The European Union continues to play an important role in traditionally domestic areas of policy, but many people however see the union as distant, and believe they have extremely little involvement and influence. The only body over which they have any control, the European Parliament, is by far the weakest, and important decisions are seen as being taken behind 'closed doors'. This lack of public accountability in the European Union is known as the 'Democratic Deficit.' The term, 'Democratic Deficit' refers to, "The growing gap between the power and authority of EU institutions"[i]. As more aspects of national sovereignty are transferred to the European level, the ability of citizens to influence and supervise this new power base has declined significantly. Politicians began to take the issue of the democratic deficit seriously from 1992, when Danish voters failed to ratify 'The Treaty on European Union'; Leaders could no longer afford to continue to appear unaccountable. The question of the democratic deficit involves not just a discussion of the role of the European Parliament, but also an examination of the roles of other institutions, and especially the need to look at the way in which these institutions relate to each other.
The main emphasis lies with the three main "institutions" of the European Union - the Commission, the European Council and Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. It is the connection between the European Unions institutions where the democratic deficit has gained the most publicity. The erosion of the national governments, over policy areas, has been the result of the quickening of European integration. Continual amendments to the institutions powers have meant that areas were national governments used to govern have now been transferred to the European Union. Relatively unaccountable institutions have taken over responsibility from the accountable national governments of the member states. The European Commission is perhaps the epitome of this.
With members, made up of largely, of old white males, un-elected, appointed by national governments this institution is anything but democratic. Yet it wields an increasing amount of power in the European Union of today. It has the exclusive, and jealously guarded, right to initiate legislation. It implements community policy, manages the European Unions budget, conducts external relations on behalf of the European Union member states and is widely regarded as the "guardian" of the euro-federal ideal. Dinan describes it as a "strategic authority established by the founding fathers to guarantee continuity of the integration project despite the political or geopolitical hazards[ii]. The Commission, which has the substantial power and responsibility of proposing and forming laws, is, according to McCormick, "Appointed, without reference to the people[iii].
This mighty body has a President appointed "as a result of a strange and informal little power dance among the leaders of the member states[iv] The Commission has no mandate whatsoever from the people, European voters do not elect their commissioners, member governments appoint whomever they wish. The cynical would perhaps suggest that these people are not always the most appropriate, but those who national governments want out of domestic politics. Those below the 'College of Commissioners', the 'Directorates General', have the power of implementation over dozens of policy areas, yet these powerful people are virtually unknown to the public, and are not held accountable by them. The Parliament also lacks the legal authority to hold the Commission accountable for its actions; it does have the theoretical power to dismiss the entire College of Commissioners, but in reality, it would never do that because chaos would ensue. Parliament, although slowly growing in influence, is almost a token body, with which the union could function without. The true powers lie mainly with the Commission and Council of Ministers.
In 1974, Valerie Giscard dEstaing, the French President, famously declared, "the European Summit is dead - long live the European Council." Just as the European Commission can be viewed as the manifestation of euro-supra nationalism, the European Council can be seen as the epitome of the intergovernmental ideal. Basically the Council consists of the leaders and foreign ministers of the nation-states of the European Union together with the Commission president and a vice-president. Each nation of the European Union takes it in turn to control the presidency of the council for a six-month period, often providing valuable political benefits to the national government on the hosting back home. The European Council also has a proven track record of effectiveness, as many decisive turning points in the history of the European Union came about at Council meetings, such as that at Maastricht in 1991. An important point to make in regard to the European Council is that national governments, since the SEA, no longer have the right to veto proposed initiatives, rather decisions are taken using a system known as "Qualified Majority Voting", hereafter referred to as QM. The Council of Ministers theoretically mirrors the European Council, dealing not with national issues but with sectional affairs such as agriculture or transport.
However it is less effective than the Council, the preponderance of ministerial advisers often creates what Roy Jenkins has referred to as a "football pitch" effect. Yet it still plays a valuable part in co-ordinating the efforts of national governments on a continent wide basis. McCormick states that, In many ways, its powers make the council more like the legislature... than the Parliament[v].
Parliament has no authority to ratify appointments, and indeed has no influence over selecting candidates. This directly elected European Parliament, the only body with Europe-wide legitimacy, finds itself excluded from critical legislative and policy decisions that affect the whole of Europe; the public can be affected by measures over which they have absolutely no direct control. Perhaps the most significant exercise of undemocratic power involved the Single European Currency. The currency project was directed by certain heads of government, senior ministers, commissioners and representatives, but general support for the 'Euro' in Europe is relatively low, and the project went ahead, over many objections and fears. Even if the public had sent anti 'Euro' MEP's to Parliament, it would not have been able to stand in the way of the momentum generated by the key leaders. Most Europeans were not asked official opinion, and indeed permission in referenda, The citizens of the 'Euro 11 have had almost no way to halt this profound change.
John Major in 1994 commented that, the European Parliament sees itself as the future democratic focus for the Union. But that is a flawed ambition, because the European Union is an association of States, deriving its basic democratic legitimacy through national Parliaments it is national parliamentary democracy that confers legitimacy on the European Union[vi]. John Major was wrong and although national parliaments can pull-out of the European Union at any time, they have very little control over which powers they abandon to the European Unions institutions. The continued attrition of the national parliaments powers is not directed by the national powers but by the over zealous institutions of the European Union, trying to put in place the mechanism for further integration! It is the common belief that in order to eliminate the democratic deficit within the European Union, power will have to be taken at the expense of the national Parliaments; this is not necessarily the case. It has been the case in the past that with the introduction of the Qualified Majority Vote that the European Parliament has not gained the sufficient power of that taken from the national Parliaments and therefore the influence of the national Parliaments has been reduced over community decisions... Public disquiet over what Dinan refers to as "the elitism and obscurity of Community decision-making" seems to lend urgency to the need to make Community institutions more accountable to the people.
It is the belief of many commentators that in order to reduce the lack of accountability within the European Union, the European Parliament has to receive more power. Were this to be done small countries would undoubtedly lose out. Irelands 15 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) would have at best a peripheral influence in a Parliament of more than 600, and this is with a seat / population ratio heavily tilted towards small nations. The European Parliament itself is hardly representative of the feelings, hopes and desires of EU citizens. Political Scientists have identified European elections as "secondary elections", with lower turnouts than national elections and usually fought on strictly national issues.
The question we are examining ought not be how to reform the community institutions so as to make them more "democratic" as that is an impossible and costly task. Rather we should be looking at how we make the governance of the people of Europe more democratic, how do we involve the people of Europe in the decision-making process. National Parliaments are oft dismissed by the more ardent euro-federalists as an antiquity, a relic of a bygone age, at best their place in the "New Europe" will be at a level approximating to that of State legislatures in the US. Yet surely national parliaments are the most democratic institutions in the European Union today National Parliaments are rooted in both History and Legitimacy. They epitomise the democratic principles of a nation, indeed many would claim that they epitomise the nation itself and perhaps this would explain the disdain of euro-federalists. The democratic deficit will have to be resolved by an imaginative blend of public representation and involvement at the regional, national, and European levels, involving parliamentary bodies from all three spheres[vii].
The European Parliament, at first sight is a democratic institution. However, as I have demonstrated, the citizens of the Union view it at best with disdain, some even with hostility. The idea of a Parliament of Europe, to represent the hopes and aspirations of Europe people is indeed a noble concept. However, it is a concept, which the people are not ready for.
The notion of co-operation between the groupings in the Parliament is an attractive one, yet does it really make a difference which way we, as European Union citizens, vote if the composition of the Parliament makes little or no difference to the manner in which it conducts its business Ultimately, the people of the European Union do not want a powerful European Parliament, most wish for questions of vital national interest, to continue to be resolved at a national rather than a supra-national level. That said Parliament does have a role in addressing concerns common to all European Union citizens, issues such as the environment and human rights, which at present are dealt with largely by the faceless Commission. If we are to resolve the question of the democratic deficit I believe it is important that we achieve the right balance between the various institutions of the European Union. National Parliaments are getting increasingly overlooked, yet they continue to wield much more historical legitimacy than any European Union institution.
So in answering how the democratic deficit can be eradicated without reducing the powers of the national Parliaments, the answer is simple. Listen to the citizens of the European Union and not to the European Unions institutions. Dinan addresses the problem in a simple and straightforward way, when asked the question Will the democratic deficit ever be rectified he answers, Certainly not simply by giving more power to the European Parliament. The European Union is not a state, and its institutional framework and political system will never correspond to that of a classic liberal democracy[viii]. From this it is clear that the democratic deficit will never be resolved until the European Union is willing to admit that the national parliaments are still the most democratic institutions in Europe. If the balance is to be met, then the whole framework of the European Unions institutions has to be addressed, as it was never meant to be a political arena, only economic and that is the reason behind the Commission becoming too powerful without the proper jurisdiction! ! ! [i] Michael J.
Ban, An Imperfect Union. Page 86. [ii] Desmond Dinan, Ever Closer Union. Page 210. [iii] John McCormick, Understanding The European Union.
Page 152. [iv] John McCormick, Understanding The European Union. Page 152. [v] John McCormick, Understanding The European Union. Page 97.
[vi] John Major, Europe: A Future That Works. William and Mary Lecture, Leiden University, September 7 th, 1994. [vii] Desmond Dinan, Ever Closer Union. Page 298. [viii] Desmond Dinan, Ever Closer Union. Page 298..