Why the European Parliament cannot solve the democratic deficit problem?

A good idea which somehow does not work


The necessity of increased European cooperation is unquestionable. Nevertheless, the question is whether the current framework proposed by the European Union is the most favourable way forward or not. In any cases, the interdependence and co-responsibility of European Member States make it quasi impossible to imagine a future without any liaisons between them[i].

Fly in the ointment?

Regardless of the fact that cooperation is needed from a political and economic point of view, citizens’ involvement in this process is also strongly required. The European Parliament tries to be the answer to this, as it would enhance the democratic functioning of the EU through direct accountability.

Unfortunately, decreasing turnout at EP elections and increasing emphasis on the democratic deficit have led to the conclusion that the Parliament has not live up to expectations, in spite of its growing power and influence in the European decision-making.

Why such an institution has not been able to involve citizens in the decision-making process? In the following article, I will try to answer these questions and introduce a solution on how these problems could be handled.

In our opinion, the problem with the EP does not lie in its functioning itself but rather in the current European institutional environment. Put simply, it is the latter that is making the EP redundant.

The missing links

An effective EP without a clear European political sphere and real European political parties is unimaginable. However, one can only speak today of political groups that include different national parties with more or less the same ideology[ii]. The main problem is that Member States face different economic, social and political challenges due to which a common programme of a continental-level party is quasi infeasible.

Moreover, the “incomplete knowledge theory” of the famous institutional economist, Anthony Downs, highlights that the existence of European level parties would be too costly[iii]. Hence, if we assume rational politicians, these parties are not likely to come into existence. In order to effectively “make politics” for their voters and thus win their votes, parties need representatives to discover voters’ preferences and to persuade them to vote for the given party[iv]. All this process is much more costly at a continental level.

Because the development of common political programmes is not feasible, the articulation of European political issues cannot be accomplished either. The main reason for this is that serious policy fields have stayed a matter of national competence[v]. In the really important decisions, which influence voters directly, the EU still plays little role.

Furthermore, voters broadly agree with this situation, as they do not seem to be keen to transfer important policy fields, such as taxation, employment policies and social policies to the EU level[vi]. Hence, only national parties deal with these issues, because voters vote for or against them on the grounds of these policies[vii]. This phenomenon makes the appearance of a European political sphere infeasible. The issues which are dealt with by the EU are largely irrelevant for European voters, which is why they stay away from them. As a consequence, the legitimacy of EU decision-making appears more and more in danger[viii].

EP elections as “second order” national elections

The fact that EP elections are handled as “second order” national elections is strongly connected to the above-mentioned argument. As a consequence, EP elections appear more as a debate between national parties, about national issues, in order to get the votes of national voters[ix]. European politics and European policies are completely missing from these campaigns. If issues concerning the EU arise, then only “in or out” argumentation can be heard, but no policy discussions.

Furthermore, because clear party relations in the complicated decision-making system cannot be found, voters’ preferences about EU policies are not motivated on the ground of ideologies but on the simplistic ground of their relation or feeling towards the EU[x].

A European community assumes the existence of a supranational decision-making power, which has to possess the required legitimacy[xi]. In the current institutional structure this cannot be realized. Indeed, the decisions made at the EU level have only indirect legitimacy through the national governments[xii].

On the other hand, the constant widening of the Parliament’s power cannot provide a proper solution to the democratic deficit either. Although the EP can be considered as “efficient” in terms of citizens’ representation[xiii], this does not mean that it is the representation of European citizens. Based again on institutional economics, if one assumes rational politicians, MEPs are interested in the representation of the interests of their own Member States’ citizens, instead of that of European interests[xiv].

Rational ignorance

In order to highlight the infeasibility of the European public sphere, one can again refer to the imperfect knowledge theory of Downs. The latter states that the cost of information, which is indispensable in order to make an informed choice between political parties, is more costly for voters according to the possible outcome of their voting. Hence, speaking about EU elections, nothing drives the voters to collect relevant information[xv]. For example, European news does not attract much national media attention. As a consequence, citizens have to literally strive to get the information needed to make informed decision. Rational ignorance, which is the ignorance of European citizens about European issues, is more likely at the inter-governmental level, leading to a pull-back in the development of the European public sphere.

An extremist solution?

Due to the above-mentioned argumentation, the current institutional environment makes it quasi impossible to tackle the European democratic deficit. In this sense we argue for the Europeanization of national parliaments and along with this the Europeanization of the Member States’ public sphere, since decision-making has to be based on national parliaments that have a higher level of legitimacy[xvi]. This model matches current expectations, namely that Member States want to regain influence over EU decision-making. In the same time, this model follows a more European interest and makes a future federal Europe more possible.

The necessary social activity is only feasible at a national level. In the interests of integration and enhancement of democracy it is needed to fill this activity with European content. In our view, if national parliaments would deal with more European issues, then citizens’ participation would also be higher with regard to these questions[xvii]. This legitimacy is needed to constitute a future European cohesion. Quasi all forms of European cooperation could be achieved by this legitimacy.

Hence, EU level decisions should be passed to national parliaments, simply because the necessary legitimacy is only feasible at this level. If the Europeanization of the national public sphere becomes reality, then and only then, could society be involved in the decision process about European issues. This bottom line embodies the social legitimacy of a future supranational decision-making system. Decision-making at national levels could thus achieve a higher level of social activity because of higher legitimacy.

The model would work as follows: because the EP in the current environment cannot give a proper answer to the democratic deficit problem, its prerogatives would be handed to national parliaments because only the latter possess the needed democratic legitimacy[xviii]. Decision-making would still start with the proposal of the European Commission, and it would then be sent to all of the Member States’ parliaments which will accept or reject the proposal based on their own legislation. In the latter case, Member States would assign the challenged points of the text and make amendments. Then the Council would step in and work out a common draft with the cooperation of all Member States. Ministers in the Council could only discuss the draft on the basis of their mandate, which would be derived from their own national parliaments. The draft, which would be accepted by a qualified majority, would then go back to the Commission.

In the second reading, the Commission would then examine the draft of the Council and possibly modify it but not fundamentally. The finished draft would then be presented to national parliaments and representatives would have to make a final decision about it. The draft accepted by the qualified majority of the parliaments would then become EU legislation.

This model would have crucial positive spillovers for the EU. Firstly, through the Europeanization of national politics, the national public sphere would Europeanize itself as well[xix]. The model would foster closer cooperation between Member State’s parliaments, because they would also be the final decision-makers. Finally, because of this direct influence of national parliaments, it can be imagined that further prerogatives would be passed to EU level.

The model does raise, however, further questions, which hopefully can be answered in the future: Is this kind of reform feasible? Are Member States interested in accepting such a model? Do they have enough institutional capacity to implement it? Would the Europeanization of the public sphere really happen? How could this model fit into the Treaties? And what negative consequences would it have?

[i] www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/127849.pdf

[ii] Hardacre, Alan: How the EU Institutions Work and… How to Work with the EU Institutions. London, 2011, John Harper Publishing Ltd, 94.

[iii] Downs, Anthony: An economic theory of political action in democracy. Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 65. No. 2. 1957, 135-150. pp. (Downs)

[iv] Downs. 139-140. pp.

[v] Moravcsik, Andrew: The myth of Europe’s Democratic Deficit. Journal of  European Public Policy, 2008, november-december, 333. pp. (Moravcsik)

[vi] Moravcsik 336. pp.

[vii] Stiglitz, Joseph E.: Economics of the Public Sector. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. 175. 189. 191.

[viii] Lord, Christopher: Does the EU Suffer from a Democratic Deficit? The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish electorate has given new vigour to the debate on the European Union’s widely perceived democratic deficit. Does the EU indeed have a serious democracy problem? What are the options open to the European political leadership and which of these should be acted upon? Still in democratic deficit, Journal of  European Public Policy, 2008, november-december, 316. pp. “democracy requires a people, or in another words, demos”.

[ix] Costello Rory, Thomassen Jacques, Rosema Martin: European Parliament Electtions and Political Representation: Policy Congruence between Voters and Parties. West European Politics, 2012. November 35. 1229. (Costello – Thomassen – Rosema)

[x] Hobolt 16. pp.

[xi] Fabbrini, Sergio: Intergovernmentalism and Its Limits: Assessing the European Union’s Answer to the Euro Crisis; Comparative Political Studies, 2013, june, 20. pp. (Fabrini)

[xii] Fabrini  26. pp.

[xiii] Mair Peter – Thomassen Jacques: Political representation and government in the European Union. Journal of European Public Policy. 2010 January. 17. 21. (Mair – Thomassen)

[xiv] Downs  138-140. pp.

[xv] Downs  146. pp.

[xvi] www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/127849.pdf

[xvii] Olson, Mancur: The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press, 1971.

[xviii] Fabbrini  16. pp.

[xix] Szűcs, Zoltán Gábor – Szabó, Gabriella  93. pp.

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