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European Democracy Before and After the Lisbon Treaty

Info: 3355 words (13 pages) Law Essay
Published: 16th Jul 2019

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Jurisdiction(s): EU Law

It has been many decades ago since when present European Union, as we know it now, started its long way of transformation. Evidently, it is not simply international organisation which has supranational institutions like the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the Central Bank, the European Court of Justice and other specialized agencies. This unique institution remains a result of ongoing experiments in political organization grabbing more and more scholarly attention from different theoretical perspectives. Following the largest single enlargement in 2004 Romania and Bulgaria were able to enter the European Union in 2007, equalizing the total number of member states to 27. Most of these countries experienced communist regime in their histories. What are the effects of the EU last enlargements on functioning democracy? How current ‘European democracy’ differs from known traditional ideas about democracy? What is the role of parliaments? …. The desire to find the answers to these questions impelled me to write this paper.

The major impulse that has largely motivated Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to apply for the EU membership has been the persuasion that after accession their states will be more democratic. They believed that the European Union help fight against corruption, that it will advance the public administration, protect against authoritarian allurement. Generally speaking, it was used to think that accession will make better the democracy, human rights protection and the rule of law (Sadurski 2003, 33).

‘Even if the accession will not be a panacea for any of the pathologies of our democracy, it will nevertheless strengthen the stability of the state, so that if there are some major crises…, membership in the EU will reduce their consequences’, said on this issue Polish political philosopher Marek Cichocki (2003).

Nevertheless, I would argue that the desire to get benefit from the accession to the EU and to use all the possible opportunities that will be opened for the members was so high that it encouraged Central and Eastern European Countries to follow democratic criteria which was not well defined.

The European Union leverage has been limited by the imperfect conception of democratic conditions. According to the Copenhagen political criteria, adopted in 1993, it require from applicant countries to achieve ‘stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities’ (European Council 1993). It is not understandable what would qualify as meetings these requirements. In case you want to get more understanding and look to the EU as a model or paradigm, you will disclose the significant diversity in political institutions of member states, without homogeneous model of democracy (Ivanov 2004, 1)

Despite the difficulties that candidate states have been facing, the Community reacted slowly to the CEE countries’ enthusiasm regarding joining the Union. For instance, Hungary and Poland requested the concrete date to start with negotiations, when it was finally possible to apply in April 1994. The real reaction came only in December 1995, during the EU Council meeting in Madrid, in which it was dimly informed that the negotiations will ‘probably’ accompany with negotiations with Malta and Cyprus (Madrid European Council 1995).

It is generally accepted that even when finally negotiations began, it was less possible to know if the candidates that are in negotiation process would join EU or not. At the same year, an anonymous high-ranking official from the Commission admitted to the Financial Times in 1995 that the EU’s ‘level of seriousness about enlargement is not minimal, it simply does not exist.’ However, some activists of the EU enlargement justified the above mentioned processes by the high volume of applications and that fulfilment of specific requirements needs time. On the other hand, many academics accentuated that candidate countries pay a high price for applying to this kind of ‘reform from above’. Obviously, it was hard to put into practice what was written on the papers. The complex system of regulations and policies that was ‘proposed’ by the EU and in which local politicians did not take part and did not discuss in proper way (Vachudova 2005, 4-5).

Democratic Deficit

After the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty the legitimacy of the European Union and its capability is still insufficient in the eyes of the citizens. Criticisms on the solutions that are being made from Brussels are slightly transforming to Euroscepticism. There is a situation where citizens may speak ‘pro’ or ‘against’ European integration but they can not affect its specific content. This is one more time raises the long-lasting debate question: Is there democratic deficit in the European Union?

The existence of the ‘democratic deficit’ problem does not mean that the political system of EU is undemocratic. Rather, it reflects the difficulties that are connected with the attempts to promote democracy at supranational level, outside of the traditional nation state.

Moreover, the lack of confidence towards the EU institutions or the decline in the populations’ participation in the elections to the European Parliament (European Elections Results 2009 n.d.) can not be regarded as exceptional example for ‘democratic deficit’ at the European level: the same problems exists in the national political systems. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the term of ‘democratic deficit’ itself was first used in a study dedicated to European Parliament .

As noted by Follesdal and Hix, modern interpretation of the ‘democratic deficit’ of the European Union includes the following factors: the growing influence of the executive and the weakening of the legislative branches in the EU member states, the weakness of the European Parliament, the lack of truly pan-European elections in the eyes of the layman, excessive discrepancy between the decisions of the European Union and the ‘perfect representation’ of citizens at the national level (Follesdal and Hix 2005). Later this paper will discuss these issues more closely.

Despite the fact that the existence of ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU is perceived as a real problem, some major EU experts have questioned this thesis. For instance, Majone believes that talks or regrets concerning lack of democratic legitimacy of the EU would make sense only in case if the EU is evolving towards a federation (for which we can apply the criteria and the categories of the state structures) which does not meet the real state of things (Majone 2005). Any attempts to make the EU more ‘democratic’ only at the expense of citizens’ participation will lead to the fact that Brussels would not be able effectively play its role in the regulation of social and economic activities.

In essence, the existence of the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union is associated with in finding the evaluation criteria. How to define the ‘democraticity’ of the EU if is neither a state nor an international organization but represents a unique political structure? Recognition of the ‘democratic deficit’ can be used both as a reason for further deepening of integration processes (as the EU development there is a need to a new mechanisms to ensure legitimacy) and as a reason for slowing up the project of European integration (development of the EU is undemocratic and associated with the solution of completely different tasks). Therefore, this term is transformed to a symbol that serves the interests of various ideological and political trends.

Regardless different academic assessments on ‘democratic deficit’, the failure of the EU Constitution in referendums in France and Netherlands and the difficulties in ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon in Ireland have proved the existence of a problem. I am of the opinion that one of the main problems is in complexity of the EU structures.

Complex governance structure

The traditional idea about democracy in a nation state includes concrete governmental centre and concrete allocation of competencies. Although some states give comparatively more power to local units, the administrative and governmental system is hierarchical and their functional and territorial boundaries are remains the same. The government enjoys the legal, administrative and economic powers within entire territory of the state. Nonetheless, the structure of the EU is much more complicated than that. It has numerous implications for democracy and the functioning of the governance at the European, national and regional levels (in some member states there had no regional institutions before and during the integration process European Commission insisted that they should be set up in order to manage the Structural Funds).

Furthermore, the European Union authority is shared and distributed between different governmental centres. In their own turn, these centres are distributed over various sites, their geographical territories vary and functional boundaries are not the same (Kelemen 2002). For example the European Central Bank is not in Brussels, as majority of institutions, but in Frankfurt and its authority apply to Euro-zone countries. The whole mechanism is not just having multiple layers, multiple centres and heterogeneous but also it lacks a clear distribution of capacity and hierarchy. As former President of the European University Institute Yves Meny said: ‘The separation of powers principle has never been implemented in the EU in the same way it has been in national democratic systems. In fact, powers of the EU were often distributed in an ad hoc fashion, characterized by overlaps and mixtures rather than separation. The spheres of legislative and executive bodies were blurred and confused.’ (Yves 2003)

European multi-layered governance is obviously problematic from the democratic point of view. Moreover, the federal solutions put forward to tackle this deficit seem to be even more problematic in terms of both efficiency and democracy. Brussels is more likely to be

Centralised federal governance run from Brussels is likely to be insensitive to local demands and ill-suited to accommodating diversity. Variable geometry and competing jurisdictions, on the other hand, allow individual member states to opt for policies best suited their needs and characteristics. Multi-level governance means that not all decisions are being made in an ever more powerful European center that is presumably more detached from local problems than national or regional governments. Flexibility and subsidiarity may well have an adverse effect on transparency, but they leave space for creative solutions orchestrated from the grassroots levels.

That is why, for instance, during the drafting the European Constitution new member states insisting on continuation of having their own commissioners and rotating the EU presidency.

With its dispersion of activity through multiple authorities at different levels, in different centers, with different forms of governing, the EU’s governance system is more highly compound than those of even the most compound of nation-states, such as the United States (Schmidt 2005)

The new member states obviously remember the bad experience they had with the centralised governance structure of the communist regimes.

The role of Parliaments

Professor at Sciences Po and Director of the Centre for European Studies Renauld Dehousse commenting on parliamentary system says: ‘The parliamentary system with its majoritarian aspects is ill adapted to the needs of a hybrid creature like the EU, characterized by great diversity and by strong national feelings. (Dehousse 1995)’

The need to further development of the democratic institutions within the EU was recognized as early as in 1970s. This is so-called ‘Vedel report’ dedicated to the empowerment of the European Parliament. Although the terms like ‘democratic deficit’ was not used but the following problem has been highlighted: ‘Parliament is not able to perform its traditional role which is expression and formulating the public opinion… the Community has to create its own mechanisms to ensure democratic legitimacy that is different from one of the member states. The importance of this problem is increasing as Community is gaining new powers’ (‘Report Vedel’. 1972, 29-32)

Table: National parliaments and the European Parliament compared

Obviously, the criticism regarding functioning of the major European institutions is not a new phenomenon. My personal view is that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty brought completely new changes to the political life of the EU. Unfortunately, there is still some space for improvement. Provisions that are stipulated in the Treaty of Lisbon which allow the European Parliament to hold a dialogue with the European Commission and EU Council in a stronger position do not automatically solve the problem of the legitimacy of the European Parliament. One of the proofs to such thesis came in summer 2009 from German Constitutional Court when it reviewed the compliance of Lisbon Treaty to the German constitution. ‘…within the framework of the EU, even after the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, there is no political decision-making body, which would be created on the basis of equal and universal choice of all citizens of the Union and could represent the will of the nation …The European Parliament is not a representative body of the sovereign nation’ (Hix 2009).

Moreover, the fact that in the European Parliament it is not possible to make a clear distinction between the ruling party and the opposition (as it can be done in the national representative bodies) and while the factions are trying to present a united front when interacting with other EU institutions prevents ordinary person to identify himself with one or another party group, which in turn, reduces the public’s attention and causes political apathy. With this statement I do not want to mean that we must create ruling party and the opposition within the framework of the European Parliament ‘ this will complicate the institutional system of the EU. However, I want to say that the recognition of those certain fractions at the national level is crucial.

In order to improve the transparency of the functioning of the EU institutions and promote the participation of the EU citizens, the Lisbon Treaty stipulates the so-called ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’ that encourages direct public participation in EU policy. The European Commission is obliged to consider an application that is asking to enter a law in case it is signed by one million citizens.

EU citizens have the opportunity to influence on European legislation through the European Parliament Committee on Petitions, but it only allows them to evaluate existing EU laws. On the contrary to this, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) allows them to directly propose laws and to shape the legislative agenda of the European Union. The procedure for implementation of the ECI is not explained in detail in the Treaty, although in May 2009 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on this issue (EP resolution on 7 May 2009). Even the so-called “Green Paper on a European Citizen’ initiative” adopted by the European Commission in November 2009, does not contain specific proposals but just information about conditions of realization of ECI.

As a result, the Spanish Presidency of the EU had to hold consultations on this issue. It was agreed that in order to “launch” the ECI, it must be supported by the citizens of minimum nine member states (one third of the total number of member states of the European Union). By the end of March 2010 the European Commission produced a number of technical proposals for the implementation of the ECI but the project will start its activity only from the beginning of this year. Nonetheless, we should not exclude further doubts about the ability of ECI to influence the political process in the EU. For example, if the European Commission for one or another reason rejects the citizens’ initiative, the organizer who collects signatures will not have further mechanism to protect it. Generally speaking, it is hard to believe that European Citizen’ initiative can cause major changes in the policies of the European Union.

Civil participation

As Professor of European Integration at Boston University Vivien Schmidt says: ‘In national politics, democracy tends to be based on four legitimizing mechanisms: government by the people, through political participation (or input democracy); of the people, through citizen representation; for the people through effective government (or output democracy); and what I call (adding a preposition to the traditional formulation) government with the people, through interest consultation (legitimized in the United States as pluralism). In the EU, only two of these four mechanisms are prominent, effective governance for the people and interest consultation with the people; government by and of the people is left largely to the national level (Schmidt 2005)

As it was stated before, many authoritative experts states that the Lisbon Treaty increases the efficiency of EU institutions but it does not fundamentally solve the problem of ‘democratic deficit’. The legitimacy of the EU and its credibility in the eyes of the citizens is still insufficient. (Missiroli 2004)

Third there are arguments that the European Union is either too far removed from electoral controls (as described above) or is too complex for citizens of the member states to understand and form reasoned opinions about the actions of European officials – a prerequisite for it to be accountable to European citizens. In addition to the complexity of the process it is also argued that the nature of the policies in which the EU is involved are overly technical and discourage citizens from engaging with the process and that the system lacks transparency (particularly where the Council of Ministers is concerned). The end result according to such arguments is that the European Union has alienated European citizens with serious repercussions for both the traditional democratic ideal of a citizenry educated in the governmental process and the ideal of government actors accountable to the general public.


The overall conclusion stemming from this analysis is that new member states

First, joining the Union has made democratic governance more complex and complicated. More layers and centres of governance make it more difficult to assure transparency of decision making and accountability of those in charge of decisions. The complex European system of governance may well be more effective in coping with pressures of modernisation and globalisation, but many citizens in Central and Eastern Europe again have the impression that decisions concerning their lives are being made outside their borders and by largely unidentified actors and bodies {Zielonka 2005}.

Second, concerning the ‘democratic deficit’ above-mentioned Follesdal and Hix are confident in that the problem can be solved by reforming the EU institutions (Follesdal and Hix 2005).

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