The European Union Democratic Deficit

EU Cartoon

The European Union Democratic Deficit

The following was posted on Comment is Free by poster tswash who writes:

BTW I worked for 20 years full time inside the European Union system and up until the Lisbon Treaty fiasco was a strong supporter of ‘ever deeper union’. Lisbon showed me there would be no democratic political union – and who wants a non-democratic union?

It is the best account I’ve read of the European democratic deficit and with some minor editing I’m posting it here.

The European Union system is not democratic. Explaining why this is the case is complex because the institutional arrangements in the EU are very complex.

The political system of the EU consists of:

The European Council, which is a quasi-legislature of inter-governmental ministerial sessions, shielded from any national oversight, operating as a kind of upper chamber. This is by far the most powerful body within the European system. Although the politicians in the Council are members of national political parties they do not bring party politics to the Council, relations inside the Council are between national representatives.

Coreper, which is the powerful bureaucracy attached to the European Council. It is made up of special permanent representatives of the various member states’ civil services brought together, attached to and servicing the Council. Coreper functions as the key bureaucratic layer in the political leadership of EU and has a pivotal but largely hidden role in assembling agendas, working papers, reports and draft agreements for the Council. Prior to submitting any text to the Council for adoption Coreper attempts to achieve consensus agreement at its level through the ‘A’ list where the permanent representatives agree proposals and these then go through ‘on the nod’ by the Council without a vote and marked as unanimously agreed. It should be noted that Ministers on the Council do not see the text of proposals on this ‘A’ list merely the item title. About four fifths of all Council decisions are ’nodded’ through via the A-list system. The role and work of Coreper is hardly known outside of EU specialists, its deliberations are wholly secret and there is no democratic oversight of Coreper by either the national or European parliaments and no connection between its work and any political party.

The President of the European Council is elected by the European Council by a qualified majority vote in secret deliberations for a fixed term. Generally unanimous support for the candidate is sought. When in office the President of the European Council is not attached to any political party.

The European Commission is the body which proposes new legislation, draws up the EU’s annual budget and manages and supervises EU funding. The President of the European Commission is nominated by the national leaders in secret discussions and then must be approved by the European Parliament by majority vote. When in office the President of the European Commission is not attached to any political party. The individual Commissioners who are the equivalent of Ministers are nominated and appointed in a non transparent process by the President of the Commission in secret consultation with members state governments without reference to any national assembly. The Commissioners are not MEPs and are constitutionally detached from any connection to a political party. The European Parliament must approve the new incoming Commission as a whole but cannot vote on the appointment of individual commissioners.

The European Court of Justice, a quasi-supreme court that acts as if it were the guardian of a constitution which does not exist. Unlike the US and UK supreme court no votes are recorded in the European Court and no dissent is ever set out in a judgement.

The European Central Bank, which is constitutionally accountable to nobody and legally immune to democratic interference. Its staff, and it itself as a corporate body, are legally immune to criminal prosecution by any national legal system. The European Central Bank is the only central bank in the world which has no government behind it.

The European Parliament is a pseudo-legislative lower chamber, in the form of a largely impotent elected assemble that has no permanent home, no power of taxation, no control over EU expenditure (it is merely confined to voting yes/no on the EU budget as a whole), no power to make executive appointments, no right to initiate legislation merely the ability to express a non binding vote for amendment or rejection of it, and to make a non binding request that the Commission prepare legislation. The European Parliament is the weakest of any of the EU institutions, and is the only elected body in the entire EU superstructure and the only one in which political parties have a formal role, although there are no pan-EU political parties.

Alongside the general negation of democratic principles through bureaucratic suffocation and obfuscation (decisions emerge but the real origins of decisions or location of decision making is obscure) three other key characteristics of the EU system stand out.

The replacement of open political negotiation and debate by diplomatic mechanisms

The vast majority of the decisions of the Council, Commission and Coreper concern domestic issues that were traditionally debated in national legislatures. But in the EU system these become the object of the sort of secretive diplomatic negotiations traditionally reserved for foreign or military affairs, where parliamentary controls were usually weak to non-existent and where executive discretion could operate untrammelled. What the core system of the EU effectively does is to convert the open agenda and politics of parliaments into the closed world of diplomatic negotiation. The European project, as a top down non-partisan project conceived between national governments, was the result of diplomatic negotiations and it has never transcended those origins. The entire European projects from its beginnings in the ECSC right through to the EU has acted as the mechanism for a vast expansion of diplomatic process and methods into, and replacing, traditional partisan democratic practices.

The endless quest for a stifling consensus

Even though traditional diplomacy required stealth and surprise to work it did not preclude discord or rupture. Classically diplomacy involved the war of manoeuvre between parties capable of breaking as well as making alliances, of sudden shifts, in short it involved politics, politics conducted between states but politics nevertheless. In the disinfected universe of the EU this all but disappears as unanimity is always sought and on most significant issues usually achieved. At the top of the EU system any refusal to accept a prefabricated consensus is largely treated as if it were an unthinkable breach of etiquette. There are almost never any minority reports. Inside the powerful centres of power in the EU there is no room for the rough and tumble of disorderly and partisan political competition or even debate. The EU system is designed to deliberately stifle partisan politics and in the process it stifles public partisan political debate in any meaningful sense. The EU wants to close down politics rather than open it up.

The removal of political parties as the fulcrum of democratic politics

It is worth reminding ourselves of how central political parties are to the sorts of real democratic systems that exist at a national level in Europe. Historically the role of political parties was to organise the citizenry into blocs of opinion, often these blocs reflected pre-existing social blocs (such as religious denominations, organised labour, regional and sub national ethnic interests etc) and political parties both represented these blocs but also worked backwards into civil society to actually build and strengthen the blocs they represented. The optimum outcome for the democratic process was where the party system allowed clear cut alternative policy options to be put to the electorate, whether through a single party or a coalition of parties, representing the competing policy options. Traditionally parties were often important markers for social identity and often secured life long allegiance from citizens. Political parties are a critical and central component of democratic government because they allow party based government to exist.

Party based government has the following key characteristics:

▪ A party (or coalition of parties) wins control of the executive as a result of competitive elections based on a universal suffrage.
▪ Political leaders are recruited by and through parties.
▪ Parties offer voters clear policy alternatives.
▪ Public policy is determined by the party (or coalition of parties) in the executive.
▪ The executive is held accountable through parties.

Nothing like this exists inside the EU system. The EU system is designed to be, in the strict meaning of the word, non-partisan. The EU system has almost no role for political parties and there are no pan-European political parties. There is party representation inside the European Parliament but this really is just a talking shop which does not have sovereign power over the whole system and which cannot autonomously make binding laws of its own choosing (surely the fundamental purpose of parliaments) and does not control the purse strings.

If the EU stands for social solidarity and social democratic values why is the EU state apparatus so minute, why are there no EU social programmes of any substance, why are there no transfers of funds across borders (via an EU taxation system) to finance a pan-European social system?

Speaking as someone who has been on the left for 50 years and someone who worked full time in the EU system for 20 years I would argue that the European Union is, among other things, politically a mechanism to win support of the Left for a massive neo-Liberal project. The belief, against all the evidence, that the EU is somehow a social democratic system is a wide spread and tragic mistake on the Left.

The EU system as it actually is, is essentially a vast open space for capital policed by a small state apparatus whose primary activity is to regulate the operations of the open market whilst having essentially zero responsibility for any material system of social solidarity. The Four Freedoms are all freedoms for Capital. I don’t oppose the creation of a single European economic space for capital as long as it is enmeshed with in, and contained by, a strong pan-European democratic political system and a large and robust system of pan-European material social solidarity. Without the democratic or social solidarity systems the EU is just the largest and deepest neo-liberal zone on the planet.

The EU is not Europe, the current EU is not the only possible European project, and to critique or oppose the current EU system is not to oppose Europe.

It is not the Brexiteers who restrict the powers of the European Parliament it is the rest of the EU system.

In order for the EU to be democratic it would require either of two things:

– The European Parliament becoming the sovereign institution in the EU system with complete political power over the entire EU apparatus including the executive. This means the ability to propose and pass binding legislation, complete control over the budget, the right to make and break treaties, and the right to appoint Commissioners as ministers (preferably from the ranks of the MEPS). In essence it would require the creation of a sovereign EU government based on majority support in the European Parliament, and by definition this would also create an ‘opposition’ inside the parliament seeking to topple the government and replace it. As an essential prerequisite of such a system to operate correctly there must be some sort of pan-European political party system.


– A directly elected President of the Europe with the powers to propose and veto any European Council decision. Such a presidency must be equipped with its own civil service support systems capable of making it effective. I consider this to be a democratically weaker option than the sovereign parliamentary option.

Neither of these two options are every likely to come about for two important reasons. One is that the current system of non-transparent and unaccountable institutions of the EU would never willingly pass such power to the new democratic institutions. Historically all such transfers of power and processes by which democracy has been established has at some point required essentially revolutionary rupture.

Secondly and even more important – there is no European Demos. What I mean by that is that the current systems of national democracies are all passed on deep political, historical, cultural and social national roots that bind the people’s of the nation together into single Demos (of course some have unresolved fracture lines) and it is the existence of the Demos that legitimises democratic rule. The fact that after so many years of the European Parliament there are still no pan-European political parties is a very important indicator that a European Demos has not yet been constructed. Building such a European Demos is a long way off, will take a very long time and may not actually be possible.

Because building a truly democratic system is currently not possible in the EU I want to see the EU loosen rather than deepen, as a progressive I think that is the only safe option.


%d bloggers like this: