European Elections Special

Triple trouble

The EU is more democratic than most people think. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for its crisis management.

Undemocratic: That is how the European Union is often portrayed these days. In fact, the complaints about the so-called “democratic deficit” have persisted ever since the Maastricht Treaty. But how much truth lies in that description? How democratic is the European Union?

A sticking point of the criticism has long been the imbalance between European institutions. It was finally resolved with the Treaty of Lisbon, which augmented the role of the European Parliament (EP) and therefore constituted a valuable step towards representative democracy.

  • The EP is now the first chamber of legislature in almost all policy areas. Together with the Council of Ministers, it passes most new laws.
  • New rules for European Parliamentary elections make sure that the Commission’s president will be chosen according to the distribution of seats in the EP. Each of the large European parties has just named a candidate who would become president of the Commission in the case of his or her party’s victory. This measure will augment the visibility of the EP – as well as that of the EU and its institutions in general.
  • Additionally, the EP enjoys many rights that are not yet part of the treaties but that are encoded in the so-called framework agreements: Since the end of the 1990s, for instance, all candidates for the Commission have had to face a hearing before Parliament. Very few national parliaments have the same rights vis-à-vis their respective governments.

The Lisbon Treaty has also made the role of national parliaments more explicit and has significantly strengthened it – for instance, by defining when parliaments have to be notified by EU organs as well as how far they are to be involved in changing the European treaties. Additionally, a right to hold public referendums has been introduced, which allows millions of EU citizens to request new legislation.

By augmenting the role of its parliament, the EU has created a representative democratic system with several levels. Sure, it can be challenging to understand exactly what responsibilities each level holds – but the same is true for the political systems of its member states. In some areas, the EP still falls short of national parliaments’ rights – but it also possesses some unique powers absent from them. That means we can no longer justifiably speak of a democratic deficit – even though that doesn’t mean further democratization of the union isn’t desirable! Over the years, the Union has always become more and more democratic; it would be unfair to assume we have already reached the end of that process.

Europe needs a democratic structure

There is, however, one crucial caveat: The way the fiscal crisis has been managed has caused a new democratic deficit. Even worse: It is a return to the time of the Maastricht Treaty.

Intergovernmental treaties and other measures taken during the crisis have created a structure running parallel to the EU treaties. This structure has two main differences from the existing framework: It includes only countries that have adopted the euro and sidesteps the European Parliament (which has mere consulting powers regarding the so-called fiscal pact).

Most critical is the role of the troika: It is composed of members of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF – and has not only the task of monitoring preconditions for loans but also decides under which circumstances they are granted. The troika has been imbued with significant powers without having a clear-cut task or assignment. To make matters worse, it is unclear who the troika actually reports to. It is not bound by the structures of the Lisbon Treaty. And it is uncertain what power national governments and parliaments – the core institutions of national representative democracy! – have over it.

A crisis of legitimacy

Several European politicians have reiterated this very criticism, and even the EP has held a hearing about the troika’s work. But none of them has managed to curb these troublesome issues.

We need to embed the ESM and the fiscal pact into the legal framework of the European treaties as quickly as possible – just as Article 16 of the fiscal pact proposes. As a second measure, the de facto transfer union, which passes out aid to ailing member states, needs to become more transparent and more democratic.

There are good reasons for both of these steps. The first is to solve the democratic deficit. The second and more surprising one is a pragmatic one: The history of the European Union has shown that a democratic structure is necessary. Practicing just intergovernmental and economic integration leads to a crisis of legitimacy – again and again. Integration needs to rest on popular support – which the crisis has been eroding for years.

Translation from German.

Read more in this debate: Besir Ceka, Nik Darlington, Achim Hurrelmann.


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