The Democratic Deficit Is Dual In Nature

Essay, Research Paper

“The democratic deficit is dual in nature”

Demos means people in Greek. Democracy was the name of a constitution in which the poor people exercised power in their own interest as against the interest of the rich and aristocratic. It is commonly accepted that democracy as it is defined by the Western world, is the most appropriate way of organising a society. Democracy as an ideal in the twentieth century has been taken for granted by European people. How can these citizens of Europe exercise their political rights in the ‘ever closer Union’? Democratic deficit is a new problem that the European Union has to face. The Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans in his report to the European council first used this expression in 1974. The problem is becoming even more accurate in the 1990s. As the steps of integration lead the member states to more and more commitment in the region, the peoples of Europe have a growing fear that this United Europe will undermine their national sovereignty. The democratic deficit of the European Union should be understood as a dual phenomenon, horizontally at the European level and vertically at the domestic level.

First, it can be understood horizontally, where there are institutional problems at the European level. The lack of democracy at the European level results with deficits taking place at various institutional levels. The European Parliament is too weak, the Commission is not elected, and finally, the Council of Ministers and European Council are not properly controlled and accountable. When thinking of democratic deficit at the European level, one certainly comes across the weaknesses of the EP, although it is the only institution that enjoys legitimacy, as it is the only directly elected body within the EU. Although it has been elected directly since 1976, its power is the weakest of all EU institutions. Unlike a traditional parliament in a representative system, the EP has not the right to propose bills, enact laws or raise revenue. The EP has certainly increased its power over the years, in the 1984 Draft EU Treaty it obtained co-operation procedure with the Council. Since the Maastricht Treaty, it has the power if co-decision in ten policy areas. But it is only a negative power to block proposals in its entirety. Moreover, its new joint power over budget with the Council of Ministers is limited to non-compulsory expenditure. As Dinan argues, ‘The EP may have acquired some budgetary authority, but as long as the budget remains relatively insignificant and the Parliament cannot raise any revenue its power will remain correspondingly weak’1. The continuing demand for increasing power of the EP has lead to greater rights in amending laws and checking the activities of the other institutions. While the EP has the formal right to dismiss the entire Commission through a vote of censure with two-thirds majority, it is not a stable solution. It would lead to a “eurocrisis” which can destabilise the already fragile system of the EU. However, strengthening the EP would probably not be the best solution in order to democratise the EU. We can wonder just how efficient this institution really is? The EP is often described as a kind of monthly road show2, for MEP’s have to travel constantly between Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. In this condition, these “nomads” can hardly be efficient in dealing with major issues of the union. About 15% of its budget are actually spent on moving expenses. But most importantly, the relationship between the MEP’s and the domestic electorates and parties is problematic. The participation in EU elections is relatively low in most European countries. Overall, domestic issues dominate Euro-elections more than European issues do. The electorates are hardly aware of the EU parties position. The legitimacy comes from the people, but if these people are not conscious of what is going on at the European level, how can a Parliament emanated from this form of election be legitimised? And how will the EP represent the will of the peoples of Europe?

Then comes the Commission, which can be considered as the executive-bureaucratic body of the EU. It is responsible for developing proposals for new laws and policies. The Commission is responsible to the Parliament but the latter has no direct control over its functions. Article 28 of the Draft Treaty said that ‘the Commission shall be responsible to the Parliament’. And, ‘the members of the commission shall resign as a body in the event of Parliament’s adopting a motion of censure by a qualified majority’3. The Commission should draw its legitimacy from the EP, which is supposed to be the most legitimate institution, as it is the only directly elected body. Thus, the Commission can become a real government at the European level. Some have suggested direct election in order to stimulate popular interests. For the time being, there is a lack of balance of powers because the Council of Ministers is just too powerful. This is the consequence of national governments that do not want to loose their national sovereignty.

The Council of Ministers is no doubt the most powerful institution within the EU. It is the real decision-making body of the EU, and a completely independent institution; the members of the Council are neither drawn from nor directly answerable as a body to the EP4. The most powerful institution lacks in accountability as a collective entity. Often, its work is secret and opaque, which makes it even more difficult for the European people to understand the role and the work of the EU. The citizens of Europe have difficulties to identify who exactly governs in the Union and cannot exercise their own prerogative to dismiss them at elections.

The European institutions are incomprehensible for everyday people, the EU is seen as inaccessible and opaque, which exacerbates the problems of accountability. The EU does not conform to the ideal democracy, which is based on the balance of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary. It looks more like the American model where there is a strict separation between the different institutions of power.

The democratic deficit can also be understood vertically. In that sense it can be defined as the gap between the power held by European institutions and the ability of European citizens to influence the work and decisions of those institutions. The Maastricht Treaty defined that the goal of European integration is to create ‘an ever closer union among the people of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen’5. Promoting a people’s Europe is the most urgent objective to achieve, then the EU can become more real and close to the citizens of Europe. If the EU is to be more accountable to its citizens, it still has lots to achieve. The deficit can be understood on the domestic scale where it is claimed that the transfer of power has diminished the internal accountability of government. Since the 90’s there is a growing distrust in public institutions at national level. In 1991, 72% of respondents claimed that their country’s membership was a good thing, that proportion was only 49% in autumn 19976. Moreover, the introduction of the qualified majority since 1987 by the SEA made the domestic control even more difficult. A national voter can find himself deceived by the representatives he has elected to represent his will when he is outvoted in the Council of Ministers. So how much is a government responsible for a policy on which it was outvoted? The voters have thus very little or hardly any impact on the decision-making process as well as national parliaments. Indeed, the EU, national governments are predominant to parliament. The executives have the monopoly of information and can decide not to inform the Parliament. That gives enormous advantages to the Executive over domestic politicians. For they do not need to consult the national parliament before agreeing to legislation. But increasingly, most parliaments try to secure commitments from their government that they will be fully informed and consulted on EU policies. Denmark provides a good example. It has a very rigorous parliamentary system, which ensures close co-operation between the Executive and the parliament in policy-making.

New developments within the EU lacked the support from its citizens. The deficit of knowledge is another problem that exists within the EU. Most people are not aware of the EU issues, which might affect them some how in their everyday life. In a 1997 poll, people where asked how much they knew about the EU, and 13% admitted that they knew nothing at all and only 6% thought that they have a good knowledge about it. In this context, it is very difficult to develop a sense of belonging to the EU. And as long as they know so little, they will not make their views known. This will perpetuate the democratic deficit7. In this perspective, the democratic deficit and the knowledge deficit are tightly linked to each other.

The democratic deficit can therefore be understood horizontally and vertically, at the European level as well as at the national level. That is why it is dual in nature. The debate about democracy leads immediately to the question of legitimacy. The EP enjoys direct elections but is the weakest institution of the EU. It is obvious that the EU needs to find a solution and that is precisely why institutional changes are programmed in the coming year. For the time being, there is only an indirect form of legitimisation via the EP and the member states. If the integration is to be lead to further transfer of power, it requires more than a basic debate on the need for more transparency and openness. The Amsterdam Treaty is no doubt a big step forward to democratising the EU, however to date it simply remains a written document, whose content must be implemented in the future. Nevertheless, the democratic deficit will not be resolved simply by increasing the EP power or by introducing direct election for the Commission. Regardless of these problems, the European Union is a unique, sui generis organisation and thus cannot be compared with existing features. It will demand lots of imaginations and creativity to ensure that this new regionalism will get the support of its citizens.

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