There are many different definitions of what the democratic deficit is, and in fact on whether or not there even is such a thing as a democratic deficit in the European Union to be able to give a definitive definition of it. European Union scholars Majone and Moravcsik believe there is a credibility crisis not a democratic deficit.
A working definition for the purpose of this essay is, ‘the democratic void, perceived or real, between citizens of the EU, and the EU institutions that govern them, where decisions are made by non-elected institutions which are based not on public will, but by a bureaucratic elite in Brussels, accentuated by the limited power of the European Parliament.
The idea of solving the problem by simply granting the European Parliament with more power is an attractive one, and one that has been advocated by scholars such as Weiler in the 1990’s, but there is much more to the problem than the European Parliament not having a proportionate amount of power (George and Bache. 269: 2006). This is only part of the institutional aspect of the democratic deficit. There is also the socio-psychological angle, as well as the possibility the deficit has been miss interpreted, and the problem is in fact one of credibility.
This essay sets out to uncover the different aspects of the democratic deficit and tries to suggest possible solutions to the problem. The simplistic solution to the democratic deficit is to grant the European Parliament more power so it mirrors a nation state Parliament more than it does at present. This is currently impossible as the European Parliament faces far more complexities than a nation state Parliament, with race, religion, language, size and legitimacy being some of them (Follesdal, A & Hix, S. 536: 2006). An alternative advocated by many within the EU is to enhance Codecision.
With a shift in decision making from National to EU level comes the expectation of an increase to the power of the EP which has not happened, which has instead gone to the Council, weakening the link between the electorate and the de facto legislators (Raunio: 1999). As Cohen puts it; ‘there can be no larger part unless the larger part and the smaller parts are indeed parts of one whole’ (Cohen 1971: 46). This is not only a description of the EU institutions, but of the nation states interests being put above the interests of the EU as a whole too often.
With regards to the Nice treaty of 2001 The Guardian reported: ‘At every stage of the prolonged negotiation, raw national interest have overshadowed the broader vision’. Britain’s rebate is an example of this. The initial plan was to directly exchange power from the National Parliaments to the European Parliament (Lodge 1994: 69). However, a democratic deficit appeared so the EU tried to eradicate it.
After the Single European Act (1986) the assent procedure was adopted for certain decisions such as amendments of tasks taken up by the European Central Bank (Corbett, R. ; Jacobs, F & Shackleton. 87: 2005). This approach was changed in the 1990’s. The Parliament’s powers over the Commission were enhanced by the Maastricht (1992) and Amsterdam (1997) Treaties, with a veto of personnel and then the President of the Commission being grated, but also new powers to propose amendments to draft legislation named Codecision (Chryssochoou. 178: 2007).
It could be argued that the process is weighted against the Parliament at second reading, as Parliament may only modify or reject amendments from Council by an absolute majority of MEPs, not just those in the chamber at the time (European Commission. 008). These half-baked measures have demonstrated the limited extent the EU is prepared to go to solve the democratic deficit it knows it has, and has had for some time. Clearly the EU is not ready to give enough power to the Parliament to instil confidence in the EU citizens that the only democratically elected chamber is representing their interests, and has enough power to act on their behalf.
A European Demos would close the deficit as it would be legitimate, but it would not work until there are transnational parties, otherwise the larger states such as France, Britain and Germany would dominate the Demos. This would entail further, almost complete integration which looks far too hard to achieve in the near future. The real question is about accountability. If the EU citizens perceived the EU as making good decisions which made a positive impact on their day to day life, then the majority would not care how the decisions were come by, democratic or otherwise (Follesdal, A & Hix, S. 42: 2006).
Adding to this there is also the major obstacle to all this which is a lack of European Identity which would make EU citizens look to the EU for leadership rather than their nation state. There is a socio-psychological angle to the democratic deficit, which is the perception by the EU citizens themselves that the EU does little for them, and they feel so far removed from the process that they neither care about taking part, nor feel that by taking part they really have any impact on what is done. There is reason for this.
For example, most Council decisions are made behind closed doors (Chryssochoou, D. N. 562: 2007). Underpinning arguments that the non parliamentary EU institutions need to be more open and accountable is a more general point- that the EC/EU has traditionally been a technocratic body, which has valued expertise (and effectiveness) over representation (and democracy). This is represented in the No vote by Ireland over the Lisbon treaty, possibly being ignored and passed anyway (Follesdal, A & Hix, S. 558: 2006).
The outcome of this socio-psychological perception of a democratic deficit was seen in the No vote on the EU Constitutional Treaty by the French electorate on 29/05/2005 and then the Dutch a few days afterwards. The socio-psychological problem is accentuated by the perceived wasteful culture of the EU with its citizen’s money. A prime example of this is the fact there are two Parliament buildings, as well as offices in Luxemburg (Chryssochoou. 176: 2007).
The irony is the European Parliament has a largely budgetary role (Chryssochoou. 78: 2007). There is also the old problem that the Parliament is not given enough power even though it is the only directly elected EU institution. The claim that the Commission has democratic legitimacy is folly as in no sense is the Commission elected by the Parliament, they are chosen from a panel already selected (Follesdal, A & Hix, S. 538: 2006). The Parliament is also seen as a political retirement ground by many, which gives it the sense of limp intensity and importance to the nation state parliament (Chryssochoou, D. N. 180: 2007).
EU Parliament elections are not really European, based around EU agenda or personalities and parties; they are mainly fought on National issues. Reif and Schmitt’s description of the first European Parliament election as ‘second rate national contests’ are as true for the 2004 elections as for the 1979 elections (Reif and Schmitt: 1980). This highlights a real conundrum for the EU as its people feel disconnected from its institutions, and when voting in an EP election, vote to either credit their national government or show them a sign of discontent, but rarely to vote for EU issues.
This is an overt sign that the EU citizens do not feel the elections are worth voting in, and is a clear sign of a democratic deficit. The European Parliament elections are witnessing low and falling turnout levels, with little EU issues playing a role in campaigns. The overall turnout across the EU in the 1979 election was 62%, which has decreased to 44% in 2004 (European Parliament: 2004). With such low interest in the EU and insultingly low turnout for elections, there is surely a question over the legitimacy of the European Parliament.
Possibly power should be taken away from the Parliament if those making the decisions have such a low mandate. This low level turnout is one reason for EU Policy Drift, which many argue is a way of enabling a policy to come about that would not otherwise happen in most nation states of the EU (Scharpf: 1997 and Follesdal, A & Hix, S. 540: 2006). An example of this is the Common Agricultural Policy. The Parliament allows individual MEP’s voices to be heard more than in National Governments and enables their opinion to have a greater impact on legislation wording as an outcome (Raunio 1999).
This is the result of there not being a majority party in the Parliament, and a cabinet resembling a nation state one meaning European Parliamentarians have more influence over policy than many National government Parliamentarians (Kassim. 141: 2003). If the EU citizens knew this, they would be far more inclined to contact their MEP, and to vote as they would realise that their MEP can do a lot for them, in some cases more than their MP. This represents a knowledge gap which if closed would help reduce the democratic deficit as the EU citizen would feel more a part of the institution they know little about.
This form of government does however lead to lowest common denominator decisions being made on all but minor issues which have large scale consensus, and the multi lingual sessions make it hard to follow debates. There are some European scholars that do not believe the EU has a democratic deficit, but rather it is a problem of credibility. Majone (2000) states that the EP does not need more power, it needs to be a body which scrutinises the Commission’s work, and to tightly regulate spending so the legislation is of a higher quality.
Therefore, if the credibility of the policy making improved, then the European public would, or should perceive the EU as legitimate and the ‘democratic deficit’ would disappear. This follows on to the argument that if the EU was perceived to be making a positive difference to the lives of its citizens, then those citizens would be more inclined to partake in European politics, which would itself reduce the ‘democratic deficit’.
The recent election in the USA, which saw a huge increase in voter turnout compared to recent elections, was partly due to the fact the electorate felt they could make a difference, and voted for change they felt could come by exercising their vote. If the same feeling spread throughout the EU, there would be a similar response, with more participation as an end result. The same scholars claim the reason for voter apathy is that the two issues the electorate care about most, taxation and spending, are still in control of the nation state governments.
Therefore, it is reasonable for voters to treat the European elections as largely irrelevant contests (Moravcsik. 615: 2002). This argument is flawed as membership to the European Union cost Britain a net value of £55. 775 billion per annum alone (Batten, G. MEP: 2008). Therefore, taxes raised by National governments pay for membership of the EU. In judgement, there is clearly a democratic deficit but it cannot be closed by simply extending the powers of the Parliament.
There are two solutions to the democratic deficit. Firstly, the EU can gain more power from the nation states and form a true EU Demos to give the European Parliament real legitimacy and its constituents a real choice in Europe. The Parliament would have to mirror a nation state parliament much closer, and gain much more power, from both the nation state and the commission. There would need to be clearly set out manifestos and an actual government in charge, with a head of state and a cabinet, possibly made up from MEP’s.
This would be needed in order to pass anything other than basic lowest common denominator legislation, which is the best the Parliament can do presently due to its wide diversity. This solution faces too many problems to come into effect in the near future, ranging from existing entrenched opposition for limited further integration, to the language barriers of the EU states themselves. Also the larger states would dominate agenda unless the people of Europe became truly European rather than British, German or Italian etc.
Secondly and more realistically, power could be taken off the EU institutions and re-nationalised to the member state governments who are in a far better position to decide what is best for their population, as they have a legitimate mandate to act on behalf of their constituents. This is the only realistic short to medium term solution to the democratic deficit, although the powers the EU retained would have to be exercised with far more accountability and openness.