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On Europe’s “democratic deficit”

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In discussing the shortcomings of the design of the European Union (EU) or Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), analysts often point to an inherent “democratic deficit”. The idea is that the political structures that have emerged from the European integration process are not democratic enough.

While resting on a kernel of truth, the concept partakes of a quantitative understanding of rule formation, typical of the gradualist approach to the very integration process it attempts to criticise. If indeed there is a deficit, the intuition is to perceive of more integration as the solution.

Yet “more integration” may also imply “more of the same kind of integration”, i.e. a reinforced commitment to the triptych of inter-governmentalism, neoliberalism, and technocracy. The quantitative approach, in and of itself, lacks the qualitative features that can contribute to the realisation of the normative aspects of a European Democracy.

Quality before Quantity

To have a democracy, we need:

  • citizens: a body politic, a self-aware citizenry;
  • sovereignty: the people is sovereign and has to be confirmed as such;
  • constitution: sovereign will-formation is, inter alia, made manifest in a corpus of primary law, a constitution;
  • legitimacy: the body of citizens is the constitutional subject that bestows legitimacy on its respective state, offering a democratic mandate to its executive and legislative functions;
  • accountability: the state’s institutions, bodies, and agencies are held accountable to the people and may never be insulated from the popular will.

I think we do not get any of that, at least not substantively:

  • no European demos: European citizenship is inferior to any national citizenship, not least because it does not grant any meaningful rights for the legitimation of the European “state”, or when it does, as in electing Members of the European Parliament, it is severely limited given the Parliament’s secondary, often “rubber stamp” powers in an overarching inter-governmental framework;
  • no European sovereignty: there is no state representing the Union (or the EMU) at-large, but only a club of democracies operating in an inter-governmental setup that is largely defined by the intrinsically technocratic principle of “common rules without common politics”;
  • no European constitution: the EU/EMU’s primary corpus of law is a set of inter-state Treaties; a system that renders states as the constitutional subjects, leaving citizens with an indirect, marginal, and ancillary role inasmuch as the European level is concerned;
  • no outright legitimacy: there is no independent government of the Union; in theory it is the Commission which performs the function of the executive, yet it is provided with a mandate from the inter-governmentalist institution of the European Council; also the legislative function leaves much to be desired as the Parliament cannot initiate legislation, while the Council of the EU is not made up of elected members as it ought to;
  • no real accountability: the inter-operation of all these factors makes the broader architecture rather opaque; a flaw compounded by the fact that, in the absence of a proper European state, technocrats have too wide a margin for passing value judgements that profoundly affect the lives of citizens, without being held sufficiently accountable by anyone, and without their scope of discretion being subject to review through ordinary parliamentary procedures (Treaty amendments are necessary and they require unanimity among Member States).

“Democratic deficit” presupposes a democracy

My point is that the notion of a “democratic deficit” is meaningful only when applied to political entities that, while being predicated on republican principles, fail to meet an adequate standard in their day-to-day activities.

A mature democracy can fall short of its normative objectives. There may be corruption, corporatism, clientelism, partitocracy etc. These actually debase effective democratic rule and, thus, engender the need for reform, primarily of the quantitative sort: of configuring secondary parameters, such as increasing transparency or re-evaluating the incentives’ structure, in an otherwise constant context of representative democracy.

The EU/EMU does not have a “democratic deficit” because it does not work as a modern republic. It must first become one. For the time being, it is a quasi-confederal technocracy, suffering from the emergent contradiction of a sovereignty mismatch between its inadequate supra-national design and a European body politic yet-to-be.

As with a previous critique of the inaccurate notion of “shared sovereignty”, the present post is not meant to question the intentions of those who use or have used the concept of “democratic deficit”—present author included—but only to clarify what exactly is the problem with the outcomes of European integration as they currently stand.

Let us not use obfuscatory discourse, so that we may name things what they are. That, I believe, is the first step towards improving our political order.