The problem of “democratic deficit” in the European Union has been under constant discussion by many scientists, politicians, and journalists. Notwithstanding its fairly long history, as an entity operating on the global political arena, the EU is believed to still lack fully democratic mechanisms. Accountability and transparency of the EU institutions are the main points of concern of those who question the level of democratic representation in this multinational formation. Hence, given that “democratic deficit” is a perception of the EU governing bodies as not representative, the main solution to this issue is to keep the communication between the EU institutions and the population of member states sound and all-embracing.
Before trying to assess whether “democratic deficit” exists in the European Union or not, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the concept itself. According to the EU official glossary, “The democratic deficit is a concept invoked principally in the argument that the European Union and its various bodies suffer from a lack of democracy and seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen because their method of operating is so complex. The view is that the Community institutional set-up is dominated by an institution combining legislative and government powers (the Council of the European Union) and an institution that lacks democratic legitimacy (the European Commission)” (“Democratic deficit”, 2009). In other words, the “democratic deficit” in the European Union is synonymous with the lack of citizens’ representation, accountability, and transparency of the EU institutions.
As a scholar who investigates this issue, Andrew Moravcsik in his “In Defence of the ‘Democratic Deficit’: Reassessing Legitimacy in the European Union” generally states that the EU is not a specific entity that is overwhelmingly vulnerable to operation of the democratic mechanisms. Although the work itself emerged fifteen years ago, it gives some rather interesting and valuable thoughts to reflect on, even nowadays when the EU has undergone a number of crises of political as well as of economic character (Moravcsik, 2002). First, when Moravcsik writes about “democratic deficit” in the European Union, he mentions general critique of the EU by some scholars, politicians, and public, while he himself has a totally optimistic vision regarding this entity and its development. As the author argues, a negative attitude towards the EU usually rests on the suggestion that this organization lacks democratic legitimacy as in nation-states (Moravcsik, 2002). Given that the European Union’s institutions are not elected by the general public (except the European Parliament that is the only elective body), for the majority of scholars, this situation is an obvious sign of why the EU is significantly different from its member states. Thus, they believe in Schumpeter’s vision of the democratic order where fair and direct elections are an essential prerequisite for “democracy”.
Furthermore, Moravcsik (2002) notes that “democratic deficit” in the European Union is firmly associated with the lack of general discussion of European issues, which becomes evident when comparing with average national election campaigns. These assumptions rise from rather scrupulous scholarly attention to the EU that many experts tend to analyze from a perspective of ideal deliberative democracy with no flaws, which is still present in modern states (Moravcsik, 2002). Nevertheless, one can compare lack of discussions of a proposed legislature at Coreper levels in the EU to preparation of legislature in the national systems.
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As a rule, the EU is accountable to citizens of its member states in two ways. First, the direct accountability is attainable through the general elections to the European Parliament, and indirect accountability works when people elect their national officials, who later represent their respective countries in the EU institutions (Moravcsik, 2002). As Moravcsik argues, “if we adopt reasonable criteria for judging democratic governance, then the widespread criticism of the EU as democratically illegitimate is unsupported by the existing empirical evidence” (2002, p. 605). Hence, the scholar sees the European Union as a completely accountable and transparent entity that wields its fully democratic mechanisms despite criticism.
When addressing the issue of “democratic deficit” in the EU, Habermas presents a relatively distinct vision, a more philosophical one. For him, lack of democracy in the European Union means insufficient communication among the Europeans. In contrast to Moravcsik who pays attention to the institutional aspects of the EU’s performance, Habermas sees the main problem of the European Union in an inability to consciously create a common understanding of what the EU is and what common future it envisions for itself (Habermas & Derrida, 2003). Despite differences in historical background and today’s interests, Europeans have to forge a unique and unified European identity with the help of establishing a pan-European communication.
Different interests of EU member states and lack of a common vision have led to a failure of common foreign policy measures. Habermas claims that there has not been a common vision what the EU is among its member states. Older members may perceive the necessity to deepen the cooperation inside the EU, while the new countries could be more favorable to its Eastern enlargement. These differences of European nations have also been marked by Robert Kagan in his “Of Paradise and Power”, where he claims that it is difficult to find a common ground in some issues (Kagan, 2004). Also, the 2008 financial crisis uncovered some disparities among member states, especially when they argued how to handle the post-conflict issues (Euro stabilization) as well as how tight those economic measures could and should be (Charlemagne, 2012). Thus, lack of a unified perception among the member states is critical given that a shared vision could help the European Union move forward in terms of establishing a common foreign and security policy as well as neighborhood policy, and also to agree on some internal issues.
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Similarly to both authors above, Mark Leonard presents a rather optimistic vision of the future prospects for the EU in his “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century”. Drawing an image of a rather vague and undefined Europe, he notes that it is lack of a vision that is “the key to its [EU] strength” (Leonard, 2005). Creating a completely comfortable framework for the development of national identities while not pressing for a unified one dictated above by Brussels, the EU still mildly uses its “transformative power” to push countries forward to set higher standards and in general to adhere to the idea of common European ideals.
Mark Leonard addresses the issue of “democratic deficit” in the EU in a quiet different perspective than Habermas and Moravcsik. As well as Moravcsik, he mentions the EU being accused of lack of elective bodies and not transparent decision-making. Yet, the author reverses these accusations and argues that there is a “democratic surplus” rather than “deficit” in the EU. Obviously, membership in the EU makes it easier, especially for smaller countries, to negotiate with other states, both from the EU as well as others. Furthermore, establishment of the “European average” as a notion has pushed citizens of the EU member states to demand more from their national governments so that the latter have to deliver better services. It is so because citizens compare their economic conditions with those of other countries in the EU. “European average is tremendously empowering citizens”, as Leonard states (Leonard, 2005). However, the EU positive influence on the welfare of average European all over the continent may left unnoticed because of the lack of communication and interaction between wider public and the EU. Hence, there is a need to make a bridge between this “democratic surpluses” of the EU and Europeans themselves by discussing issues and explaining the way things have improved.
Following these arguments, it appears obvious that the “democratic deficit” in the EU is a not an objective fact which can be somehow established. In reality, it is a perception of the EU citizens towards the representative bodies of the union. In other words, the “democratic deficit” exists for the people living in the EU member states who view it as a real problem when they are not represented properly or do not have a direct influence on those EU non-elective bodies; for that reason, this issue requires immediate actions.
There could be two main solutions when it comes to attempts to minimize the presence of “democratic deficit”. On one hand, supranational EU bodies should receive more power and influence at a price of taking that power away from national parliaments and governments. Accordingly, this strategy could create a stronger feeling of democratic representation among the EU citizens. On the other hand, the EU could give its share of political power back to the member state level. Recognizing that the proponents of any of these two approaches may present a number of solid arguments to defend their stance, it appears logical to underline one considerable problem related to the second solution, a more “Eurosceptic” one. Although granting some of the power back to national governments may result in less frustration targeted at the EU bodies, it may not make the latter perceived more accountable. There is a big chance that these bodies will become redundant and useless. Furthermore, taking power away from the EU governing institutions would most likely result in deepening of the economic inequality within the EU as national governments would no longer have to be dependent on Brussels’ approval of their action plans. Here, it is important to remind that economic prosperity and financial stability are some of the most important pillars of the European security architecture after WWII.
At the same time, it looks obvious that diminishing the powers of national parliaments and governments may amplify the existing differences in views on economic development, human rights, political freedoms etc. Euroscepticism seems to have relatively lower levels of support among Europeans who have directly been involved in the EU-funded educational, occupational, or cultural projects. This observation may be pointing at the most plausible way to combat the “democratic deficit” in the EU. If more and more social groups experience the consequences of EU policies, especially the ones that are favorable towards these groups, EU representative bodies may achieve the desirable level of legitimization. In other words, EU must work even harder on getting closer to peoples everyday experiences.
Hence, considering the abovementioned facts, the issue of whether “democratic deficit” exists in the European Union or not follows from how this concept is treated and how people addressing this problem initially regard the progress of the EU and its prospects for future development as a united entity. Although the acceptance of a rather “Eurooptimist” or “Eurosceptic” vision fundamentally defines a feeling of the “democratic deficit” scope in the European Union, the proponents of both these perspectives should fully acknowledge the importance of communication between the EU and the wider public as a vital tool to minimize the perceived lack of transparency, accountability, and representation.
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