To What Extent Does the EU Display a ‘Democratic Deficit’?
The EU is a supragovernmental organisation with significant powers over some areas of policy (such as trade and agriculture) in member states. In view of its considerable powers, many complain that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, i.e., there are not enough democratically elected elements to the EU for its powers to be considered democratically legitimate. However, in order to determine if the EU has a democratic deficit, the term ‘democratic’ must be defined.
‘Democracy’ simply means rule by the people, and is in itself a vague term. However, in this context, the terminology is most likely referring to ‘liberal democracy’, the form of government widely used throughout the Western world. Several key points make up a liberal democracy; firstly, the government must be chosen as a result of regular, free, fair, competitive elections. The government (executive) should be accountable to the legislature; in many liberal democracies a system of checks and balances has to exist between the 3 main branches of government (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary). The rights and liberties of all citizens must be protected, often by a ‘Bill of Rights’ included in the constitution, which exists in most liberal democracies to set out the limits of the government and its powers. These are the essential factors of a liberal democracy, and so in order to determine to what extent the EU suffers from a democratic deficit we must consider each of these elements in turn and the extent to which they exist in the different institutions of the EU.
The Commission plays an important part in the executive by being in charge of initiating EU policy, yet the 25 commissioners are appointed, and not elected. The have to be accepted by the European Parliament, an institution that has been directly elected, however the Parliament can only accept of reject the entire Commission, and not individual commissioners. Similarly, the Council of Ministers (a key element of the legislature) is not directly elected, although it is made up of elected representatives from the member states (although they have been elected for their role in the member state, and not as an EU representative for the country). Finally, the European Central Bank (ECB) a supranational institution for those member states who have joined the single currency, is not elected, but it plays an important role in controlling the economy of member states in the ‘eurozone’, for example by influencing budget deficits and not allowing them to exceed 3% and setting interest rates.
The European Parliament is a directly elected institution, however. It makes up the second half of the legislature and is elected every 5 years using Proportional Representation voting systems in each member state. However, it should be noted that the Parliament, the only elected institution of the EU, is actually weaker than the Council of Ministers. It cannot play any role in initiating policy and on some areas of legislation such as law and order it can only play an advisory role; its advice/opinions can be ignored in these instances. At best, the European Parliament has co-decision with the Council of Ministers on policy areas such as trade and agriculture.