Wednesday

25th May 2022

Opinion

No more integration without more representation

  • 'If there is time to change the technical mechanisms of economic governance, there is also time to begin addressing the democratic deficit' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Despite the many calls in recent months for another great leap forward in European integration, remarkably little attention is being paid to the EU’s growing democratic deficit.

As a result, the EU is moving ever closer to the point, in both “core” and “periphery” member states, where popular disenchantment with “Europe” makes measures taken in its name politically unsustainable. So notwithstanding the urgency of the current crisis, the time has come for Europeans - including those (like myself) who are generally pro-EU - to stand up and insist “no more integration without more representation!”

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The EU’s democratic deficit is obviously not comparable to the tyranny that motivated residents of the 13 American colonies in the 1750s to insist on “no taxation without representation.” But the situation in Europe today is no less critical. Unlike the British monarchy of the 18th century, the EU has repeatedly identified itself with democratic values.

The Union’s member states are all required to be liberal democracies. Above all, the Union’s 500 million citizens understand that the legitimacy and sustainability of a political system derive from the consent of those it governs. But in reality, the EU is less and less a democratic system of governance.

In earlier decades, European integration rested on three pillars of democratic legitimacy. First, there was widespread popular support for the basic goals of preventing war and dictatorship by integrating the continent’s economies through the European Economic Community and subjecting national governments to legal oversight through the European Court of Human Rights.

In addition to this permissive consensus, the elected governments of the six (and later nine or even twelve) member states were intimately involved in decision-making on every step toward European integration.

Finally, the move toward direct election of the European Parliament, coupled with the increasing powers of this supranational assembly, promised to open new channels for democratic accountability at the heart of the process. Given that European integration did not yet affect people’s lives very deeply, this seemed an adequate system of democratic accountability.

But the EU’s response to the current economic crisis has laid bare what close observers have long known to be true: that EU decision-making is increasingly disconnected from the expectations and input of the very citizens whose lives it affects so fundamentally (often but not always for the better).

Deliberations within the Council on critical issues are increasingly subject to majority voting or, far worse, dominated by the behind-the-scenes machinations of a handful of leaders, leaving little opportunity for many member states to make a meaningful contribution.

National parliaments and citizens are disempowered

Despite the innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, national parliaments are disempowered by these intergovernmental games and by their own governments’ unwillingness (with a few notable exceptions) to give them timely information and to allow for parliamentary input into national positions.

To make matters worse, these same governments’ systematically disempower their citizens by failing to provide adequate education about Europe in their schools.

Despite its considerable powers, the European Commission remains unaccountable to voters or to any other body with a strong democratic mandate.

The European Parliament, which does have the power to unseat the Commission, is elected by an ever-smaller proportion of its electorate that research shows is generally motivated by purely national agendas. Just as important, the European Parliament lacks the most important function of national parliaments – the ability to initiate legislation affecting the lives of its constituents.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue. Democracy cannot be gutted at the national level and reduced to slogans at the European level. The new European Citizens Initiative mechanism is an interesting innovation, but it’s hardly an adequate substitute for the robust system of democratic accountability that the citizens of Europe have a full right to expect.

Defenders of the status quo make two arguments. Some argue that the current economic crisis is so urgent that Europe does not have the luxury of time to debate the sort of institutional changes needed to remedy the democratic deficit.

This is a bogus argument, disturbingly similar to the justifications that one hears from the autocrats that the EU itself is quick to criticise.

If there is time to change the technical mechanisms of economic governance, there is also time to begin addressing the democratic deficit.

It is also a false economy, as any new mechanisms adopted without a corresponding increase in democratic accountability will make citizens even less willing to accept painful reforms. (Imagine how much better it would be if Greek citizens felt some ownership of the reforms that Europe is asking of them!)

Other defenders of the status quo argue that because the EU is not a territorial state, it should not be held to the same standards of democratic legitimacy. There is some truth to this argument, at least with regard to the particular mix of institutions and processes that guarantee legitimacy at the national versus European levels.

It is nonetheless unacceptable that Europe’s citizens are today denied effective means to oversee and control the European institutions that affect their lives, regardless of how well intentioned some national leaders and EU officials may be. And as the EU moves even further down the road to political union, this “EU is not a state” defence becomes less and less persuasive.

It is beyond the ambitions of this article to recommend exactly what must be done.

But if Europe’s citizens demand meaningful change in how we are governed, there is no shortage of ways by which the leaders of European institutions could be made more democratically accountable, European Parliament elections could be more focused on European issues, and national institutions could be empowered to play their part.

Switzerland provides an encouraging model for how to combine powerful regional units with a federal structure that is both effective and legitimate. But whatever model is finally chosen, Europe’s citizens must insist that sacrificing democracy in pursuit of technical efficiency is both unacceptable and unsustainable.

The writer is associate professor and Director of the Dublin European Institute at University College Dublin and editor of www.europedebate.ie

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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