Op-Ed: The European Union has a Democratic Deficit Problem

Flags of the member states of the European Union in front of the EU-commission building "Berlaymont" in Brussels, Belgium
Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

By Madison Peak

“The resulting ‘democratic deficit’ would not be acceptable in a Community committed to democratic principles. Yet such a deficit would be inevitable unless the gap were somehow filled by the European Parliament….”

– Labor Politician David Marquand, 1979

The idea that the European Union (EU) has a ‘democratic deficit’ problem emerged in the 1970s, when David Marquand, a British academic, first coined the term. He used the term to describe the European Community’s institutional weaknesses surrounding democratic legitimacy. In other words, the EU’s democratic deficit refers to the lack of accessibility and representation of EU member-state citizens within the policy-making process and EU institutions. 

The EU was not created to be a supranational anti-democratic institution. Democratic issues arose when the Single European Act and the Treaty on the European Union transferred political power away from EU member-states to EU institutions. As Kübra Dilek Azman argues, this transfer of political decisions and allocations  “weakened democratic influence and control at the national level without having been compensated by equally strong democratic institutions and processes at the European level.” In the process of developing its bureaucracy, the EU transferred certain functional parts of democratic sovereignty from member states to an organization ill-prepared to utilize it. 

Some argue that the EU is a democratic achievement because of parliamentary electoral participation and its fundamental freedoms enshrined in law. Yet, these two “achievements” are not as democratically positive as they deem.

I argue that there are two overarching reasons for the EU’s democratic deficit. The first is the lack of a common European identity. There is little coherence between national and EU identities. EU citizens are more likely to identify with their state of origin rather than the EU. Therefore, if the EU lacks a shared identity and the EU continues to strengthen EU institutions, then the democratic deficit will only deepen over time. Because the EU has failed to create a collective European identity, there is a lack of political unity within many EU organizations. As a result, the lack of political unity decreases the EU’s legitimacy and gives citizens less of a voice in a politically polarized environment. This issue is the primary reason why BREXIT was supported by so many British citizens who believed that the EU lacked the legitimacy to create policies that affected their daily lives.

The second reason stems from structural issues within the EU regarding the European Commission (EC) and the European Parliament (EP). A core element of democracies is citizen participation through voting and representative political decision-making. An easy way for governments to bolster citizen participation is through elections in which citizens vote for the officials who create the policies that govern them. The EC is a non-elected institution, as the European Council proposes a commissioner that Parliament approves. As a non-elected institution, the EC promotes, proposes, and enforces EU legislation. This creates a divide between the EU and its citizens, who lack a direct say in the appointments of officials governing their region. While the Lisbon Treaty introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative to increase transparency and involve citizens in EU legislation and policy-making processes, it is not enough to fill the structural deficit of democratic representation. 

EU citizens directly elect members of the EP, which is the weakest of the three core EU institutions. The EP cannot propose legislation and often has a low voter turnout. The highest voter turnout was in 1979 at 61.99%, but has since gradually decreased to only 56% in 2019. In comparison, U.S. voter turnout in 2020 was 66.7%. EP elections do not coincide with government or policy formations, leading to a discontent between voting and democracy. 

It is equally possible that the democratic deficit was created by member-states when they acceded to the union. Nation-states, with unique identities and democratic ideals, joined the EU, but were put in a position to give up some parts of the democratic sovereignty to create interdependence in the union. Daniel Innerarity proposes that the deficit “consists of the fact that member states, trapped in a dense network of interdependencies, are not capable of providing their citizens some of the goods without which a democracy stops being one.” After joining the EU, member-states often could no longer perform democratic actions that their constituencies expected. States failed to include citizen power in EU treaties furthered the deficit. However, the Commission could rectify this problem and decrease the democratic deficit of the EU.

The two overarching reasons for the EU’s democratic deficit–the lack of a common European identity and the structural issues of the EC and the EP–have been ongoing since the European Community. As states joined the Union, the deficit deepened as member-states lost more of their democratic power that was not translated appropriately. The democratic deficit of the EU threatens its future, but it was probably inevitable and will be near impossible to reconcile in the end.

Madison Peak graduated from Arizona State University in 2021, with dual degrees in global studies and political science and from Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, in 2023 with her Master of Arts in International Affairs, specializing in Diplomacy. Madison’s academic foci are global governance and women’s rights under international law. She has interned with the United Nations Association, was President of her graduate program’s student council and women’s group, and studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. Now, Madison works with the International Republican Institute’s Women’s Democracy Network in Washington, D.C., as a Program Associate.


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