Is the EU Democratic Deficit Really A Problem?

Most of the EU remains a mystery to the average citizen. There is little, if any, popular publication of what goes on in the various institutions. The perception is that decisions are made behind closed doors. To what extent is this a problem?

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The EU is at a crossroads. The Euro Crisis has shaken the body to its core and put to bed the idea that the EU can gain all the benefits of integration without surrendering a substantial amount of sovereignty.

There has always been an underlying tension between those in the EU who see it as an intergovernmental body for cooperation in matters such as the market and the federalist camp who believe the goal of the EU is pursue an ‘ever-closer union’.

Now, the EU is pursuing a banking union and the Commission has the ability to look over national budgets and submit suggestions for changes. However, these measures alone are not enough to solve the broader issues that arise when you have a monetary union but not a fiscal union, the ability to redirect spending to the periphery for unemployment or economic shocks.

The debt crisis showed how damaging an incomplete union can be in real terms to citizens. The choice is broadly between reversing integration made in the last few decades in order to return to more of a loose free trade union or to move forward and create a stronger centre. Either way, standing still is not an option.

The Spring 2014 Eurobarometer results published a week ago found that 55% of those surveyed supported the Euro and 56% were optimistic about the future of the EU. This makes the route of further integration far more likely.

As the EU infiltrates further into the lives of its citizens and assumes the powers of national government, accountability and trust will become essential features in granting it the legitimacy is requires in order to survive.

Currently, the European Parliament is the only directly elected democratic body in the EU. Successive treaties have increased its functions.

The Parliament is a co-legislator and all legislation must be passed by that body in order to become valid. MEPs sit on committees which improve and add to specific legislative proposals. The Commission is accountable to the Parliament. The Parliament has to approve the budget.  They must also approve all international agreements with the EU. In essence, they hold the same powers as the typical upper house of government.

There are other indirect links to democracy. For example, the Council of Ministers is made up of national ministers of the various member state governments. The European Council consists of the heads of member states.

However none of the individual ministers of Prime Ministers is held electorally responsible for decisions made at a European level, partly due to the lack of information about what these decisions are. It is easy to understand why citizens would not trust a body that seems unaccountable.

The Commission, the executive of the EU, does not have any direct democratic link. Commissioners are selected by the government of each member state.

Most of the EU remains a mystery to the average citizen. There is little, if any, popular publication of what goes on in the various institutions and most would have difficulty naming any specific EU law apart from possibly the Common Agricultural Policy. The perception that decisions are made behind closed doors has only increased as the European Council held summit after summit in the wake of the Euro Crisis. This is where the diagnosis of ‘democratic deficit’ stems from.

To what extent is this a problem? After all, when the EU was first created the institutions were purposely set up so as to be a technocratic body. It would avoid the major pitfalls of democracy; the populism, the partisanship, the incentives for the governing party to pork barrel or to make decisions which only focus on the short-term. If there were no direct voters then the decisions would not be based on what was most popular, but what the best policy was.

This structure made sense. Most of the decisions made at European level were often of a technical and regulatory nature rather than encompassing value decisions. How best to implement the single market or to put in place appropriate health and safety standards were not issues that captured the interests of voters.

For the most part, although it is estimated that up to 60% of all member states’ laws were created at European level, directives and regulations were not noticed by the population at large. Work safety standards, environmental measures and consumer protections all went into place without any fuss.

Yet as the EU gains competence in new policy areas, as they encroach in national budget making, as they assume more responsibility for each member state economically, their remit moves out of the technical and into the political.

A big political issue is the possibility of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US. While a free trade agreement would undoubtedly be good for the economies of both regions there will be pressure to minimise regulation of things such as employees’ rights, consumers’ rights and environmental protections.

A similar trade agreement between the US and Australia has been criticised in Australia for raising the price of medicine and supressing the Australian entertainment industry due to copyright and competition laws respectively.

The issue of how far the EU is willing to go in order to achieve this trade agreement is something which should be debated in public. There should be an active discourse between politicians and citizens as it could fundamentally change how the EU Single Market functions. This kind of decision should not be made without the knowledge or input of the European people.

How do we solve the democratic deficit? It seems unlikely that there will be any huge changes made to how the EU institutions function.

The obvious answer would seem to be more information of the records ministers and Heads of State accountable at EU level in order to hold them accountable at national elections.

But how do you force media outlets to report on law-making at EU level? With apathy growing at every level of government and many citizens unaware of how their own national governments work it may be too much to assume that better education is the panacea. However it is certainly required as part of a broader plan to reduce the lack of knowledge surrounding the EU.

This is the first year that the President of the European Parliament was selected in accordance with the votes of the public, a move intended to put more power in the hands of the citizens. The EU also resisted threats from David Cameron who objected to both candidates due to their federalist views. A poll last week showed that 42% of those polled agreed with the statement that their voice mattered in the EU, up from 29% just three months ago.

There is no one single answer to how to solve the democratic deficit of the EU while maintaining the ability to make expert law. The onus rests on our politicians, our media and our teachers to make sure that the discussion is an informed one. However, we are moving in the right direction.

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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