Those who label the EU decision-making processes “undemocratic” fail to appreciate that representative democracy is not the most appropriate model for a supranational entity – especially one that is not intended to be a federal “super-state”.’
The European Union involves the union of 28 members that have come together to form a political-economic union which was formed initially in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The purpose of this paper is to consider whether or not the EU decision making process is undemocratic and if so whether or not a representative democracy does in fact provide an appropriate model for the EU as it has evolved. In order to consider this the definition of representative democracy will be looked at as well as the concept of a supranational entity as opposed to a federal super state. Having understood the definition of the key terms the next step is to look at the evolution of the EU and to understand the actual purpose of the EU before then going on to look at the way in which democracy operates within the EU and whether or not there is a democratic deficit (Craig and de Burca, 2011). The current position and future direction of the EU will also be considered before finally responding to the initial statement in considering whether or not those who label the EU as undemocratic truly appreciate the essence and purpose of the EU in the first place.
A representative democracy refers to a type of democracy where the principal of elected individuals is dominant. Whilst there may be certain constraints, fundamentally all Western-style democracies of representative in nature i.e. contain elected individuals. The EU with its parliament is seemingly no different. Some of the key benefits associated with a representative democracy is that it gives legitimacy and transparency to the decisions made and yet its questions clear as to whether this type of democracy is in fact prudent the supranational nature of the EU. Supranational is defined as a union which is multinational and has a variety of delegated powers to the individual stats which are negotiated. The EU is often referred to as a supranational union as it arguably operates as a type of political entity in itself and shows a degree of political integration between the states which is considerably greater than would be achieved through a more traditional international treaty. This is a strong argument and was accepted by the six founder states who noted that the EU was creating a new legal order with a power that sits above the nation states. This is distinct from a federal super state scenario as with the supranational union some sovereignty is retained although some is shared with the new supranational entity (Schutze, 2012). These types of unions encourage stability as it is not possible for the country to simply leave the arrangement but it does not take away overall power and sovereignty of the individual member states who could potentially remove themselves from the supranational arrangement. This is one of the stronger argument presented by those suggesting that joining the EU has not destroyed the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty the UK. With a supranational arrangement there remains autonomous institutions with independence in their decision-making (Moravcsik, 2002).
Before looking at the effectiveness of this democratic approach within the EU and the perceived democratic deficit, it is helpful to identify the key components of EU history. The European Coal and Steel Community was set up by 6 founding member states with a view of creating stability across Europe in the wake of the Second World War this was then expanded the years with the Treaty of Maastricht establishing the European Union in 1993. It was the 1993 treaty that was arguably the turning point for the EU and changed the general operation of the union from simply having a variety of policies to creating a political union. Issues that were under the community competence also extended considerably to include culture, health and education with a central monetary policy also emerging (Chalmers et al., 2014).
Unsurprisingly following the Treaty of Maastricht and the political union which emerged, questions of democracy in legitimacy of the supranational state followed. It should not however be overlooked that the underlying purpose of the EU was to create a degree of political stability which requires the democratic position to be seen as legitimate. From here the next element of this analysis is to consider democracy within the EU and crucially the perceived democratic deficit that brings into question the validity of representative democracy (Follesdal and Hix, 2005).
The concept of a democratic deficit is used in 1979 when looking at the European Economic Community which was the entity standing prior to the European Union. It is argued at this early stage that the European Parliament suffered from a democratic deficit due to that is not directly elected by the individual citizens of Europe. Therefore when looking at this democratic deficit it is argued that a failure of the European Union to represent the ordinary citizen and with the underlying lack of accountability and transparency there is not a true representative legitimacy.
There are in fact true potential sources of legitimacy within the European Union, the first being the European Parliament which is constituted of individuals that are directly elected by the European Union as a whole and secondly there is the council which represents each of the individual states although not directly elected by the individuals of Europe. Having two independent sources for the democratic legitimacy arguably creates a democratic deficit surely based on the construction of the European Union. The way in which the European Union has been established means that it is not either an intergovernmental organisation or a federal state and this makes it difficult to achieve complete legitimacy. This is not necessarily perceived to be a weakness with the British Electoral Reform Society in 2014 (10) stating:
“This unique institutional structure makes it difficult to apply the usual democratic standards without significant changes of emphasis. Certainly, the principles of representativeness, accountability and democratic engagement are vital, but the protection of the rights of minorities is perhaps especially important. The EU is a political regime that is, in one sense at least, entirely made up of minorities.”
Although it has been argued that substantial democratic deficit with citizens failing to participate in decision-making process across Europe, in reality it will also be argued for individual citizens have essentially the same influence of the European Union decision-making as they do over their own national decision making. Individuals are able to vote in order to ensure that their own feelings are represented by the appropriate party, this is the same as within the national state. It is also noted that over time the role of the European Parliament has been extended and become an important element of the legislative process. The Treaty of Lisbon ensure that decision are made jointly by the Council and the European Parliament ensuring many individuals were elected representative internal Parliament more suitably represented and increasing the level of perceived democratic legitimacy (Barnard and Peers, 2014).
The Treaty of Lisbon magic by definition for the Democratic foundations upon which the European Union operates. Firstly it states that the union is required to consider the principle of equality amongst its citizens and not each citizen should receive the same attention from the offices and agencies of the EU (Article 9). Secondly it is categorically stated that the functioning of the union shall be based on representative democracy principles. Citizens are directly represented as part of the European Parliament as each citizen is able to participate in the election of these individuals (Article 10). Thirdly, the institutions of the European Union are required to maintain transparency, openness and regular dialogue with the areas represented associations (Article 11). Article 10 is the crucial provision as it openly states that the essence of the European Union is to provide a representative democracy. Article 10(2) shows that citizens are represented directly as part of the European Parliament with the member states then being represented through their own (elected) heads of state.
The perceived democratic deficit can be seen to be argued based on weaknesses in three key areas that would otherwise present democracy. These are failures of representation, transparency and accountability. Those arguing that there is a real democratic deficit within the EU and that it is failing to achieve its representative democracy cite factors such as the weakness of the European Parliament, the lack of a specific European election and the policy drift that emerges between the entities and the member states (Kelemen and Daniel, 2004).
Arguably the democratic democracy can therefore be attributed to two key areas, the institutions and law making itself with weaknesses attached to both of these areas in terms of achieving a true legitimate democracy. Firstly in relation to the institution there is the issue of the way in which the seats are allocated within the European Parliament and the concern that there is a lack of accountability of the operation of the commission. There is also a fundamentally low turnout in the European Parliament elections and in reality no specific and true European elections. Secondly when it comes to the actual law making itself there is also the argument that the European Parliament is weak and has relatively little power in comparison to the other agencies such as the Commission. Overall however the main concern is that there is a lack of transparency in this area (Przeworski et al., 1999).
Although these arguments, in the opinion of the author, have clear and substantiated merit, there are some substantial flaws in them which raise the question as to whether the democratic deficit is a problem at all. Firstly the EU operates on the basis of supra-nationalism and as such the way in which the EU has been established and grown is to provide a co-operative approach that does not in itself lend towards representative democracy. The common goals of long term peace and co-operation cannot be achieved in a unilateral manner and this therefore presents the argument here that aiming for a true representative democracy is not achievable.
Despite this, it is still advisable for the EU to be looking towards means of reducing the democratic deficiency and creating a scenario whereby the democratic process in the EU is at least more legitimate and transparent. Bearing in mind the perceived weakness, the proposed reforms can also be linked to these areas. For example certain institutional changes are recommended such as the making the commission accountable to the European Parliament and ensuring that the council sessions are open to the public. This would automatically improve the transparency. Secondly there are movements towards an ordinary legislative procedure (OLP) which has now been extended to cover a variety of new fields offering the Parliament the same law making power as the Council in certain key areas.
The fundamental aim of the EU is to provide a supranational structure and not to present a federal super state, therefore it is argued, on balance here that true representative democracy is not achievable or indeed desirable. The fundamental aim of the EU is to provide co-operation and unity with peacekeeping in mind. The EU evolved as a result of post-World War II discussions and as such this peacekeeping agenda cannot be ignored. With this in mind it is concluded that the discussion here supports the initial statement that those who are looking to argue that the EU is undemocratic are in error not necessarily in that assertion but in the assumption that representative democracy would ever be the aim of an entity such as the EU. By going back to the fundamentals of the reasoning for the EU in the first place it is concluded that the current approach to democracy although not truly representative is both appropriate and sufficient.
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