Five ways to fix the EU's democratic deficit


Picture of Corrado Pirzio-Biroli
Corrado Pirzio-Biroli

Executive Chairman of the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE) Foundation and former European commission official

Corrado Pirzio-Biroli is a former European Commission official who served in the private offices of Commission President Gaston Thorn and Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler. In our occasional series of ‘Counterpoint’ articles, he responds to Giles Merritt’s Frankly Speaking column on why all of Europe’s elections should be on the same day. Read the original article here

Two problems threaten European integration, as Giles Merritt points out in his piece: the rise of Eurosceptic populism, and a series of deadlocks hampering the functioning of EU democracy. But would rationalising national elections, as Merritt suggests, solve both issues? Would such an approach be achievable, or is it at least possible to move towards that direction? And how bad is the European Union’s democratic deficit?

True democracy exists when people are free to participate in public affairs without being restricted by private bodies without accountability. The management of democracy has become a growing challenge, however, as nations are more reluctant to reduce the gap between rich and poor regions, more inefficient in managing public affairs, and too limited to deal with global problems.

Although the EU facilitates dealing with global issues ‒ and has actually performed quite well in that regard ‒ it is inevitably seen as more removed from its citizens than nations, let alone regions, are. Yet, Eurobarometer enquiries show that public confidence in the EU is generally higher than in national governments, despite the tendency of the member state governments to attribute the merits of EU laws and actions to themselves while blaming the EU for whatever goes wrong.

Democracy ‒ in the EU and beyond ‒ is simply too precious to lose

One can argue that EU democracy works better than democracy in many member states, as it is less temperamental and less reversible. Because the European Commission cannot count on a majority in the European Parliament, the latter has significant power on community-policy matters, including the EU budget since 1975. The number of amendments the Parliament tables to Commission proposals is enormous ‒ over 3,200 amendments were submitted for the last common agricultural policy reform proposal for example. This is a striking contrast to a centralised system, in place in the United Kingdom for instance, where power is concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office.

But democratic deficits do exist in the EU: One is in the European Council, whose decisions are not always thoroughly prepared by the relevant bodies and where participants may, for reasons of internal politics, attach great value on bringing home an agreement with little relevance to the EU. Another deficit is that the directly elected EU Parliament cannot vote on resources. The flimsy relationship between the national parliaments and the EU Parliament, and in particular between the national parties and the corresponding European parties, is also a good example of the EU’s democratic shortcomings.

According to the Schuman Declaration, absolute national sovereignty was heretical because it placed political decision-making above national norms. Replacing national sovereignty with a collective one was therefore a moral response. Despite further progress in European integration, such moral responses have weakened, and the same has happened in member states.

If progress in EU integration is too slow – although far from the gridlock that has been affecting the US Congress – it is largely due to the vanity of country leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs and other individuals who want to emerge and win elections or a fortune, but who lack a sense of the state and who want to pursue company and/or personal advantage by putting profit before people. Instead of leaning towards solidarity and the common well-being, they contribute to the weakening of traditional parties and the emergence of populists of the left and the right.

But how can we enhance EU democracy? While Giles Merritt supports merging the roles of the Commission and Council presidents, proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the direct election of a ‘European president’ and a coordinated schedule of national and European elections, I feel more is needed.

Let me make five suggestions:

1. Match the Multiannual Financial Perspectives with the EU Parliament’s electoral period and with the financing of the whole EU budget through own resources;

2. Recommend that EU member states time national elections with those of the Parliament, with greater flexibility in case of national crises;

3. Recommend that the national parties establish much closer links with those in the Parliament and that they appoint leading party figures as European secretaries. This should not only help increase national party input in Parliament party caucuses, but also ensure that national elections deal with European issues;

4. Make the elections more democratic by ensuring that the elected candidates are those that got the most votes ‒ instead of those who top the lists ‒ and, in first-past-the-post systems, that the candidates are not imposed by the parties without consultation of the local party members

5. Ban referendums for other than personal and family matters, as voters tend to pay little attention to complex issues and hence do not understand them better than their elected representatives, while nobody is held accountable for the result. The referendums are already banned in some member states.

Referendums do not work in the case of more complex, notably institutional, issues.

The final point may deserve greater explanation: While some people believe referendums are a more democratic consultation and decision-making instrument than elections, this only holds true for matters close to people’s hearts, such as abortion, gun control, family law and other moral issues. Referendums do not work in the case of more complex, notably institutional, issues.

This difference is reflected in voting behaviour. In the first case people vote about the issue; in the second, they mostly wish to show their support for, or rejection of, the government in place. This is why populists and minorities who fail to get their way in parliament see referendums as the only opportunity to beat the government, appealing directly to the people, regardless of whether they are unsuited to decide or uneasy to take position. Decisions about institutional issues, including the EU and its future, should be left where they belong: in the hands of people’s representatives chosen in democratic elections.

We all know that confidence in political institutions has dwindled, however. Disaffected people have often become the largest party ‒ that of non-voters. Anti-establishment elements of society have fed extremist parties and separatist movements, and they contest the established order and try to re-establish a sense of community, often attracted by fundamentalism and other forms of extremism. All this tends to engender rebellion towards globalisation that citizens feel has often gone too far. This together with growing income gaps, broken political promises and lack of transparency weaken the democratic spirit even further. The younger generations in particular want to feel free and independent and tend to refuse a world in which the law of the strongest has taken over. The EU, along with national parties, has failed to respond to such aspirations.

Support for the EU is more likely to increase if integration speeds up in areas of public interest, such as economy, equality, security and corruption. Including national parliaments in decision-making is also crucial to not jeopardise democracy further.

Democracy ‒ in the EU and beyond ‒ is simply too precious to lose.

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