European Union: A Democratic Deficit?

European Union: A Democratic Deficit?


The European Union is a partnership between 28 European countries that have come together and formed this liaison for the economic and political interests of the member nations. The EU was established as an outcome of the Second World War, to develop economic cooperation. However, critics of the European Union have slammed it for its “undemocratic” functioning. This paper intends to assess the democratic attributes of the European Union. Further, the influence of a ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU governing the exit of Britain will also be assessed.

Before assessing the democratic characteristics of the EU, it is equally important to describe the meaning of “democracy.” Democratic institutions are those in which the members voice their opinion freely. A generous democracy has considerable attraction owing to its representative virtue, linkages, and integration with economic markets making it the popular concept of democracy. A democratic framework essentially stands on the principles of representativeness, transparency, and accountability. Only in the presence of these virtues can a democratic institution be considered legitimate and authoritative. A strong criticism of the European Union is its “undemocratic” approach to operations. Though on the cover, the EU seems to be a democratic institution, however, closer scrutiny of the same reveals several loopholes in the theory. 

The EU is largely representative in comparison to its members and that includes Britain. The European Parliament comprises of MEPs representing the entire 28 EU member states, The MEPs are elected based on several forms of proportionate representation. However, not only are the smaller states over-represented in the European Parliament, but the voter turnout for elections is also considerably lower in comparison to that of national government elections. The turnout in the voting procedure in the European Parliament election since 1979 has seen a gradual decline, with the latest record of 42.6 %. This implies that though all member states are represented in the Council of Ministers, the smaller states enjoy greater voting rights in order to protect their interests from being overlooked by the six biggest states that have a combined population of 70% of the EU. The smaller states have in the past deliberately influenced the laws and policies of the European Union to favor their own interest by integrating with their larger and stronger counterparts. This renders the democratic representation of the EU dubious and questionable.

The European Commission, considered the executive of the EU, isn’t elected but is totally accountable to the European Parliament. All the 28 EU member states have their representation in the Council of Ministers which, along with the EU parliament, formulates the EU laws. The European Commission comprises civil servants representing member states, Nevertheless, there are challenges in recruiting officials from Britain as they are unable to speak another European language. The European Commission has come under criticism for not being directly elected and the Council for its secretiveness. In order to make the Council more transparent, there have been several reforms undertaken to ensure greater access to Council documents and the Council sessions being made open to the general public. Presently, the Council do hold public sessions, however, they aren’t keen to provide general access to their Council debates held behind closed doors during which crucial decisions are taken. These meetings are not available online nor are their minutes made public. Even representatives of the European Parliament are not permitted to attend such meets.

The information that is made available by the Council is at its discretion and is largely limited. There exists considerable stress between the dual roles that the Council plays. One of the roles is to formulate and execute policies like that of a Cabinet while the other role is to deliberate upon and adopt legislative acts and laws which are similar to that of a parliament. In the process, it is apparent that the interests of some of the Member States get compromised raising concerns regarding transparency as it could hurt the UK’s national interest and hence the demand for greater transparency with respect to the information provided by the Council and its working committee.

The European integration is witnessed as an escalation of its executive power and a reduction in its member state’s parliamentary control. On the national level, the framework of the democratic government as prevalent in all the Member States of the EU makes the administration responsible and answerable to its citizens in the parliament. On the contrary, the European parliament exercises fewer official powers of the statutory amendment. However, the executives are brought charges by the parliament and also have the capacity to either recruit or suspend them through the scrutiny of their conduct. The framework of the EU is such that the law-making is clustered in the hands of the national ministers in the Council, and government appointees in the Commission. The problem doesn’t lie in here though. The workings of these executive actors at the EU level are outside the regulation of the domestic government. In spite of the formation of European Affairs Committees in all the national parliaments, the Council while discussing or voting, the national bureaucrats while formulating policies and the Commission while drafting or implementing legislation are comparatively insulated from the national parliamentary scrutiny and control. Hence, governments are able to conveniently ignore their parliaments while taking decisions in Brussels. Thus, European integration has resulted in a reduction in the power of national parliaments and a rise in the power of the executives.

On 23rd June 2016, Britain voted to exit the European Union with 51.9 percent opting to leave the EU. A major reason for the voting out of Britain from EU, is the perception of a ‘democratic deficit’ existing in the EU. A ‘democratic deficit’ is referred to as a situation wherein there is a lack of standard characteristics of democracy, for instance, the presence of opposition, involvement, transparency, and elective appointment of institutional leaders. As per the Lisbon Treaty, the EU institutions are mandated to handle their operations publicly and have to confirm to the standards set. Legislative acts are deemed to be made public by the Council and the European Parliament and they are to assist in the publication of documents related to the legislative procedures adopted. However, in spite of the steps taken to make the EU as democratic as possible, there are also reports of corruption persisting in the EU level.

The ‘democratic deficit’ is concerned primarily with the structure, composition, powers bestowed and exercised, procedural flaws and secrecy as well as the interactions of the chief EU institutions such as the Commission, Council, European Parliament (EP), and Court of Justice. The European Parliament is accused of formulating weak regulations regarding the monitoring and sanctioning of MEPs' conduct. There is an absolute lack of clarity with respect to the inter-institutional discussions on draft legislation. The European Council is accused of Procedure deficiency in the selection and appointment of persons in key EU positions. The Council of the European Union has been said to lacking with respect to integrity rules which includes sanctions for national delegates. Further, they neither permit access to documents publicly nor reveal the position of the member states.

The political body of the EU greatly differs from other democracies present today in terms of the separation of powers. The executive, legislative as well as judicial powers aren’t held exclusively by any single EU institution and the checks and balances are interpreted differently. Moreover, the EU doesn’t have a government or president who could be voted out by the citizens. Probably the prime concern with respect to the European Union, in the UK as well as the rest of Europe, is that the policy-making decisions taken by the Union concentrate the power in the hands of national executives and bureaucrats in Brussels, thereby reducing the stature and power of the national parliaments and national electorates.

However, in spite of the issues discussed above, there are differing views on the transparency practiced by the Council Ministers regarding important matters. A number of observers are of the view that greater transparency could reduce the effectiveness or impact the quality of decision-making. Rt Hon Sir Edward Davey, former UK Minister and Secretary of State opined that transparency is sometimes “inappropriate” in a certain matter. He cited the infamous instance of the dialogues on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), wherein one would not want every part of the discussions and working TTIP files to be made public. Further, RT Hon Dame Margaret Beckett MP, former UK Minister and Secretary of State stated that in matters concerning the Foreign Affairs Council if there is too much of transparency on the sensitive negotiations, one would not make much progress. Many other dignitaries agreed that there needs to be a balance of transparency with regard to the extent of secrecy in negotiations and tactful management of sensitive information.

The citizens voting out Britain from the European Union were driven by a certain perception of the EU’s functioning. The public tends to analyse the apparent cost-benefit relationships accruing from the integration, and it is largely influenced by the perception of what is considered to be a “gain” or a “loss” in this course. The other factors that influenced the citizens of Britain to vote themselves out of the EU are the national identity concerns which are largely dominated by community affiliations more than the economic consideration of overall benefit. This implies people gave more importance to their national identity such as being ‘British’ than being ‘European.’ People also tend to make their perception on the reputation of the party leaders and other ministers on the various platforms of the European Union as well their philosophical inclinations and biased affiliations.

To conclude, the European Union has been marred in allegations for its ‘democratic deficit’ image. Though there exist certain loopholes, there is more than meets the eye. European Union as well as its Member States are committed in various ways to being transparent even though it may have not been visible in practice. The major issue for the EU is more of a ‘credibility crisis’ and less of a democratic deficit. The Lisbon Treaty has mandated that EU institutions adhere to the standards set and requires the operations to be done as transparently as possible. But, the solution lies in the rectification of the procedures and doesn’t require any fundamental change. The EU needs to have greater transparency in decision-making, post-reviews by the court and overseers, more professionalism, legislation to safeguard the rights of all the member states equally, and greater scrutiny and control at the EU as well as national level. Through more transparent procedures the EU could enhance its credibility in policymaking and eliminate the democratic deficit that exists. Further, the various experts expressing their views on this controversy opine that complete transparency with regard to the delicate negotiations in the EU could render its functioning useless. Last but not the least, the image of a ‘democratic deficit’ has a lot to do with the perception the people of Britain have about the functioning of the EU.



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