The Spectre of the Union's Democratic Deficit

March 26, 2017


The Critique


The European Union is often criticized for what the critics call the “democratic deficit”. The expression has been ubiquitous in the attacks on the EU from the left and the right for decades. Yet if we actually look closer at the arguments used by the disparagers, more than often we come across inconsistencies or a plain fallacy. Indeed, the European Union does suffer from the democratic deficit to a very little extent, with a large part of the said deficit being rather perceived than existing. In fact, it easily bears comparison with its national counterparts.

Firstly, let’s define what we mean by democracy. I believe it is most appropriate to use the more basic, simpler definition. Democracy is such system with a universal suffrage, in which every adult citizen has one vote of an equal weight and people are elected into offices by the electorate. The former part ensures equality of the citizens while the latter provides for the key difference from dictatorships or monarchies. All the representatives are appointed by the people, not by the virtue of their ancestry or the usurpation through power; and for a defined, limited time in the office.

We could then see the democratic deficit as a failure to meet this definition of democracy or as the EU drawing its legitimacy and its madate from somewhere else than the people.


The definition is consistent with all of the European bodies, at least to the same extent as their equivalents on the national level. The European Parliament is elected directly and the seat are allocated on the size of the population of the states, much like their usually allocated in the national assemblies. In fact, the current distribution favours smaller states (which could technically be viewed as democracy deficit although I doubt someone sees it that way). The Commissioners in the European Commission are appointed by elected officials on the national level. Although the EU is still far from the federal union desired by many, the arrangement of its institutions somewhat resembles the federal structure he dual legitimacy provided for in a federal polity, such as the USA, where one body represents the states (Senate / Council of the EU) and the other the peoples of the individual states (House of Representative / European Parliament).

Both the European Council and the Council of EU are composed of elected officials. The Commissioners are not elected, which might be a fair point to criticize. I personally do not have anything against that – it’s the same principle that is applied in many European governments, where the ministers do not have to be elected members of the parliament (sometimes even should not be in strict legal terms, for example in the UK). Generally, one should appoint the most capable official, which then has to be given an approval be the elected representative body (European Parliament). If that sounds familiar, it is because that is how the process works.

Some critics never fail to point out that the centres of power in the EU are in Germany and France; that these two powers in the Union always have their way. Putting aside the elephant in the room, that is they are the two countries with the largest populations and thus it is only normal that they have the most power, we must turn our attention to the fact that they have only one vote in the Council (as does everyone else) and they are accounted for in the QMV. They have their seats in the Parliament allocated with respect to their population (and the smaller states have proportionally more seats). Finally, both France and Germany each appoint one commissioner, same as every other member state.


Centres of Power


Yes, France and Germany obviously have the most political power in the European Union. Aside from the fact that they are the largest states, they are also strongest economically, contribute most to the European budget and are generally the most able to shape the events through their foreign policy. You’ll find that very same setup in any member state. London has the most influence in Britain. Rome and Milan have the largest influence in Italy. Lisbon and Porto have the largest influence in Portugal. That is impossible and undesirable to curtail. The key factor from the democratic point of view is that they are not disproportionately advantaged – neither France nor Germany have more votes in the European institutions than their fair, appropriate share. Neither France nor Germany is able to push their own agenda just by themselves without any support of the other member states. Complaining that some member states are more influential that the others is rather missing the point – how exactly would one change that?

It is fair to say that the national nature of the Council is hindering the European integration and the overall identification with the EU first and with individual nation states second. One could fairly argue that by keeping the Council, the member states will never be able to leave their narrow national interest and nationalistic way of thinking. It does not, however, cause any deficiency in the democratic department. Again, the members of the Council are elected democratically according to the respective rules, systems and constitutions of the member states. Each state has the same number of votes – one. There is even the additional constraint in the case of the QMV, which often national legislatures do not have. Each state has a different level of influence but that is not undemocratic.

Some may argue that there a lacking element of the direct democracy in the shape of referenda. Firstly, that is not accurate – referenda on Brexit or on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty are a clear evidence, although they were not Europe-wide. Secondly and more importantly, direct democracy is not in any way superior (or inferior for that matter) to the representative democracy. Direct democracy is not more “pure” or “genuine” than the representative one. They are both a version of the same thing; they are equally democratic.

This is not to say that the European Union is flawless – indeed, it is far from it. It suffers from participation deficit, as the turnout for the European Parliament elections is woefully low on each occasion. That fault may be partly attributable to the EU, since it fails to mobilize the citizens to vote but it is hardly a democratic deficit. Same applies to the distance many citizens between themselves and Brussels. Yes, the EU must definitely improve in that aspect. The lack of identification with the EU has been plaguing its efforts for many years. Yet again, this does not amount to what could be described as democratic deficit – nothing prevents the citizens from actively participating in the European affairs. It is the will and motivation that too often lacks.


Even the multi-tier representation should not be perceived as a deficiency of democracy. Granted, the President of the Council is elected by the elected representatives. That also applies for the president of the United States and the electoral college or indeed for almost any piece of legislature in any European parliament.
It does, however, introduce significant hindrances and delays to the potential accountability of the representative through the elections. In basic terms – if someone in the EU is not doing their job properly, it is more difficult to vote him out of office (unless they’re an MEP), which is partly caused by the multi-tier representation. Yet it is worth noting that we only have this issue because of the desperate unwillingness of the nation states to give up their power and influence in controlling the EU. Finally, even in the national democracies it is hard for the public to push someone out of office at a different time than at the elections. There is a reason for that – the public could swing its opinion about certain policy every week and thus create a damning volatility purely out of dislike of some decisions. Of course, that does not apply in any case of breach of law or serious misconduct – after all, that is why we have the judiciary branch. Which, as you know, the European Union has as well.


Beware of the weaknesses


Do not be mistaken – there is a vast room for improvement in the EU institutional arrangement and functioning. Same statement is fitting of the national counterparts in each and every member state. I personally greatly dislike the negotiations behind the closed door in the Commission and mainly the Council. I would love to see the Parliament being given more powers, perhaps even the power to initiate legislation. I want to see the citizens of the EU to participate much more and the Union must play its part in it, although the civic society will never be formed in a solely top-down process. I want to see the Eurocrats coming closer to the people as much as everyone else. Finally, I also believe that the EU should have a clear and much better defined leadership on the European level. Henry Kissinger once famously said “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” That is still very much true today. These are just a small fraction of what the EU should be doing better.

However, there is indeed very limited case for the so-called democratic deficit. The European Union is not undemocratic, despite the fact that many people criticize it for being so. It is an easy prey that large proportions of public fall for, yet looking deeper into the matter, one must conclude that the EU is far from having a significant deficiency of democracy itself and is in fact not performing worse than its member states individually.

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