The European Union: An Imperfect Democracy


By Dr André Barrinha, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations 

From all the debates surrounding the Brexit campaign, the ‘democratic deficit’ question seems to me to be among the most relevant (although certainly not the most discussed). It is undeniably true that much of the EU’s activity is conducted by unelected officials who are not directly accountable to any electorate. Also, it is fair to say that whereas the common citizen knows how to participate in the political life of his or her region or country, the same does not necessarily apply to the EU. Many have never voted in the European elections and most would not be able to tell the name of a single MEP.

That does not mean, however, that the EU is not a democratic institution. The EU is today a much more democratic organisation than it was when the United Kingdom (UK), together with Ireland and Denmark, joined in 1973. The European Parliament (EP) has much more power and influence today than it had at the time. Only in 1975 did it start having power over the then European Community’s budget and 1979 was the first time MEPs were directly elected by European citizens. Since then its importance has only increased, moving from a largely consulting body, to a fundamental actor in the EU’s decision making process. The Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, has in that regard further enhanced its role, granting the EP legislative powers in over 40 new fields, the right to approve or reject international agreements and making it clear that it is the European Parliament that elects the President of the Commission and has the right to approve the new college of Commissioners, after intensive hearing sessions with each one of them. This is certainly more accountable and democratic than what we even have at the national level: ministers do not need direct Parliamentary approval and they are not previously ‘grilled’ by any Parliamentary committee.

In 2014 for the first time ever, the main European political groups had their own candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), was proposed by the European leaders after the centre-right group secured the majority of seats, much to David Cameron’s opposition. Incidentally, David Cameron’s Conservative Party left the EPP in 2009, thus self-removing from Europe’s centre-right major political group, and thus from the decision of choosing the EPP’s candidate. In short, the current President of the European Commission was proposed by the elected governments of 28 member states (that had to take the election results into consideration before choosing their candidate) and then nominated by the European Parliament. He then had to select his commissioners, once again based on the proposals of each member state, that were examined by the EP that finally decided to approve new college. The process was not a mere formality: Alenka Bratusek, a former Slovenian prime minister, who Juncker had chosen as vice president for the energy union, was voted down by the EP and had to be replaced.

But it is not just the EP and the European Commission selection process that have become more democratic. With the Lisbon Treaty, national parliaments gained more power at the level of subsidiarity. One third of national parliaments can now demand the European Commission re-examine any proposal if there are doubts that such issue will be more efficiently dealt at the European level than at the national level. Also, citizens can now more directly engage in the activities of the EU. Any petition that includes at least one million citizens from any EU country needs to be considered by the European Commission.

Although the EU is not a democratic paradise, and it can certainly improve, it is now much more democratic and accountable than it was in 1973. If European citizens in the UK (and other countries) feel alienated from its decisions I think they should not be looking so much to Brussels but to the national political parties and media, whose treatment of European affairs is appalling to say the least. British political parties tend to disregard European elections, often turning them into a low-level debate on domestic politics populated by candidates generally unknown to the public. They very rarely engage in European issues, and they do a very poor job at explaining the importance of the EP.

The same applies to the major media outlets in this country. Their treatment of European issues is often poorly informed, derogatory and highly selective, particularly (but not only) in the anti-EU tabloids. Some of the issues that deserve attention are politically irrelevant: from the size of bananas to whether prisoners should be allowed to vote (an issue that is not even directly related to the EU, but to the European Court of Human Rights, that belongs to the intergovernmental Council of Europe – a completely different organisation from the EU). Television news very rarely mention what is happening in Brussels, even when decisions there are more important for people’s lives (global trade, social rights, etc.) than the daily bickering between government and opposition in the House of Commons.

And that leads me to my last point. The EU is an imperfect organisation and it is very easy to point out many of its flaws both from the Right (too much regulation, obstacle to national sovereignty, etc.) and from the Left (too focused on the free market, etc.). But looking objectively, most of the problems which affect us daily – from migration to the economy – clearly surpass national boundaries. Many, such as financial flows or climate change, are potentially global in scale. If we take democracy, at its basic level, to be about having a say in the decisions that shape our lives, than certainly thinking that the state is the best we can aim at can only lead to disappointment. If one puts aside, even if just for a moment, ethnic or civic forms of nationalism, and focus on the big issues that really affect us, the reality show us that, ideally, we should be aiming towards a world government.

With our current levels of global interconnectedness the state cannot and will not protect us from the major factors that shape our lives. So far, the EU is the best we have. Hence, in my view we, as Europeans, should strive to improve it, to make more democratic, accountable and efficient. Not to leave it.

A shorter version of this post was originally published in the CCCU Expert Comment blog.


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