Europe’s citizens suffering from democratic deficit

2013 has been decreed the “European Year of Citizens”, but take a look for yourself. You won’t see a whole lot of citizens who are aware of the honor that has been bestowed upon them. Beyond the obvious irony, this anecdote reveals an ongoing contradiction. The European citizen complains of a Europe that is both distant and guilty of all evils, while many European initiatives devoted to the selfsame citizen are implemented as if he didn’t even exist.

“Democratic deficit” Just like any other phenomenon linked to the construction of Europe, the absence of supposed mutual love between the citizen and the European Union wound up gaining its own name – now part of the vernacular. The new phrase, “Democratic deficit”, has become one of the recurring themes of “Europe bashing”. It’s now divided into two groups. On the one side: those within or outside of the institutions who are questioning the lack of democratic legitimacy of EU actions and the feeble influence that citizens have on the decisions made in Brussels or Strasbourg. On the other side: those (mainly in the Commission) who inform the citizen of, or involve him in, what’s being done and how national leaders defer difficult decisions to Brussels.

Legitimacy. This is without a doubt the most salient and most easily understood part of the controversy. What is the basis of the European decision-makers’ legitimacy when they make decisions that will affect a half billion citizens? The European Council (the assembly of heads of state and governments presided over by Herman Van Rompuy) and the Council of Ministers are the true centers of power in the 28-state EU.

The defenders of the system only have to point to these leaders. They are the most legitimate in the world. They are vested by their respective countries through national elections and answer daily to their parliaments. This is indeed true. However, when these national leaders make decisions in the name of the EU, they don’t answer to any other corresponding authority.

The upshot of this is that their individual decisions are almost never revealed. This allows them to easily free themselves of responsibility and to blame “Brussels” by hiding behind the anonymity of the European Councils.

Representation. Who represents the 500 million European citizens? Who defends their collective interest? Only one institution can presently make that claim, the European Parliament, but there’s a catch: the assembly only has legislative power that it shares with the Council. Parliament does not have a right to initiate legislation. That privilege is reserved for the Commission, which is solely an executive institution. It does not execute the policies desired by the parliamentary majority. It’s supposed to take actions for the common good. The fact remains, though, that over the past ten years, it has been hindered and weakened by the member states, with its own consent, according to some. Conclusion: where there is some representation, there is little power, and in the states where true power resides, representation for European interests as such is almost non-existent.

The best example is in the area of economic and budgetary governance. Following the debt crisis, there was a considerable transfer of sovereignty. This responsibility, however, is neither embodied nor assumed by any institution. The European Commission (and its infamous commissioner Olli Rehn) exercises true national budgetary control. The responsibility belongs to the European councils, but it is watered down by their anonymity. No one in this area is answerable to any democratically appointed European authority.

Participatory democracy. A vague counterweight to “democratic deficiency” has been enacted to fill the gap caused by the lack of any appreciable institutional representation enforcement: the chance for citizens to become involved in the debate through “citizen initiative”. This innovation was introduced by the Lisbon treaty. It would allow one million citizens from at least one quarter of the member States (currently 7 of 28) to request that the European Commission take a legislative initiative. The Commission is free to accept or refuse once it has examined the request.

There is a consensus that transparency and public disclosure of decisions are the next issues that need a great deal of improvement. This criticism is understandable, but it’s only partly true. The European mechanism gives wide access to information concerning its work and decisions. However, one still needs to know about it and, mostly, to be interested enough to become involved. Some of the ministerial councils are broadcast by video. Everyone, though, knows that the substantial debates will always take place away from the cameras.

“We already live under technocratic federalism rather than democratic federalism,” noted the French economist Thomas Piketty during a debate in Brussels on Friday. One formula amply illustrates the real issue: the federalization of responsibilities is moving forward without any clear explanation to the voters. The states, though, aren’t interested in hearing about what should be their duty: creating a federated democracy where the citizen will again find his lost voice. As long as legitimacy continues to be lacking, Europe’s own teetering operation will continue to drain its own foundations.


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