5 min read — Analysis | Policy
The EU’s Democratic Deficit: Extent, Perception, and (Possible) Solutions
By Francesco Gabriel Bernabeu Fornara
February 26, 2023 | 16:20
Enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union is the value of democracy, a foundational pillar of the European Union (EU). Still, growing debate around the democratic legitimacy has put into question the validity of describing the EU as a paragon of such a value. Because of this, since the 1970s, political will has been refocused within the Union to address an alleged ‘democratic deficit’, leading to the introduction of European Parliament elections in 1977, the Citizens’ Initiative in 2008, and the Spitzenkandidat in 2014, to name a few. Notwithstanding, public rhetoric around a democratic deficit continues, pushing the EU to fundamentally remedy the deficit if it wishes to remain a credible institution to its citizens and member states.
This has begged the question, why is the EU perceived as democratically deficient? And more importantly, to what extent does the European Union materially epitomise a democratic institution with adequate democratic legitimacy to carry out its governance?
What is the European Union? A sui generis?
Understanding the extent of a democratic deficit within the EU is rooted in first comprehending what the EU fundamentally is.
Having been subjected to academic debate for decades, political scientists have struggled to describe the EU’s polity system using contemporary political and international relations theory. What has become general consensus is the fact that the EU embodies a unique organisational structure, one which incorporates federal and confederal elements, a sui generis per se.
Here we find the first complication when examining the EU’s democratic deficit. Because of the EU’s unique polity, determining a democratic deficit through comparative analysis has proven to be unfruitful and unrealistic, as no comparable real-world polity exists. Because of this vague status between an intergovernmental and supranational organisation, difficulties arise when discussing the EU’s democratic legitimacy.
Moreover, one aspect which contrasts the EU fundamentally with (other) modern democratic states is its lack of a (single) demos. Indeed, vital to a democracy lies a respective demos, a civic identity pared with a public sphere which entices citizens to deliberate, discuss, and form public opinion. Exemplified by a regressive electoral turnout in European Parliamentary elections, what has become evident within the Union is a growing lack of such enthusiasm regarding EU issues over the long term.
All in all, two prime issues plague the remedy of a democratic deficit within the EU. Firstly, the EU’s structural uniqueness which inhibits fruitful comparisons with other modern democratic states, preventing an effective analysis of the EU’s democratic legitimacy. Secondly, and more importantly, the EU’s lack of a demos, hindering the proper functioning of representative democracy within the EU.
In light of such predicaments, many political and social theorist scholars such as Michael Goodhart, Erik Eriksen, Jürgen Habermas, and John Fossum have argued in favour of a reconceptualisation of the concept of demos, as well as democratic theory more broadly. According to them, the inability to categorise the EU’s polity system, resorting to the ‘sui generis’ classification, has proven the obsoleteness of contemporary democratic theory. Moreover, they put forward reconceiving demos as a civic identity of constitutional patriotism, unlinking it from its cultural or ethnic ties. Doing so may allow us to better comprehend the EU’s democratic character and further legitimise the Union’s governance.
But I digress. In short, European citizens’ deliberation, participation, and interest in EU level governance remains arguably insufficient for a representative democracy, especially when compared to the equivalent within member states’ respective democracies. Put differently, the EU’s democratic deficit is largely rooted in the inadequateness of a ‘euro-demos’.
Why is the EU perceived as democratically deficient?
Having understood why the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, why is it perceived as such? In other words, why do ordinary European citizens view the EU as democratically deficient? And is there a difference between citizens’ perception and the real (aforementioned) causes of a democratic deficit?
Articulated in an essay by political scientists Matthew Loveless and Robert Rohrschneider which amalgamate various studies on the public perception of EU governance, we find that citizenry perception of a democratic deficit emerges from the feeling that the EU is ‘a representative institution that poorly reflects the collective voice of Europeans’. Because of this, the authors indicate how European Parliamentary elections are viewed as ‘second order’ or insignificant by EU citizens when compared to national equivalents. Supporting this, sociologist Jaques Thomassen and political scientist Hermann Schmitt explain how EU citizens perceive that an ‘effective system of political representation is … missing’ within the EU. Regardless of the validity of these claims, an indisputable sense of citizen neglect does indeed plague the perception of EU-level democracy.
Interestingly, studies have revealed that certain external variables also play a role in citizenry perception of the democratic deficit. In a study by political scientists Jeffrey Karp and Shaun Bowler, citizens’ opinion of EU governance is revealed to be partially conditioned by the largely irrelevant economic performance they experience. However, in another study, Rohrschneider argues that the correlation between perception of EU democracy, rather than governance in general, and economic performance is independent, though less so in states with relatively inefficient institutions. A different study by political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca illustrates how a similar correlation exists between perception of EU democracy and political performance of national-level institutions. In other words, the better a citizen’s opinion is of national-level democracy, the worse they perceive EU-level democracy. Alternatively, the better the citizen perceives the economic performance of the EU, the better they perceive EU-level democracy, though with a weak correlation.
Indeed, European citizens perceive the EU’s democratic deficit differently than academics do. While academia perceives the deficit as a cause of an inadequate pan-European demos, EU citizens perceive the democratic deficit as a sense of poor representation and neglect at the European level, partially conditioned by economic and national political performance.
What Can be Done to Improve the Democratic Level of the EU?
The simple answer — reforms which bring the citizen closer to EU-level policy-making. Indeed, to solve both the pessimistic perception and the material causes of the democratic deficit, the EU must find ways to entice Europeans to participate more in EU-level democracy.
1. Incorporate deliberative democracy
It is worth acknowledging that the EU is aware of the democratic deficit, its causes, and possible solutions. Take the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) for instance; a policy the EU passed which allows a citizen to propose EU laws themselves. However, despite the correct aim, the ECI has its flaws which fail to worthwhile foster a European demos through civic engagement. Namely, for a citizen to make the Commission even consider a proposed law through the ECI, said citizen must first gather at least one million signatures from seven states. In a comparative research paper analysing the ECI’s successfulness, it found that realistically meeting the Initiative’s prerequisites meant significant funding, generating a situation whereby ‘only special interest groups have been able to successfully complete the initiative process’.
Though the ECI has its flaws, its intention is promising: incorporating direct democracy in EU policy-making. Because of this, an alternative to the ECI may be to simply incorporate deliberative democracy. Proposed by by communication scientist Lucia Vesnic-Alujevic and political scientist Rodrigo Castro Nacarino, a policy incorporating deliberative democracy would include the provision of a forum, facilitated by the internet, whereby citizens engage in discussion on issues and propose decisions if consensus is found. Though seemingly unrealistic, several EU and US states, including the EU itself during the Conference on the Future of Europe, have incorporated this measure.
Not only would the policy strengthen civic engagement, it would also ensure ordinary citizens are able to voice their views, strengthening active citizenship in a geographically unbounded and diverse environment. As put by political communication researcher Andrew Chadwick, ‘people in their diverse identities [would be able to] argue, compete, collaborate or simply share thoughts’, inevitably strengthening a European demos.
2. Expand the right of initiative
Admittedly, incorporating deliberative democracy in EU decision-making is ambitious. But effectively addressing the democratic deficit does not necessarily require grandiose policies.
Presently, right to initiate legislative proposals is a power bestowed almost exclusively on the Commission. While such a framework may be justified in an economic union where purely technical matters are at play, as the EU increases its high politics competencies, such justification is no longer valid. Not only would expanding this power to the Parliament and Council address the democratic deficit by reforming an obsolete decision-making framework, it would also serve to resemble the EU to other parliamentary democracies, justifying the use of contemporary democratic theory in EU analysis, making such policy reforms more legitimate.
3. Establish an EU-wide constituency and institutionalise the Spitzenkandidaten
In May 2022, the European Parliament adopted draft legislation to reform the 1976 European Electoral Act. It envisioned, among other proposals, the establishment of an additional, Union-wide constituency constituting 28 additional MEPs. The additional constituency would give voters two votes for two MEPs during European Parliamentary elections: one representing their regional constituency, and one representing the Union, nominated by pan-European parties like Volt Europa or Parliament’s current party groups. Moreover, the candidate with the highest vote from this new constituency would become the next Commission President, replacing the old Spitzenkandidaten method. Not only would it improve the EU’s democratic level by allowing citizens to directly elect a the EU’s executive (Commission President), it would also aid in inciting debate on pan-European issues, strengthening a European demos.
4. Other policies
Other policies to address the EU’s democratic deficit may be to…
- Standardise May 9 as the Parliament election day
- Repeal states’ right to choose voting system and expand the single transferable vote system for Parliament elections
- Address executive dominance in EU decision-making by additionally increasing Parliament’s powers relative to the Council and Commission
- Promote the EU politicisation
- Strengthen transnational European parties like Volt Europa or MeRA25
- Standardise the Parliament electoral age to 16 or 18
Of course, the effective implementation of these policies will rely on the political will member states and their constituents have in pooling sovereignty and furthering political integration. Although desire to tackle the democratic deficit does exist among the political elite, as proven by several Lisbon Treaty measures, doubt prevails on the extent to which the European electorate is willing to compromise to do so. If we conclude, as was done in this essay, that a democratic deficit does exist, should be addressed, and is caused by an ill-democratic balance between political competencies and democratic legitimacy, the EU’s fate becomes one of two: either EU capabilities are curtailed, reducing the project to an intergovernmental regulatory and economic union, or an ‘ever closer union’ of further political integration continues its originally projected course and democratic legitimacy is strengthened. If member states deem the latter as preferable, European leaders will inevitably face the prospect of having to pool far more of their states’ sovereignty if principles of democracy are to prevail within the Union.
Ultimately, if advancing political integration, as opposed to economic or regulatory integration, is deemed synonymous to and the objective of European integration, strengthening democratic legitimacy should be considered a parallel objective.