The European Union’s Democratic Deficit

“We have made Europe, now we have to make Europeans”  

Analysis by Danaë LAZARI

What is a democratic deficit? The EU’s democratic deficit is the idea that the EU does not have a demos – or, a ‘European’ community with a ‘European’ identity strong enough to legitimise its shift from purely economic policies, to political and cultural ones.

With a lack of this demos voting and engaging in it (input legitimacy), the EU is forced to rely on its problem-solving capacities (output legitimacy) for, well, legitimation. However, since the 2008 financial crisis began snowballing, these capacities have been called into question. At the same time, input legitimacy has resulted in extreme parties such as UKIP and the Front National being voted into the European Parliament (yes, really) – however, with voter turnout at its lowest ever in 2014, this can hardly be taken as a fair representation of the general European population. This lack of engagement in itself contributes to the democratic deficit, leading some to suggest that those in the EU do not have the democratic legitimacy to make decisions, especially in bodies such as the Commission, whose members are not directly elected by nation states.

Is it real? Concepts such as ‘democratic deficit’ are as difficult to measure as the notion of a ‘European demos’ but the 2014 elections seem to point to a very real lack of engagement with the EU. At the same time the notion of European solidarity seems to be crumbling before our very eyes, so at the very least, it’s safe to say that discussing the concept of a democratic deficit has become more justified in recent months/years.

Nevertheless, arguments made on the grounds that the decision-making processes in the EU are made by undemocratically legitimate bodies are not entirely true. These processes are much too complex to deal with in the current article (though watch out for future ones detailing them), but suffice to say that three big actors make up the decision-making realm of the EU – the Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Ministers. The Commission is the only body whose members are not democratically elected, given that the Parliament is made up of MEPs who have to eventually return to their national government and attempt to get re-elected (for which they will need to show they have acted in their nations’ interests), and the Council of Ministers is made up of ministers from each member state. Given that all decisions come down to approval by the Council of Ministers, whether by qualified majority voting or unanimity (or more informally, consensus), it is not entirely fair to say that the decision-making processes in the EU are undemocratic. The members who end up making the ultimate decisions have indeed won elections back home to be there.

UKIP campaigning against the EU – one of the symptoms of the democratic deficit – Euro Realist Newsletter, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0
UKIP campaigning against the EU – one of the symptoms of the democratic deficit – Euro Realist Newsletter, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As for the other argument – that Europeans today lack a ‘European identity’ – well, up to 2014 general feeling about the EU amongst Europeans was mostly positive, with no clear distinction between the populations of creditor and debtor countries. It would be interesting to see how those figures stack up in the wake of the turbulent months that nearly saw Grexit happen – for real this time (#thisisacoup, anyone?). However, it is important to remember that your views are represented in Europe by those you do (or don’t) vote for in the European elections. So, if you trust UKIP to speak for you in the European Parliament, as you were. Otherwise – please vote in the European elections.

Why is it relevant now? The term ‘democratic deficit’ has actually been prevalent since the Maastricht Treaty (1992) but it has gained ground since a) the voting in of parties such as UKIP and the Front National to the European Parliament, and b) the majestic scrambling of the EU to save itself during the financial, sovereign debt, and Eurozone crises – when fears of re-nationalisation began to grow and the democratic deficit was so clearly exposed. Interestingly, however, these crises have resulted in the Europeanisation of the public sphere, or, have made the EU much more salient and relevant in peoples’ lives – which is a significant contributor to identity building.

How do we fix it? Suggestions to ‘fix’ the alleged democratic deficit tend to focus on one of two ideas – the changing of decision-making procedures in the EU, or the launching of initiatives to ‘create’ a European identity. It is challenging to say which would be more difficult to achieve. Those in favour of a change in decision-making suggest a deceleration of the transfer of competencies to the EU, though it is difficult to see how this will be possible given the very real centralisation that is necessary to see the safe passage of the EU through the Eurozone crisis’s murky waters (in this author’s view, anyway). Other parties propose grassroots initiatives that would foster a ‘European’ feeling in its citizens (a tangible example of which is the euro), but again, given the apparent lack of European solidarity among EU member states today, this would be a difficult plan to undertake, and one whose fruit would take years to ripen.

So is the EU doomed? Interestingly, one of the most important aspects in the creation of identity is a collective, or shared memory or history. This is frequently cited as one of the contributing factors to the democratic deficit in the first place – “United in diversity” indeed, but seemingly at the cost of building a real European demos. In Louis VIS’ article last week, we saw that the EU has, since its inception, managed to create a continent in which the idea of an all-out war is unfathomable (an achievement for which it won the Nobel prize in 2012). A union celebrated for its diversity, with 24 official languages, but whose member states have no shared memory – until, that is, 2008. Much will depend on how the EU emerges from the economic battles it is fighting today, and the crises that have made the EU very relevant indeed in the lives of many of its citizens could result in the creation of a European demos for the first time. What vision those citizens hold for the future of the EU, however, remains to be seen.


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