Does the EU need to be democratic?
There has been in recent years a growing concern, reflected in the abundant publication by various academics and scholars, relating to the legitimacy of the European Union (EU) and its alleged ‘democratic deficit’. Many of these publications seem to have taken the democratic deficit as given and concentrated on explaining its causes and characteristics,leading to solutions which could be put in place to resolve it. Few have explicitly identified and questioned the common premise that this emphasis on the democratic deficit implies. Indeed, the recognition of its relevance presupposes the existence of a certain threshold of democratic accountability from which the EU is assumed to be departing from. But does this threshold really exist, and if so, howcan it be defined?
In this essay, I take a step back from the mainstream debate and discuss whether the EU should be democratic in the first place. Since ‘democracy’ is such a vague concept with multiple possible interpretations, any analysis in that domain has to be directly related to the sense in which the EU can be democratic. Also, any ‘should’ question implies some goal(s) to be met, whichin this case are efficiency and (more importantly for the purpose of this analysis) compliance with citizens’ expectations. As such, the mere fact that the democratic deficit is felt throughout the EU by a significant part of the public (Eurobarometer 2008b, page 57) provides by itself some ground on which to argue for the need of democratic accountability at EU level.
The argument of thisessay is articulated in two parts. On the one hand, I shall explain what is meant by democracy at EU level by considering the different models that apply to its system of governance, and examining their related tests of democratic accountability. Parallel to this, I will look at why the EU should conform to any model at all, by taking a closer look at the identity problem, the functions of the EUand the expectations of its citizens. Bringing these two separate but related lines of argumentation together will lead us to a comprehensive overview of how (according to which standards) and why (for what reasons and to achieve what goals) the EU should be democratic.
The concept of democracy free from context and on a purely abstract level is, I think, rather simple. Its irreduciblecore has been defined by Beetham (1994, page 28) as “responsive rule” according to “the related principles of popular control and political equality”, which is a sufficiently general yet clear definition for the purpose this analysis. Complications start to arise when one applies this concept to reality, and look for precise criteria and conditions of democratic accountability. It should be nosurprise that these vary depending on such factors as the type of entity studied, values of its citizens, historical and cultural context, and other internal and external particularities. As Saward (1996, page 470) puts it, “all democracies are somewhere, sometime”. This should not be taken as an extreme relativist statement, for there are of course certain situations which are clearly not democratic(no matter the interpretation of the concept), and likewise principles that apply to all democratic systems. What this is instead intended to show is that one must be very careful and meticulous when comparing the EU to other political systems. This is why, for instance, the common argument that the lack of powers of the European Parliament (EP) compared to those of national parliamentsrenders the EU insufficiently democratic is incomplete (and dangerous) as such – although it might very well be true, it omits crucial differences between governance at EU and national level. The unprecedented experience of EU integration, its sui generis nature, makes it even harder to contrast it to ‘traditional’ systems. Paradoxically, this can result in an even bigger mistake, that of using...
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