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European Ideas on MYTHBUSTER: The democratic deficit-deficit

24th July 2013

 photo© European Union 2013 - European Parliament

Philipp Requat is the European Ideas Ambassador at the University of Edinburgh.

In European Ideas’ second mythbuster, I intend to scrutinize the recurring notion of a “democratic deficit” in the European Union. Corresponding concerns persist since the 1970s and continue to pervade all levels of society. As was the case 40 years ago in the European Economic Community, more recent sentiments of a “democratic deficit” are centred on the idea of EU legislation disregarding popular preference. Media has played a pivotal role in the propagation of this narrative, painting a bleak picture of the state of European democracy in its abundant commentary on the subject. Some of the most dramatic accounts are found on the online shouting-grounds of the tabloid press –citizens, they claim, are forced to look on as, “unelected eurocrats” govern their continent from the technocratic fortress of Brussels. If taken seriously, the EU would appear to have fallen under the rule of an exclusive club of experts, who owe their careers to little-known bureaucratic channels instead of public approval. Drawing on the work of various scholars, I seek to demonstrate that the near opposite is true. Fears of democratic illegitimacy will be shown to result from widespread misconceptions of EU institutional architecture and the role held by democratically-elected national governments therein.

Know thy transnational, multi-level, “sui generis” system of governance- A broad operational clarification of the European Union

The term “democratic deficit” originated in media outlets. While it has been encouraging to see citizens lured into an important debate by the buzzword’s mass-appeal (however vaguely-defined it may be), misinformation disrupts the course of discussion (Moravcsik 2002). Even fundamental characteristics of the Union are generally unknown to its citizens, a fault for which EU policymakers certainly share some blame. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine that legend of “eurocratic” tyranny would have prevailed, if more people were aware of the institutional framework that grounds transnational policymaking in Europe.

From its humble birth as the European Coal and Steel Community, the EU has evolved into a unique “multi-level governance system” founded upon the four main institutional pillars of the Council, Commission, European Parliament (EP) and European Court of Justice (ECJ) (Moravcsik 1993, 2002; Hix 2002; Pollack 2005). During the dawn of European integration in the 1950s, political theorists such as Ernst Haas predicted a “functional spill-over” that would see a gradual transfer of loyalty and power from national to European governance. “Neofunctionalists” like Haas explained the “spill-over” process as the natural consequence of a self-perpetuating expansion of centralised authority. Like the proverbial foot in the door, the decision to place the coal and steel sectors under the auspices of multinational institutions would create pressure to expand such an organisation’s power into neighbouring fields of policy. By this process, Europe should have witnessed the gradual emancipation of supra-national policymaking and waning influence of national governments (Haas 1958, Pollack 2005). Haas’ vision was never fulfilled however, as states clinging to sovereign powers undermined the “spill-over” process. The chieftains of Europe’s national tribes were not ready to bow to a continental overlord then, and have taken only miniscule steps away from that position since. Instead they have overseen the development of a European Union that guarantees national governments final say. The Council, which is formed by the heads of member states and known as the “master of treaties”, remains the EU’s most powerful organ. No European legislation can pass without its consent. The Commission, in stark contrast, is limited to agenda-setting and regulatory monitoring, while the EP retains consultation rights. Even the influence of the mighty ECJ judges, presiding over the highest court in matters of EU law, is dwarfed by the clout of the Council. Seasoned calls for a strengthening of the EP can thus also be seen as a reaction to the dominance of national governments in the European Union. Although the parliament’s standing has improved since its founding, the process of emancipation has been gradual and sluggish. The situation is not helped by the “decentralised” and “apathetic” nature of EP elections which have consistently failed to garner public interest beyond the fringes of society. (Moravcsik 1993, 2002)

Some critics misperceive the EP’s weakness as the source of a “democratic deficit”. Although the relative impotence of the EP, ECJ and Commission is disappointing for advocates of a more centralised Europe with stronger federal powers, it need not hint at undemocratic EU legislation. Put simply, it rather means that the EU is as democratic as its individual constituent states. Their elected leaders, whose representation in the Council is proportional to population size, are the ultimate force driving EU policy.

Challenging the tabloid superstate-narrative, a despotic technocracy is prevented by this circumstance as well as other important institutional realities. At heart, the European project is still what it was in the cradle - a common market. (Damro 2012) Regardless of the balance of power between Council, Commission, ECJ and EP, EU legislation rarely extends into non-commercial matters. The bulk of administrative powers remain limited to the regulation of intra-European capital, goods and service flows. If it is only rivers of trade which Brussels’ bureaucrats stand sentinel over, how does this fit into an image of democratic deficiency?

Illegitimate concern? Policy fields, checks, and balances in the EU

For some, the knowledge of national governmental supremacy within the EU’s legislative process is not enough to disperse “democratic deficit” concerns. There exists a perception that Brussels hosts influential agents of continental change who are free from popular accountability.  This merits an investigation into the union’s legislative domains, especially those areas where unelected officials are vested with the greatest powers. To start with the unlikely candidates, taxation, fiscal policy, social welfare and defence all constitute spheres over which the EU has very little to nothing to say. Described as a “regulatory state” by Damro, the EU’s bureaucracy is overwhelmingly concerned with overseeing implementation of laws pertaining to the free market, without being responsible for it. (Damro 2012) The Commission hereby monitors national compliance with directives which were agreed upon earlier in the Council. The perhaps strongest weapon in the Commission’s armoury is its right to levy fines on non-compliant members, although states can challenge such decisions before the ECJ.

There are, however, some exceptional fields where un-elected EU officials do retain the highest position in the chain of command. These fields include competition policy and trade-negotiation conduct in the case of the Commission, and monetary policy in the case of the European Central Bank (ECB). The EU’s undemocratic autonomy in trade negotiation is rather restricted - the Commission represents the EU at the WTO, but national states sign any consequential agreements individually. In turn, executive power over competition policy and monetary policy does endow unelected EU officials with significant influence. Damro has emphasised the former particularly. In his argument for a “Market Power Europe (MPE)”, he stresses the ability of the competition-commissioner to grant, or deny, entry to the world’s largest market (Damro 2012). Yet does this constitute the ethereal “democratic deficit” of which so many speak?

There are three points to be made that suggest otherwise.

The first is the “limited salience” of areas in which the EU specialises. The removal of non-tariff barriers, environmental- and economic regulatory activity are a lot less glamorous than the social- or foreign policy issues which national governments deal with. Consequently, EU legislation only rarely evokes popular interest beyond specific lobbies. In light of the reluctance of EU citizens to participate in its legislative process, self-imposed constraints may be closer to the cause of perceived illegitimacy than a “democratic deficit”.

Secondly, one must keep a global trend of delegation of powers in mind, when considering the authority of unelected EU positions in institutions such as the ECB. In most modern states, certain policy fields are isolated from majoritarian decision-making and staffed with specialists who gain access to public office through expertise. Critical focus on the EU, as a supposedly undemocratic super-state, neglects normative and pragmatic justifications for this practice. The patterns of delegation and resulting covert bargaining in the EU are in no way more remarkable than those in most - relatively transparent – governments from Canada to Switzerland. The areas were EU officials enjoy the greatest autonomy, like central banking, are equivalent to those in other Western governance systems. They are founded on viable arguments for insulation. Direct democratic accountability in complex matters where most citizens are unknowledgeable, or in cases in which majoritarian preference could endanger the wellbeing of minorities, contains strong risks of undesirable outcomes. In the EU, delegation and insulation tendencies are confined to a very limited set of responsibilities. In fact, the often quoted, over-boarding and intrusive apparatus of the EU is actually tiny, in accordance with the narrow scope of its total political activity. There are more public servants employed in any modest European city than working for the entire EU. The Union’s staff account for only one fortieth of the United States’ national government, although even the latter administration is considered slim by international standards in relation to its population (Moravcsik 2002).

Finally, the EU’s constitutional provisions for indirect and direct accountability, which I have already touched upon briefly, need to be raised. Existing standards in this respect, which mirror those in most modern Western states, contradict the narrative of boundless technocrats. Despite its small number of delegated powers, the EU is an extraordinary example of pluralism, characterised by a symbiotic relationship between national and EU-policy making. As Moravcsik importantly notes, “functions that inspire and induce popular participation remain largely national” (Moravcisk 2002). Absolutist rule is not an option for EU officials because they rely on intra-European cooperation amongst member states to pass and implement legislation in the vast majority of cases. Insulated authorities are only ever the exception to the general rule of Council-EP collaboration.

The legislative mechanisms that govern EU policymaking are engineered to prevent decisions being made that are not broadly supported across the Union. In the council, consensual agreement amongst all members of the council is required for important initiatives, such as altering the founding treaty of Rome. The few instances of qualified majority voting (QMV) pose a serious legislative obstacle nonetheless. (Pollack 2005) These circumstances leave member states with ample room for unilateral action. More significantly though, the dual mechanism of indirect- (via the nationally-elected heads of state in the council) and direct- (via the EP) democratic accountability secures the legitimacy of directives that affect the EU as a whole. EU Citizens are not as impotent as the “democratic deficit” tale would have people believe, as they can indirectly influence the composition of the Council in domestic elections and directly chose the members of the EP in a European vote. The Council might overshadow the EP, but the recent development of the latter inspires confidence in its growing capacity to serve as a direct line between EU citizens and EU policy. For example, the slowly unfettering EP already has a propensity to reach decisions by large majorities, which has lead Hix to praise its ability to pursue larger European interests (Hix 2002). Although recognisable ideological cleavages persist, the EP consequently possesses an effective system of party-cooperation, in which even fully-consensual agreements are not unheard of. By avoiding fragmentation with a consensus-minded approach in the EP and Council, the EU gains credibility for legislating according to, and not against, public will. Transparency is an additional benefit of this broad representation. Necessary correspondence between the Commission’s proposal, the EP’s consultation and the Council’s decision ensures that the EU’s regulatory and political process is consistently under intense public scrutiny. Intensive institutional interplay, which takes a similar shape in all states with provisions for indirect and direct accountability, consequently debunks the myth of EU policymaking being a particularly obscure affair (Moravcsik 2002).

Considering the dominant influence of national governments within international standards of direct- and indirect accountability which the EU adheres to, and the normative and pragmatic justifications for existing patterns of delegation, it is hard to see where the Union’s democratic legitimacy should be lacking. I suspect that the misguided use of a utopian standard against which the EU is held, has lead those who detect a “democratic deficit” to “privilege [the] abstract over the concrete”(Moravcsik 2002). As I have attempted to show, neither the EU’s tendency to create insulated authorities such as the ECB, nor its limited federal powers, stand out from a global perspective. Perhaps because the Union’s development is inseparable from deep continental hopes and fears, its populace tends to hold it against a, nigh unachievable, plebiscitary or parliamentary-democratic ideal. Measured fairly and pragmatically however, the Union resembles a successful effort at state-cooperation that has been “clean, transparent and politically responsive to the demands of European citizens”. While it is perfectly fair to criticise EU policy and institutions, commentators must do so bearing in mind that nationally-elected officials in the Council are at the helm of the tabloid-identified European juggernaut. The tyranny of Brussels is myth, nothing more.

Citations and References

C. Damro; Market power Europe (2012) Journal of European Public Policy vol. 19, no. 5 pp. 682-699

E.B. Haas; The Uniting of Europe (1958) Stanford: Stanford University Press

S. Hix, A. Noury, G. Roland; “Normal” Parliament? Party Cohesion and Competition in the European Parliament 1979-2001 (2002) Paper presented at the Public Choice Society Conference,

A. Moravcsik; In Defence of the “Democratic Deficit”: Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union (2002) Journal of Common Market Studies vol. 40, no. 4 pp. 603-24

A. Moravcsik; Preferences and Power in the European Community: A Liberal Intergovernmentalist Approach (1993) Journal of Common Market Studies vol. 31 no. 4

M. A. Pollack; Theorizing the European Union: International Organization, Domestic Polity, or Experiment in New Governance? (2005)  Annual Review of Political Science vol. 8 pp. 357-98


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