EUROPEAN UNION AND DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY OR
IS EUROPEAN UNION DEMOCRATICALLY ACCOUNTABLE? AN ASSESSMENT OF IT’S ACCURACY
One of the constant claim advanced by the leave campaign critics of European Union is that it is not democratically accountable. The claim was used as an opportunity to return control of British affairs back to the British parliament. However, the EU has a democratic structure. The European Commission is not elected, but it is fully accountable to the European Parliament in all respect. This paper will assess the accuracy of this claim with reference in particular to the EU legislative process and composition of the EU institutions.
Conversely, EU has a democratic structure, which has been maintained with degree of unanimity among numerous analyst that the European Union (EU), is the most complex sophisticated and advance organisation of its kind. However, the same cannot be said about its democratic legitimacy. This argument which has developed into a deeply divisive and convoluted issue, and has moreover attracted diverse criticisms and appreciations to the extent that it is now a vital area academicals alike in their pursuit of knowledge of the working of the EU and its institutions. Hence the term, ‘democratic deficit’ (Europa, 2014)
First used in 1979 by Marquand, it was very limited in its scope as it was only used to criticise the transfer of legislation from parliaments of member states, to EU headquarters in Brussels. Following the elections of the European Parliament (EP), in 1979, and the continued expansion of EU membership, it broadened to include a wider range of union activities with the composition and function of the much maligned institutions providing a perfect ambience for its application. In contemporary context, the term ‘democratic deficit’ is used to highlight the lack of transparency, accountability, and adequate representation demonstrated by these institutions, in their governance of the European diaspora. Those who argued that a deficit exists, endeavoured to show that the law making machinery which include the Commission, the EP, and the Council, are formed and continue to function in a manner that is far removed from the European populace. Yet, their power to draft, implement and policies of crucial nature is almost monopolistic and somewhat dictatorial (Azman, 2011). This flies in the face of Aristotle, who maintained that the precepts of democracy will only be achieved with the overwhelming participation of the vast majority (Ward, 2009, cited in Guth & Connor, 2014).
There are however, commentators, who believe that the discussion of democracy with regards to the EU, is misplaced and unjustified (Cooper, 2014). They see the EU as a work in progress and that through treaty revisions and co-operations from Rome to Lisbon, there has been increased level of democracy in the functions and composition of the EU institutions. Today, unlike much of the early years of the union, the EP is directly elected with increased power of scrutiny over the commission; there is the citizens’ initiative; and the council co-decides in the ordinary legislative procedure (OLP) with the EP on a number of key issues (Steiner et al, 2014).
This piece of work will focus on the discussion of the concept of ‘democratic deficit’, regarding the composition and function of the commission, the EP, and the council, and an analysis of what has been done to address this issue. It will also examine the extent to which they have been successful and the shortcomings that have been highlighted by critics.
The commission is the cornerstone of the legislative process of the EU, as it reserves exclusive competence in the proposition and implementation of EU Laws. This fact sits awkwardly with the concept of democracy for a number of reasons. Firstly, critics consider it a mass of political appointees in the permanent bureaucracy of Brussels (Steiner et al, 2014). Secondly, it is regarded as the least democratic institution but possesses a lot of power and influence over its rivals. Its functions include; proposing legislations, managing and allocating funds, and representing the EU in international affairs. In national parliaments for instance, such functions are carried out or at least contributed to, in a significant way by elected bodies accountable to their electorates. It is not surprising that the commission has been held in many quarters as a democratically hollow entity, far removed from the people it claimed to govern (Azman, 2011).
This notion finds further justification in the process for the appointment of the president of the commission. Although nominated by the European Council, and voted for by the EP, who themselves are largely products of democratic processes in their respective states, this appointment still remains in the eyes of many, a process devoid of any democratic legitimacy. To critics, it is inconceivable that such a position in charge of the destinies of over eight hundred million people, is not subject to a process more rigorous and largely influenced by the population of Europe (Azman, 2011). More alarming to critics is that the Lisbon treaty has afforded the president increased power in the selection of commissioners as well as the operational procedures of the commission (article 248 TFEU).In legislative matters, critics claim that the commission’s power of supremacy in the process still remains overwhelming. Even with a significant increase in the powers of the EP and the council in the making of EU Laws, the commission is still the only institution that can propose and draft secondary legislation (Steiner at al, 2014).
However, in the past decade, the commission has relinquished much of its powers to other much more democratic institutions, namely, the EP and the council, as we shall see in later discussions (Cooper, 2014). Commentators who lend their support for democratic legitimacy of the commission often start by pointing to the fact that it is an independent body charged with working in the interest of the union. Furthermore, the publication of deliberations, the increased public scrutiny by national parliaments and democratically elected national executives as well as extensive media attention, render it much more transparent and accountable (Cooper, 2014).
The criticism is not as robust against the EU parliament as it is considered the most democratic institution. Since 1979, the old style assembly has been replaced by directly elected representatives from the various member states, thus injecting a sense of greater participation from the wider European populace. Furthermore, the composition according to article 14(2), provides for a proportional representation reflecting population size of member states (Steiner et al, 2014).
Much of its criticisms have come on the basis of its competence visa a vie the commission and the council, in the Law making process, where it is considered the weakest party. As observed by Guth and Connor (2014), the EP legislative competence is quite limited, and much disheartening for advocates of democracy, they are completely excluded in issues relating to foreign affairs and social security policies. Ward (2009), calls it an absurdity that the institution with the most democratic credibility should occupy such inferior status in making Laws affecting its very electorate (cited in Guth & Connor, 2014). This has deepened the lack of trust people continue to show. A feeling echoed by The Guardian newspaper in a publication in November, (2014). Quoting the Pope in his address to the EP in Brussels, it pointed out that “the speech included descriptions of ‘the distrust of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaging in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual people’ “.
This notwithstanding, it must be emphasised that the EP has grown immensely especially more so after Lisbon, 2009. In legislative matters, the extension of the ordinary legislative procedure to almost all policy areas, means that the EP’s influence is now much more considerable than before. It can now accept or reject commission proposals, which can effectively block their implementations unless the EP’s recommendations are given due considerations. The co-decision and co-operation procedures means that it is much more of a constructive rather than a consultative partner. In other words, the commission can no longer ignore the input of parliament. Also, it can ask the commission to propose legislation on each use it considers important to the union. Furthermore, its supervisory function affords it the ability to check and balance the competence of the commission in many respect. In 2004 for example, the Barroso commission was plunged into crises by opposition from the EP, which resulted in a major reshuffle. In the composition of the present executive, the nominee from Slovenia was sent home following criticism from the EP (Europa, 2014). More importantly, the EP can dismiss the entire commission as was manifested in the resignation of the Santander commission in the not too distant past. While the commission may have the upper hand in proposing legislation, the EP virtually checks and balances its power. To commentators like Cooper, this represents a rather significant change in the democratic outlook of the EP.
The council (council of ministers) is the main organ of the legislative process (Steiner et al, 2014), and has equally been subjected to scrutiny with regards to its democratic legitimacy. It is made up of ministers from various member states, and it has been argued that this makes it somewhat legitimate since these minister themselves are products of democratic elections in their nation states. Critics have however been quick to point potential flaws in this assumption; (1) ministers are elected on the basis of national manifestos rather than their European ambition, (2) in a number of states, Britain been a prime example, not all ministers are elected, some are merely political appointees, a notion that does not augur well for its democratic legitimacy (Azman, 2011).
However, the extensive powers of the council in the legislative process, has helped in correcting the deficits that has plagued the EU in the realm of democracy. In the ordinary legislative procedure as discussed earlier, the co-operation and co-decision procedures make them equal partners with the commission in making Laws. Also, “as it has the final power of decision on most secondary legislations, some control by the member states is thus assured” (Steiner, et al, 2014, p.32). Finally, the move from unanimity and qualified majority voting will according to Cooper (2014), only help in improving democracy in future deliberations.
The subject of ‘democratic deficit’ within the fabric of the EU institutions will without doubt continue to attract the attention of commentators of varying persuasions for scores of years to come. While it may not be clear who the real winners will be, one thing is for certain; that in time, and on the face of continued expansion of the European conglomerate, the democratic legitimacy of institutions will continue to gain strength through various treaties and greater co-operations in the future, as history has demonstrated. Since Rome in 1951, Lisbon in 2009, they have been considerably transformed. The European commission, once the sole initiators of legislation, now share that role with what could effectively be described as partners in the EP and the council. The EP is now more constructive than consultative in its legislative input. On the whole, despite the accusation of voter apathy in European elections, it is at least in principle, a much more democratic entity than in the days when appointments was one of selection. The citizens’ initiative, one of the most revolutionary changes in the union’s history, will probably and justifiably so in time, help to situate the EU much closer to the people it governs, thus helping to build the much needed trust that has been lacking through much of its current existence.
It is worth noting at this point that discussions of ‘democratic deficit’ extend much beyond institutional function and composition. The attempt by Lisbon treaty of 2009 to involve local parliaments by designing an avenue through which they can enforce the principle of subsidiarity (challenging EU Laws they think could best be made nationally), can only help to foster a much more comfortable relationship between the union and the greater European population (Civitas, 2014).
Azman, K.D. (2011). The Problem of “Democratic Deficit” in European Union. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 1 No. 5; 242-250
Civitas (2014). Democracy in the EU. Retrieved on the 24/11/2014, www.civitas.org.uk/eufacts
Cooper, Robert (June, 2014). The European Union does not have a democratic deficit- it has a democratic surplus. Retrieved on the 10/11/2014, www.blogs.ise.ac.uk
Europa (2014). Democratic Deficit. Retrieved on the 22/11/2014, www.europa.eu/legialation_summaries/democraticdeficit
Ford Matt (2014). Europe’s Democratic Deficit is getting worse. Retrieved on the 20/11/2014, from www.theatlantic.com/international/archive
Guth, J. & Connor, T. (2014). Question & Answer EU Law, 2nd Edition. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited
Steiner, J. Woods, L. Watson, P. (2014). EU Law, 12th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Editorial, (2014). The Guardian view on Pope’s speech to European Parliament: Rediscover your values. The Guardian, 27th Nov, P,1