European Integration

Jul 21, 2021 in Politics Essays

Democratic Deficit in the European Union

The issue of a democratic deficit in Europe has been subject of theoretical debate for years. Many arguments are given both to support the thesis of the existence of such a deficit, as well there are plenty of arguments in its refutation. In light of the current state of affairs, EU integration and economic achievements seem to be undermined by numerous challenges like immigration crises, sky-rocketing Euroscepticism and constant criticism for its excessive bureaucratism. The issue of the lack of democracy in the EU is strongly influenced by political contexts. Thus, it is rational to analyze the current state of affairs with regard to the exercise of EU citizen’s democratic rights which are directly related to the concept of European citizenship, and the institutional and legal prerequisites for their participation in the all-EU decision-making process.

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Whereas it is uncontested that EU possesses procedural legitimacy, electoral one remains questioned. There are many institutions established in accordance with the founding treaties which were designed to guarantee each member state’s participation in the all-EU decisions and to ensure non-discrimination of the national interests of any country. However, while EU administers institutions that are able to provide legitimacy, transparency, and control over the functioning of its authorities, the organization falls short with managing individual citizens, which results in legal lacunas. Since those shortcomings hinder the implementation of democratic rights, and it is justified to refer to those as to the “deficit of democracy”, the term gains various interpretations depending on the political angle of perception. Undoubtedly there are numerous factors that contribute to democratic deficit, although the ways of alleviating the plight may be found within the existing institutional mechanisms of the European Union.

Democracy is generally associated with the institute of citizenship, vesting the particular group of people with the right and legal means of pursuing their interests and protecting rights through the influence on the respective authorities. Progress in deepening the process of economic and political integration later influenced the formation of the institute of citizenship of the European Union. The citizenship of the Union provides a range of political, economic, personal, civil rights in addition to the range of the rights which the citizens of the EU member states may enjoy under municipal legislative framework. Among these rights, the rights associated with the legal possibility to influence the content of legally binding regulations adopted at the EU level are especially important and in line with the ability to participate in the process of development of the political strategy of the European Union. Though many rights are attributed to the peoples of the member states, it still lacks the depth of the traditional understanding of citizenship. The given dilemma stems from the specific structure of the EU, which is neither a federation, nor a confederation, but a type of a supranational union, which unites first and forehands the governments of the states, which ultimately affects their citizens.

Therefore, the European Union has no supranational political power of its own but is formed by the united effort of the respective governments. The legislative authority of the organization comes from the state's members of the EU and is implemented mainly through the European Council. This body sets general policy guidelines and priorities of the Union and consists of the Heads of States or Governments and the Council, which carries out the functions of the development of EU policy and passes relevant regulations for its implementation at the member states' level. In addition, supranational institutions, especially such as the European Commission and the European Central Bank, which have legal capacity to influence European policy are involved in the decision-making process.

The body ensuring the realization of the people’s democratic rights in a common-sense state is parliament, or any similar body, which consists of the people’s delegates promoting the interests of the particular group of people. The kind of body serves for the so-called democratic legitimacy (Parry). The latter may be construed as the process, which enables those members of society, who are remote from formulating and taking major decisions, to approve or reject such decisions (Bartolini). Obviously, such popular participation is most effectively put into practice through popular voting, by which authority is given to parliamentarians.

The European Parliament is currently one of the EU institutions that is entitled directly to express the will of the citizens of the member states at the European level. The involvement of the latter to the decision-making process is, however, limited. Unlike national parliaments, the European Parliament is not authorized to make legally binding regulations for the general implementation of policy association independently (Moravcik 603–24). Therefore, the European Parliament has no exclusive powers in the process of the legal legitimization of the general policy of the EU. Consequently, the citizens of the member states have no significant power to influence the content of political decisions taken at the level of the Union directly.

There is no doubt that in the functioning of both national states and the European Union as a whole, there are destructive phenomena that simultaneously concern the canons of a democratic state and a democratic society. In contrast to the decisions of national states, the EU institution’s decisions are not the result of consensus, worked out within the parliament, but come from the changing balance of forces unknown to the ordinary EU citizen. In the national states, the relations of society with the authorities are built primarily by using the institution of elections, which are periodically held, and through which the sovereign legitimizes elected representatives to take decisions on his behalf.

The European Parliament has public legitimacy and fulfils all the requirements to be considered a public and control body. In fact, its scope of action is significantly limited and not only in terms of authority. The concept of the European Parliament has a systemic error, which is that the idea is ahead of the ongoing social processes and is not true. It is also difficult to consider them as representatives of European citizens in a situation of little public interest in elections and lack of knowledge about what they actually do (McCormick 17-40). It seems that its creators knew about the inconsistency of the parliament's idea of the public situation when they defined the powers of the parliament and very carefully engaged in the decision-making and control process. True, the next European agreements expand the scope of this activity, but very carefully.

The second body of a pan-European nature is the European Commission, where each member comes from different countries, but in general it should represent the interests of the whole community. Candidates are nominated by states (the European Council), and those states also approve them at their posts. The Commission is the executive body of the EU, which manages its finances and is the only body with the right of direct legislative initiative. It also controls states in the implementation of the European Union normative acts in their internal legal system, and is, therefore, often called a "bureaucratic fortress" (Zimmermann and D?r). It appears on the surface that the Commission is conferred with more authority than the Parliament. Accordingly, it gives rise to the situation in which an organ that does not have democratic foundations controls democratically elected parliaments in the field of the formation of law and the need for those governments to comply with those legislative acts.

Among the leading EU institutions, it is not only the Commission that lacks democracy, but the European Council (Council of the European Union) also has no democratic base. Only its members (but not all of them) are subject to public control, but not to national parliaments, and in practice it concerns only domestic activity, not all-European one.

Manfred G. Schmidt, speaking of the key properties of democratic governance, distinguished three of them: legitimacy, transparency and control of power (along with its responsibility to citizens). It has been always acknowledged that market instruments alone may not eradicate the variety of disparities existing between that states members (Schmidt). The notion of cohesion was first formulated in the 1986 Single European Act, where it was stipulated that the disparities between the various regions and the backwardness of the least favored regions should be in the focus of economic and social policy. Territorial cohesion is introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, under which sustainability at the territorial level should be sought. Emphasized importance of this issue is reflected by the fact that about 30% of the EU budget is spent on the so-called cohesion policy.

Among the reasons of such deficit, the redistributive nature of the political structure is identified as a core reason for the given problems, as redistribution, rather than efficiency is inevitable for the traditional institutions. In line with low participation level and lack of definite political groups on the EU level, the tendency of conventional democratic instruments to satisfy the winning majority which it represents is flawed in its essence. Moreover, to create the basis of the given efficiency for all citizens of the EU it would have been necessary to create EU institutions originally as completely independent from any influence of national politics and interests. Not unique are the instances of the particular EU regulations which are obviously more beneficial for specific social groups, like private producers for domestic markets, or in terms of the EU agricultural policies (Hix).

Thus, the existing institutional structure of the EU proves that, unlike most states where it is fixed and guaranteed on the constitutional level that the main the source of power is the people, the citizens of the EU are precluded from the decisions that determine the existence of this integration union (Hix 311-312). This characteristic of the institutional mechanism of the organization is generally referred to in the legal theory as the problem of "democratic deficit" in the EU.

It appears from the abovementioned argumentation that the problem is indeed material and inevitable. However, the means to address the “democratic deficit” may be found within the existing EU structures and institutions. It should be noted that in the EU there are no so-called interfaces and structures linking voters with bodies and institutions (Duchesne). There are the European Union media, European parties, trade unions, and other structures that express the interest of voters, and there are many groups representing employers and transnational corporations.

To date, there are quite a lot of concepts and projects aimed at eliminating the deficit of democracy in the EU, which in their essence have different character and significance. Among them there are proposals for institutional modernization, direct national elections of members of the Council, regardless of the procedures for the establishment of the government. There are also projects to increase the importance of referendums and introduce the same rules for holding them in all countries (Stefan). Numerous euro sceptics, assessing the legitimacy of the EU's functioning, note that it is the "democracy deficit" that is causing the indifference of its citizens, since the decision in the Union is taken practically without their participation. In the opinion of these critics, the EU should be built on the principles of direct democracy, when in the process of adopting the most important political and legislative decisions, the position of citizens in considered.

The influence of citizens on the functioning of the EU is becoming increasingly concerned with every next change in the constituent treaties of the Union. These processes, respectively, were accompanied by the introduction of mechanisms to minimize the problem of "deficit of democracy" (Giavazzi). In particular, the Lisbon Treaty has introduced a number of important innovations in this direction. First of all, the legislative powers of the European Parliament were significantly expanded, and the rule on the decision-making in the Council of the EU on the principle of a double majority was fixed, considering not only the votes of the ministers of the member states, but also the population they present. An extremely important new mechanism for the influence of citizens on the functioning of the EU is the institution of civic initiative, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. According to this rule, at least 1 million citizens are members of a significant number of member states and may invite the European Commission, within its powers, to put forward any appropriate proposal on issues on which, in their opinion, it is necessary to adopt a legal act of the Union pursuant to Constituent treaties (Follesdal).

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The possibility of implementing a civil initiative significantly expands the political rights of the EU citizens through the recognition of the right of each of them to participate in the democratic life of the Union by involving them in the legislative process. The Civic Initiative Institute in the EU is considered as one of the types of participatory democracy based on the principles of the pre-democracy on which the EU is based and which are the values of the Union (Alesina and Giavazzi). The reinforcement of the civil initiative right reflects the EU's desire to implement the key standards of civic dialogue that is continuation of the existing practice of the Commission for conducting broad public consultations in cases where the adoption of a legislative act of the Union may affect the rights and interests of individuals in the EU.

The point is to develop mechanisms and procedures that would establish an additional system for democratic institutions, from the local level to the global one. At the same time, there is not replacement of old structures with new ones, but about their enrichment with new institutions (mechanisms, procedures) corresponding to modern realities. The prevailing view is that the Internet should be the main tool of this democracy in the development of information technologies. Thanks to the currently existing forms of public consultation, only get peripheral opinions, and, accordingly, a peculiar situation arises in which an unsophisticated part of society from the Internet prompts decisions to randomly elected representatives of the people.

In practical terms, the ultimate way to put the matters straight with regard to such deficit is to make the EU structures and politics less distant from the electorate, in other words, there is a compelling need to foster political debate in order to offer a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the EU political process to its citizens. Under the slogan of liquidating the democratic deficit in the European Union and striving for the political subjectivity of the EU citizens, one will reach the point of omitting the existing signs of democracy and public coercion. Deliberative democracy can lead to a complete lack of public opinion.

Overall, due to the specific institutional structure of the Union, the democracy deficit is undermining the legitimacy of the EU decisions. Low stake at EU politics in line with lack of direct suffrage poses a threat to the accountability of EU bodies as to the EU citizens. Ultimately, radical reform of the constitutional order is able to solve the democracy deficit problem once and for all. Bringing Brussel closer to the electorate by establishing the proper interface of the common-EU policies and bodies and increasing the participatory role of the EU citizens through implementing publicly-initiated projects is the most adequate way to address the deficit, which is now eroding the EU from the inside. As long as these steps are practical, the controversy bread by the deficit may be attenuating.

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