Is there Democratic Deficit in the EU?

It is argued by many commentators[1] that there exists a `democratic deficit` within the European Union although others argue[2] that there exists no such `democratic deficit`, there are also those who acknowledge the existence of a `democratic deficit` but that argue that it is not problematic[3]. This assignment will look at those arguments and consider whether or not in despite of numerous reforms the democratic credentials of the EC still remain a concern. This argument will be considered in light of the evolving nature and the role of parliament.

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It is important first to understand what is meant by the `democratic deficit`. It is difficult to find a common definition however, in basic terms this argument suggests that the European Parliament as the only directly elected body holds too minor a role in the legislative process. Supporters of the `democratic deficit` argument, argue that the European Parliament, as the only elected and democratic element of the European Community, should exert more power over the legislative process and that the current situation means that the legislative process is controlled by the non-elected Council. It is argued that one of the major problems that this `democratic deficit` creates is a possibility that “a small minority in a state could be over-represented in the intergovernmental process and thus be able to impose its preferences even in the face of an overwhelming European majority”[4]

Conversely those that support the notion that the current situation does not create a `democratic deficit` point to the fact that public interest in elections to the European Parliament is low[5] and as Bermann points out “participation in elections for European Parliament in June 2004 dropped to a record low of 45.3 percent across the twenty-five member states.” The argument is therefore that even though the MEP’s are, in theory elected by the public, in reality they are not supported by the majority and if they were provided with greater power it would be of little relevance to persons within a member state. This supports the argument, which will be discussed later, that the solution is not to increase the power of the European Parliament but to increase the power of member states within the legislative process.

In order to understand the evolution of the European Parliament it is important to consider briefly the legislative process and the growth of European Parliament’s role in that process. Originally a limited number of Treaty Articles[6] provided that the Council was required to consult the European Parliament as to its opinion before arriving at a decision on Community secondary law[7]. This position was confirmed by the case of Roquette Freres SA v Commission[8], although the Council was permitted to ignore and overrule any opinion expressed by the European Parliament[9].

The Maastricht reforms amended Art 251. The new regime creates a co-decision procedure whereby the European Parliament can reject a legislative proposal. Once the European Parliament has provided its views on a legislative proposal, the Council shall adopt a common position by a qualified majority. The European Parliament can, within three months, either approve or take no decision in which case the Council can adopt the measure. Alternatively the European Parliament can reject or amend the proposal by an absolute majority, if this situation occurs then the Council can approve those amendments by a qualified majority within a three month time limit. However if the Commission has issued a negative opinion on the amendments, the Council are only able to approve by unanimity. If the Council does then not agree this amended proposal it will be referred to a new Conciliation Committee to in an effort to accomplish a compromise within six weeks. If a joint text is approved, the Council and European Parliament can then accept the provision together within six weeks and the European Parliament may finally reject it within six weeks by an absolute majority. It is arguable that these reforms do not go far enough in addressing the `democratic deficit` and that they only provide a negative power of veto and in addition they will only apply to limited specific areas.

Further changes were introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam, which whilst go someway to decreasing the democratic deficit do not, it is argued, go far enough. The Treaty of Amsterdam increased the use of and streamlined the co-decision procedure. The Treaty also extended the areas in which the assent of the Parliament is to be required to incorporate the structural and cohesion funds. However, it is pointed out that these do not actually increase the level of participation of the European Parliament and its capacity to insist on a specific measure and thus do little to reduce the `democratic deficit` and make the Union more democratic[10].

Finally changes were implemented via the Nice Treaty, although these were very limited in scope and did little to improve the `democratic deficit`. Although they it did extend the Qualified Majority Voting into new areas and also increased the effect of the co-decision procedure which was extended to include more treaty articles.

The changes proposed in the Constitution for Europe[11] are likely to set the foundation of the legislative procedures for many years to come and in this regard they are very important. There are essentially three main changes that are proposed by the constitution which seek to improve the `democratic deficit`. The first of these is that there should be more involvement of the European Parliament in the adoption of all EU legislation and this is to be achieved by greater use of the “Co-decision procedure”, which it is intended, will be the normal procedure for enactment of legislation. The second change that is proposed by the Constitution is that the member states’ parliament has a greater involvement. One of the main proposals is to enact a procedure whereby national parliaments can register formal objections to a European Commission proposal because it failed to respect the principle of subsidiarity[12]. The final proposal is that Council meetings must be public or televised where legislative procedures are being discussed or voted upon, whether or not these proposals will rectify the `democratic deficit` remains to be seen. It is too early to conclude whether or not this will solve the problem.

There are two main suggestions for the improvement of democracy in Europe. The first argument, and the one which has been the subject of this assignment, is to increase the power of the European Parliament. The second suggestion involves increasing the power of national parliaments in the legislative process as the general public have little interest in who is elected into the European Parliament. Steiner and Woods consider this second argument but conclude that “at the level of individual pieces of legislation, national parliaments become involved in the process too late to have any real impact on the outcome, and the level of control exercised by the individual national parliaments may vary significantly between Member States[13]”.

Despite the increased power given to the European Parliament following the various treaties that have been discussed above, and as Weiler points out, the European Parliament “is still characterised by a lesser degree of parliamentary representation and majority decision making in the European political process than its counterparts in national democracies[14]”. However Dehousse[15] argues that the argument that there is a democratic deficit is fundamentally flawed and that the EU encounters similar problems with democracy as are encountered in domestic systems and that some of the “loudest complaints over a European democratic deficit may be based on idealisations of democracy in the nation-state”. Those who do not support the concept of a `democratic deficit` argue that “the preoccupation with the concept of democratic deficit is limiting and does little to improve our understanding of the role of the European Parliament”[16]. Finally, Majone argues that the EU is a “regulatory state’-a state which despite its democratic deficit can be accountable”[17].

Having considered the arguments it seems clear that perhaps one of the primary reasons for the belief that there exists a `democratic deficit` is that powers that were once controlled by national parliaments have now been transferred to the EU where they are subject to a lower degree of parliamentary participation[18]. Therefore it is argued that the `democratic deficit` does exist, but only in so far as it does not match political ideologies and does not mirror the political system of other member states. It is arguable that deficit does not in fact exist and that the EU system is simply different to member states political systems. Even if it could be concluded that a `democratic deficit` did exist how to correct this deficit is problematic in itself. Some argue that a democratic model similar to that of the state should be developed whereas others argue that democracy can only be achieved through national democracies.[19] One certainty is that it is an argument that will not be settled in the near future and it is doubtful that the constitution will resolve the problem to the satisfaction of all member states.



EP v Council (C-65/91)

Parliament v Council (C-392/95)

Roquette Freres SA v Commission (Case 20/88) [1989] ECR 1553


Maastricht Treaty 1997

Nice Treaty

Treaty of Amsterdam 1997

Journal Articles

Barnard C, & Dashwood A, (2006) “The EU Constitution – Dealing with the Deficit”, 156 New Law Journal 173

Bermann G, Monet J & Gelhorn W, (2005) “Executive Power in the New European Constitution”, International Journal of constitutional Law 3.2 (440)

Maduro M, (2005) “The Importance of Being Called a Constitution: Constitutional Authority and the Authority of Constitutionalism”, International Journal of Constitutional Law 3.2 (332)

Majone G, (1998) “Europe’s “Democratic Deficit”: The Question of Standards’”4 European Law Journal 5

Weiler J, (2005) “On the Power of the Word: Europe’s Constitutional Iconography”, International Journal of Constitutional Law 3.2 (173)


Craig P & De Burca G, (2003)”EU Law, Text, Cases and Materials, Third Edition, Oxford University Press

Fairhurst J , (2004) “Law of the European Union”, Fifth Edition, Pearson Longman

Harlow C, (2002) “Accountability in The European Union”, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Hartley T, (2003) “The Foundations of European Community Law”, Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press

Horspool M & Humphreys M, (2006) “European Union Law”, Oxford University Press

Lenaerts K & Van Nuffel P,(2005)”Constitutional Law of the European Union”, Second Edition, Sweet and Maxwell

Steiner J & Woods L, (2003) “Textbook on EC Law”, Eighth Edition, Oxford University Press

Weatherill S, (2005) “Cases and Materials on EU Law”, Seventh Edition, Oxford University Press

Weiler J & Winds M (eds) (2003) “European Constitutionalism Beyond the State”, Cambridge University Press

Websites – accessed on 21.10.2006