Written by Adrian Kokk
Peace, security and prosperity are three fitting adjectives that come to use when describing the historic achievements of the European Union. Despite facing many challenges over the course of the previous decades, the EU, in different forms derived from different Treaties, succeeded in lifting a unified Europe up from the desolate ruins of the Second World War. Subsequently, the EU prevented the states of Europe from turning to arms in order to solve future conflicts and succeeded in building a single market that annually produces goods and services worth tens of trillions of euros. These great and truly unprecedented accomplishments have however been overshadowed by the sheer lack of credibility for European institutions. In this era of a modern and intricate post-Lisbon Union, the European project is time and again deemed as an undemocratic bureaucracy, which was the case made by “Vote Leave” in the Brexit campaign (Rankin, 2016). This notion could be understood when seen in a certain historical context. But what exactly sustains these beliefs nowadays?
As mentioned above, the proclamation of there being a democratic deficit within the innate structures of the EU might have been somewhat justified in the past. For example, the European Parliament was previously an appointed assembly before becoming an elected parliament. Nonetheless, even after this transformation it enjoyed only limited legislative powers for many years (Bux, 2021).
However, the ordinary legislative procedure of the EU, as per the Lisbon Treaty, is now the so called co-decision procedure, which fully involves both the Parliament and the Council, according to Articles 289 and 294 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
These reforms appear to have replaced the flawed former system with a new and more transparent one, which indirectly gives greater power to the electorate, i.e. the European citizenry. The President of the European Commission is still not directly elected by the voters, but it must be underlined that many heads of Governments in parliamentary democracies are not either.
Furthermore, there is now a regulated system of checks and balances between the different institutions of the EU. All together, it seems as though the inherent democratic deficit within the political structure itself is fading away.
So what might be the reason so many people still despise the EU for being an undemocratic union?
The answer is to be found in citizens’ own behavior. The people of the EU are clearly not very interested in fulfilling their duties as citizens. The turnout in elections to the European Parliament fell constantly between 1979 and 2014, and amounted to just over 50% in 2019 (European Parliament, 2019). Issues concerning the EU as a set of institutions are seldom discussed or brought into the light of national media.
Moreover, the nationalists of the last decades have hijacked the popular view on the EU, painting a vivid picture of Brussels being the global capital of inhumane bureaucracy, and pro-Europeans have done little to combat this effort.
All of these factors contribute in creating a hostile environment for serious political discourse between us Europeans. How is it possible to expect there to be a democracy if there is no demos? The citizens of the Member States are evidently the democratic deficit of this period.
It is self-evident that the political system is to be perceived as flawed if people are unwilling to participate in the fundamental democratic process. In order to change the status quo, political dialogue should incentivize and help people realize the importance of taking part in European politics. The political and judicial bodies of the EU are integral parts of the national polities, and their influence will most likely expand in the future.
People must understand that the EU is not a mere trade bloc, but an advanced and integrated economic and political union, whose actions influence the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Despite the fact that it is generally the most populous countries that set the Union’s agenda, the people of other Member States cannot keep excusing themselves for not making their voices heard.
Furthermore, the notion of the EU sustaining a grotesque bureaucracy needs to be put in a proper context. It is of utmost importance to debunk the myth that such features are exclusive to the EU and realize that bureaucracy and lobbyism are elements that can be found in virtually every form of democratic government globally.
These “vices” of modern government are the price citizens have to pay for a competent and competitive Union, in a world among other superpowers, all eager to dominate the geopolitical landscape.
The great masses will always be intimidated by the complexity of European politics, but the facts are indisputable; the EU is not an external organisation out of their reach and responsibility as ordinary citizens. We are the EU, and the trustees of its democracy.
Rankin, Jennifer. (June 13 2016). Is the EU undemocratic? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/13/is-the-eu-undemocratic-referendum-reality-check
Bux, Udo. (January 2021). The European Parliament: historical background. European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/11/the-european-parliament-historical-background
Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union
European Parliament. (October 22 2019). Turnout by year. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en/turnout/