A discussion on how the EU still suffers from a democratic deficit despite the increased involvement of the European Parliament in the legislative process.

‘Democracy suggests that citizens should have a real say in govt policy and a real influence on the most’ important decisions, and the European Parliament (EP) is supposed to provide the democratic element in the EU system by representing the citizens of the EU, but whilst the EP is selected by the citizens of Europe, this is only one EU institution and one source of legitimacy. 

The ordinary legislative procedure, used to adopt most Union legislation and seen in Article 294 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, increases the power of the European Parliament, thereby arguably improving the democratic deficit. The European Parliament is now seen on the same footing as the Council and the European Parliament now has the power to prevent a proposal from being adopted. This seems to be an improvement in terms of legitimacy and democracy because there will be direct involvement of citizens through the EP and because the EP has the power to prevent adoption of a proposal.

However, there is no chain of responsibility as regards the EU, so when the Union makes decisions, there is no way in which the persons concerned will be responsible to the voters for what they have done. In addition, from a sociological perspective, there is a democratic deficit in that there is arguably no demos as the vast majority of citizens are totally unaware of what goes on in the European parliament. There is a lack of European civic identity and often the elections have little to do with the EU as we, the voters, are still thinking in national terms. One could say that while the EP will remain a useful forum for debate and a fertile field in which people with vested interests can have a say, it will NOT bring democracy to the EU.

As with many other issues regarding EU law, the answer to the above question is unclear. Moravcsicsuggests that there is actually no democratic deficit because the Union is not a state and there are other sources of legitimacy for the Union e.g. the accountability of the national executives sitting in Council to their national constituencies. Halberstamsays that democratic legitimacy is necessary for the Union, but this will not appear in the same form as it does at the national level. Moving policies to the European level of governance extracts them from the broader domestic context of arguing and bargaining – we can’t just say there is legitimacy by the accountability of MS’ executive branches. Chalmershowever notes that the solution cannot be just to increase the powers of the EP, as this can only partially alleviate concerns about representation. Thus, representative democracy will always be lacking, but there is potential for other conceptions of democracy e.g. as regards focus on the individual. In addition, MEPs increasingly vote with their parliamentary groupings rather than along national cleavages which suggests that MEPs understand themselves to be conducting politics much like any domestic parliamentarian. Thus Halberstam believes that there is potential for the development of a European demos, however citizens need to feel more involved as well as parliamentarians.

Overall, whether there is a democratic deficit within the EU seems to depend on whether we view legitimacy of the Union as the continued involvement of Member States i.e. formal accountability, or as the existence of multiple overlapping spheres of decision-making in which citizens can argue and bargain with one another. It seems that there is potential for the EU to be democratic in both senses with the move towards further involvement of Member States with the ordinary legislative procedure and increased use of this following the Treaty of Lisbon, but whether the Union realises its democratic potential will depend to a certain extent on the emergence of a demos that engages in EU-wide public debate. 


JCMSS 2002 Vol 40. Number 4.
(2005) 30 E.L.REV. DEC
European Union Law, Cases and Materials, Damien Chalmers et al, 2nd ed 2010


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