The European Union's Democratic Deficit: How to Fix It

By Bonde, Jens-Peter | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The European Union's Democratic Deficit: How to Fix It


Bonde, Jens-Peter, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


On 1 December 2010 the Lisbon Treaty had been in operation for one year. The new EU foreign affairs service is currently under construction. The EU has an unelected President for the European Council (the meetings of the Heads of State and Government meetings), an unelected foreign minister, and an unelected Commission President. Together, they can travel the world and give lessons to others on the importance of accountable and democratic government.

The Lisbon Treaty establishes the legal base for a new supranational European State. Much EU legislation is already more centralized than legislation in the United States. The EU itself, however, has weak tools of power: Its security service has only 620 policemen, while the FBI has 30,000. The EU has no federal prisons. There is still no joint defense for the largest trading bloc in the world. However, all the instruments of state power can now be established on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty. It is still the case that 56 Treaty articles require unanimity among the EU Member States, but the main legislative procedure is now decision by qualified majority vote among the Member States.

I shall set out here the main powers of the EU and consider how its democratic deficit may be remedied.

When decisions and policy-making areas are moved from the member nation-states to the supranational European Union level, citizens lose the voting influence they previously held at the national level, but are compensated somewhat by gaining influence at the EU level. In what areas have voters lost influence? What have they gained instead? Is the newfound influence at the EU level sufficient compensation for what voters have lost? Andrew Moravcsik has argued that EU membership represents a democratic gain overall, because, at the EU level, voters can have an impact on areas where a small country alone would have little say or influence. 1

The Democratic Deficit

The greater part of the laws and regulations that bind the Danes and other Europeans come now from the EU. Are those laws and rules adopted as democratic as the laws and rules that are made under Denmark's own Constitution? For topics for which Denmark on its own cannot adopt effective regulation, one can argue that there is an effective gain supranationally because, at the EU level, Denmark gains a limited influence in matters that it would not otherwise be able to affect in the slightest. I have expressed this point often by saying: "Co-influence is better than no-influence." For issues that Denmark can legislate effectively at the national level, however, a democratic deficit arises at the EU level if the policy area is shifted there. The mode of decision-making at the EU level is not as democratic as that in the Danish Constitution.

Peter Vesterdorf wrote in 1994: "The EU is deeply affecting the domestic politics of countries. It often replaces national legislation and edges national parliaments out of the game. This creates a serious democratic deficit that should be eliminated by changing the EU's decision making process."2 The Brussels Commission acknowledged that there is a democratic deficit problem in the book European Governance. In this work, senior Commission civil servants consider the absence of a common political culture at European level and advocate openness, decentralization and dialogue with citizens as a means of dealing with this problem.

The Lisbon Treaty confers 106 new competences on the EU, with 34 legislative and 72 non-legislative. The draft Constitution for Europe which preceded it, but which was rejected in the French and Dutch referendums in 2005, also conferred 106 new competences, with 33 legislative and 73 non-legislative. The Lisbon Treaty increases the influence of the European Parliament in 19 areas at the expense of the Council of Ministers. Insofar as the Parliament is a body elected by the EU's citizens, this can be regarded as democratic progress. …

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