Does the EU suffer from a democracy deficit?

15 June 2022 /

8 min

The European Union (EU) is one of the most ambitious political projects in the world. It is, after all, the culmination of the collective political effort of several European countries with the aim of promoting peace in a continent engulfed by numerous conflicts. Its major accomplishments can be traced back to the European Community of Coal and Steel (Treaty of Paris, 1951); the European Economic Community (Treaty of Rome, 1957); the Single European Act (1986); and finally the creation of the EU itself through the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, later reviewed by the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) and the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.

The EU has achieved most of its success in the economic field: the European Common Market is one of the biggest markets in the world; the Euro is the second most used currency for international business after the US dollar, and has easened transactions between companies and individuals alike. Other projects, such as, for example, the Erasmus program and the Schengen agreement, allow Europeans to travel, study, work, live and buy products or start businesses in other European countries being burdened by less restrictions than third-country nationals. The EU has also assumed a leading role in certain areas, such as the environment, space related activities and social movements.

Nonetheless, although some EU initiatives, projects and policies have been successful and have even obtained considerable popular support, other aspects and initiatives of the EU have received major criticism, both from its Member States and from the outside. In fact, certain individuals, organisations and political parties have even adopted an anti-EU sentiment, a phenomenon known as “Euroscepticism”. Let’s analyse some of the main critiques used both by people who are not necessarily “anti-EU” and Eurosceptics alike, and whether these arguments are backed up by solid reasoning.

“The EU corrodes the sovereignty of States”

A common critique used by Eurosceptics relies on the reasoning that the EU is slowly eroding the members states’ sovereignty. They tend to depict Poland and Hungary as two brave countries fighting against the EU’s oppression over their sovereignty. This is an argument that has gained some attraction among nationalists, and on the surface it does appear to have some ground. However, the act of joining the EU (or, as a matter of fact, most of International Organisations, covenants or similar bodies) is a decision which is completely free upon the acceding state, and it is because that state is sovereign that it can choose to willingly submit itself to the law established in the founding Treaties. There was no coercion or influence on part of the EU or other member states for these countries to join the EU. Therefore, Poland and Hungary have to accept to be bound by the Treaties that they have sovereignly ratified.

Nevertheless, to put in briefly, the EU Treaties do not openly express that EU law takes precedence in case of a contradiction or incompatibility between a European law and a national one. This principle, known as ‘principle of supremacy’, is a practice that came to being as the result of judicial rulings that established a precedent. Hence, Poland and Hungary argue that there is no legal basis for the Union to claim that EU law has supremacy over their own national laws. On the other hand, the EU and other member states have also invoked the ‘common values’ expressed in the Lisbon Treaty to justify the primacy of the EU rules. It is on the basis of these values that they claim, for example, that Poland and Hungary have to take a certain number of refugees or promote particular social values. However, values are not coercive enough to ensure the primacy of EU law. Poland and Hungary argue, thus, that the EU is overreaching its judicial competences, going beyond the powers originally expressed in the Lisbon Treaty.

From a legal point of view it is true that the EU is slowly growing beyond what the Treaties established. But this does not necessarily have to be seen as a negative thing, since it comes from the necessity of the EU to adapt to new realities and challenges, and not from a tyrannical abuse of power on its part. The best example to describe this situation is the European debt crisis: while at the beginning the EU was reluctant to go beyond what was established in the Treaties, in a later phase it started buying national bonds in order to save southern European countries from bankruptcy, a decision that was contested by people who advocated that the EU was going beyond its competences. It was this bold choice that broke the taboo of the EU actively intervening in national economies, something that has been proved with the rapid answer of the Union to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In short, while it is true that the EU is growing beyond the limits established by its founding Treaties, most western and central member states have been keen on these developments. On the other hand, eastern members, which have a more nationalistic dogma (due to the fact that they acquired their independence more recently) and joined the EU partly to escape a possible Russian expansion, would rather rip the economics benefits of the Union than accompanying the evolution of the EU in other areas.

“Non elected organs”

Another general critique developed by Eurosceptics is usually summed up under the sentence “the European Commission is not even elected by its citizens”. This catchphrase tends to shock people who, by not further informing themselves upon this process, get the idea that the European Commission is an unelected body of the EU. In reality, the European Commission, and more precisely the College of Commissioners, is composed of Commissioners that are designated by national governments (one per country), who in turn are appointed following the results of national elections. So while the Commissioners are not directly elected by citizens, they are indirectly elected in the same way that a minister of a national government is: appointed by an elected organ.

Commonly characterised as the “upper chamber” of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers is another EU organ that is usually criticised by its “lack of democracy”. The Council represents the interests of the member states, and it is composed by some of their national ministers, depending on the type of legislation being discussed. Ex.: If the law in question is of economic nature, the session is attended by the ministers of finance; if it is about security, by the ministers of defence, and so on.

In brief, this means that EU organs such as the Council of Ministers and the European Commission are, respectively, composed and appointed by individuals who have been elected in national elections. Eurosceptics then take advantage of this intricacy to claim that the Commission is illegitimate. In reality, even if an organ is not directly elected by the citizens unlike the members of national parliaments, that does not make it undemocratic. Whether we agree with this system or not, it cannot be assumed that the members of the European Commission are appointed by a tyrannical supra-national entity. It is, then, fundamental to demystify this assumption.

The fragile bridge between the EU and the people

With 27 different member states and 24 official working languages (without considering the several dialects), it is a monumental task to convey the different wills of the states, which differ so much culturally and religiously (Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy), but that at the same time share common values. Additionally, the EU has been keen in balancing the collective interest of its member states vis à vis the different national interests. To perform the task, the EU is composed of several organisations and agencies, which sometimes makes it problematic for the citizens to keep track of what these organisations do. This results in a public perception of the EU as a giant and clunky political chimaera with a low rate of working efficiency and whose taxpayer’s money is being wasted upon.

The citizens are generally not familiarised with how the EU works, especially if we take out the equation students and academics of Political Science and other related fields. But this situation does not happen only at the EU level; most people do not even fully understand the functioning of their own national political system. The causes of this situation are several and would require a whole other article: perhaps the political system has become too complex, and it is too time-consuming for regular people with jobs and families to invest time in trying to understand it, hence they just partake in the election process and let the technocrats (politicians, in this case) do the rest. But perhaps these people don’t believe in the current system and hope for new alternatives. In other words, for some people the EU is another complex bureaucratic system that apparently does not directly impact their lives. This is a challenging problem, and its solution relies on both sides to do their part: citizens should be aware that their lack of interest and participation has a negative impact on their lives, and for that it is good to try to understand the key fundamental processes of political systems. On the other hand, governments and International Organisations also have to make an effort to communicate their message, purpose and objectives in a clear and succinct way, in order to facilitate this exchange.

In sum, the EU is composed of several complex organs, agencies and institutions. This is the result of a delicate balance between several national governments’ interests and the common interest of the Union. Eurosceptics take advantage of the lack of knowledge of the general public, which, coupled with the complex structural nature of the EU, emphasises their convictions that the EU is undemocratic, unproductive and unsustainable. Although it is certain that the EU has some structural flaws (just like any other International Organisation or government), it is bold to argue that in the last decades the EU has had no positive impact on the European continent or even, I would dare to say, on the entire world.

[This article was first published in the issue 36 of the magazine]

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