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 January 2009. Retrieved 1 July 2009. 
  21. ^ abSchütze, Robert (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-0-521-73275-8. 
  22. ^ abcSchütze, Robert (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-521-73275-8. 
  23. ^Schütze, Robert (2012). European Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-521-73275-8. 
  24. ^video.consilium.europa.eu
  25. ^"The Council of the European Union)". 
  26. ^"IPEX Interparliamentary EU Information Exchange )"(PDF). 
  27. ^Craig, Paul; 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. ISBN 978-0-19-927389-8. 

LAW LLB EU LAW “Following the Treaty of Lisbon 2009, it is no longer appropriate to suggest that the European Union suffers from a democratic deficit”. Discuss. Student No: 149005725 Word Count: 1,391 words (including footnotes, excluding bibliography and front page) The democratic deficit is the idea that the EU lacks democracy in its legislative institutions. The Laeken Declaration 2001 “officially launched the EU’s recent and contentious effort to promulgate a ‘constitution’ ... [and it] identified the major internal challenge as that of bringing the EU ‘closer to its citizens’ and providing ‘better democratic scrutiny’ over its activities.”1 Thus one of the central aims of the Treaty of Lisbon 2009 is to increase democratic legitimacy in the EU in terms of creating a more democratic system, and expand the involvement of citizens in the running of the EU. 2 Prior to the Treaty of Lisbon 2009, the European Parliament lacked strength and there was too much uncontrolled executive power at the expense of national parliaments. 3 Thus the Treaty succeeds in improving transparency of the legislative process and enhancing the powers of national parliaments by granting them the ability to require the Commission to review legislation.4 However, although the Treaty of Lisbon did reduce the democratic deficit to some extent, it simply did not go far enough. It will therefore be argued institutional change arising from the Treaty alone was not enough to considerably reduce the democratic deficit of the EU, as there still remains a lack of connection between the EU and its citizens in that voter turnout remains low and the effective reduction of the democratic deficit requires citizens to deepen the integration process. One aim of the Treaty of Lisbon 2009 is to increase the strength of the European Parliament. The European Parliament has increased over the years due to previous treaties, the European Court of Justice, and its own power or being the only democratically legitimate source in the EU.5 Articles 9-12 of the Treaty of the European Parliament provides a means of enhancing the democratic legitimacy of the EU, largely through changes to the European Parliament.6 However, it still does not have sufficient power and authority within the EU and if it were to hold more power, its democracy would be enhanced. The Treaty of Lisbon gives the European Parliament the ability to compel the Commission to review proposed legislation.7 Where there had previously been a co-decision making procedure for enacting legislation, the Treaty of Lisbon changed this to a standard procedure. Furthermore, under Article paragraph 7 of the Treaty, the European Parliament elects the President of the Commission unlike previously where it could only approve the proposed candidate.8 Increasing the legislative powers of the European Parliament does, in theory, seem to be an effective means of decreasing the democratic deficit in the EU. However, despite the increase in the European Parliament’s legislative powers, it remains weak in comparison to the 1 Robert O. Keohane et al., Democracy-Enhancing Multilateralism 63, (International Organisation, 2009) 1 3. 2Lorna Griffiths, 'A Critical Analysis Of EU Member State Sovereignty Under The Treaty Of Lisbon. Sovereignty v Democracy'. 3 Craig and De Burca, EU Law: Text, Cases And Materials (OUP 2015). 4 <http://euroacademia.eu/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2012/11/Hristina_Runceva_and_Milena_Apostolovska_Democr atic_Deficit_of_the_EU_after_the_Lisbon_Treaty.pdf> accessed on 18 November 2015. 5 <http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=urceu> accessed on 19 November 2015. 6 Lorna Griffiths, 'A Critical Analysis Of EU Member State Sovereignty Under The Treaty Of Lisbon. Sovereignty v Democracy'. 7 Megan Campbell, 'The Democratic Deficit In The European Union' (2009) URCEU. 8 <http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-andcomments/title-3-provisions-on-the-institutions/86-article-17.html.> accessed on 16 November 2015. other legislative bodies in the EU such as the Council and the Commission. 9 Although the European Parliament now requires the Commission to review or withdraw legislation, the Commission is not bound to do so and therefore the greater legislative powers still remain with the Commission. Thus where the Lisbon Treaty has increased the powers of the European Parliament to a certain extent, it is not enough to significantly reduce the democratic deficit. Prior to the Treaty of Lisbon, there was an increase in executive powers at the expense of national parliaments. Article 4 of the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments in the EU gave a very limited interpretation of the powers and role of the national parliaments.10 The Lisbon Treaty aims to expand this and Jean-Claude Piris notes that “the fact that the European Parliament did not fully succeed in clearly and incontrovertibly establishing itself as providing the solution for the democratic legitimacy that the EU needs, was one of the reasons why the Lisbon Treaty gave a role to national parliaments in the EU legislative procedure.”11 Therefore, the Treaty of Lisbon gave the national parliaments a greater role in the legislative process by expanding their rights to information and allowing them to prevent the use of the ‘simplified revision procedure’ where the European Council could decide to change from unanimity to QMV. In order to prevent this, the national parliament concerned must oppose within six months of a proposal being issued.12 Under the Treaty of Lisbon national parliaments have been granted the opportunity to formally monitor the application of the principle of subsidiarity (where the EU may only act where individual countries have acted insufficiently). Post-Lisbon, national parliaments ‘collectively’ monitor subsidiarity. However, subsidiarity arguably does not improve democracy and accountability within the legislative process as there is a very limited window for review of legislative proposals. The national parliaments have 8 weeks to do so, but over 800 legislative proposals are drafted per year. This simply does not allow enough time for the national parliaments to review effectively thus not allowing democracy to be enhanced. Furthermore, whilst the Treaty allows national parliaments to exert greater control over the EU legislative process, the combined workload of domestic legislation as well as EU legislation can overburden national parliaments and would have to undergo organisational changes in order to cope with the increased workload and effectively carry out their EU scrutiny function. Perhaps the most significant way in which the Treaty of Lisbon has not successfully reduced the democratic deficit is its failure to engage citizens. The Treaty of Lisbon enacted the European Citizens’ Initiative which enables one million EU citizens from at least one quarter of the Member States to require the Commission to initiate a legal act based on an area that Member States have conferred powers onto EU level. 13 This in essence places citizens on the same ‘level’ as the European Parliament. However, EU voting turnout remains low and Tony Barber stated that “Underlying everything is the frustration of Europeans that they exert less influence than ever over the decisions of 9 House of Commons Research Paper 14/25, 'The European Union: A Democratic Institution?' (2014). 10 <http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/protocols-annexed-to-thetreaties/656-protocol-on-the-role-of-national-parliaments-in-the-european-union.html> accessed on 16 November 2015. 11 Jean-Claude Piris, The Lisbon Treaty: A legal and political analysis, (Cambridge University Press 2010) 1. 12 Lorna Griffiths, 'A Critical Analysis Of EU Member State Sovereignty Under The Treaty Of Lisbon. Sovereignty v Democracy'. 13 <http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/secretariat_general/citizens_initiative/index_en.htm> accessed on 19 November 2015. elites, both in their own countries and in Brussels”.14 Any attempt at engaging citizens in the workings of the EU seems to be shunned by the prevailing view that the EU essentially lacks democratic legitimacy. In 1979 the average EU turnout was 61.99%, but in 2014 after the Treaty of Lisbon had been in force for quite some time, the turnout was a mere 42.61%.15 This therefore shows that despite the Treaty of Lisbon creating institutional changes and enhancing the role of national parliaments and citizens within the EU, there is still a disconnection with EU citizens. Therefore the current institutional post-Lisbon structure is not effective in promoting democracy. The Treaty of Lisbon has arguably changed the institutional structure of the EU in order to reduce the on-going democratic deficit, namely through the strengthening of the European Parliament and the weakening of executive powers. Whilst these reforms have been effective in promoting democracy within the legislative process and the institutions as a whole, the Treaty has simply not done enough to be able to say that it has removed the democratic deficit. Arguably the fundamental issue is that of the inability to engage citizens in the workings of the EU. EU citizens remain disconnected from the EU and there has been little attempt to engage them in the various aspects of the EU. It is citizens who deepen integration and without effective understanding of the EU, democratic legitimacy remains. Therefore, it cannot be said that the Treaty of Lisbon has removed the democratic deficit from the EU, but has merely reduced it, and it will take more than institutional changes to reduce it completely. Bibliography 14 Financial Times, (2 January 2014). 15 <http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.html> accessed on 21 November 2015. Books:  Paul Craig and Grainne De Burca, EU Law: Text, Cases And Materials (OUP 2015) Websites:       http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/secretariat_general/citizens_initiative/index_en.htm http://euroacademia.eu/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2012/11/Hristina_Runceva_and_Milena_Apostolovska_Democr atic_Deficit_of_the_EU_after_the_Lisbon_Treaty.pdf http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-andcomments/title-3-provisions-on-the-institutions/86-article-17.html http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/protocols-annexed-to-thetreaties/656-protocol-on-the-role-of-national-parliaments-in-the-european-union.html http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=urceu http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.html Articles:     Jean-Claude Piris, The Lisbon Treaty: A legal and political analysis, (Cambridge University Press 2010) Lorna Griffiths, 'A Critical Analysis Of EU Member State Sovereignty Under The Treaty Of Lisbon. Sovereignty v Democracy'. Robert O. Keohane et al., Democracy-Enhancing Multilateralism 63, (International Organisation, 2009) Megan Campbell, 'The Democratic Deficit In The European Union' (2009) URCEU. Government Documents:  House of Commons Research Paper 14/25, 'The European Union: A Democratic Institution?' (2014). Newspapers:  Financial Times, (2 January 2014).

Help