700 words on... getting to grips with EU politics

Want to know more about the EU, and if it suffers from a democratic deficit? European Studies may be for you...

This module opened my eyes and made me think twice about what I thought of the EU and the role of national governments.

This may have been an essay title that I had to write about for one of my politics units, but in the end it was more than just an essay; it was an essay that opened my eyes and made me think twice about what I thought of the EU and the role of national governments in our post-modern and globalising world. Before taking this module, I had no idea about the political functioning of the EU let alone the threat of it suffering from a democratic deficit. I am a modern language student primarily, but my degree course is Languages and European Studies. The degree allows you to study modules from different departments outside of Modern Languages and the best thing is that everything I learn in one module is of relevance to another module. I think it is important to know about the EU, especially as I spent my Year Abroad in a fellow European country as an Erasmus student, if it wasn’t for the EU then I, and you, wouldn’t be able to study or work abroad as easily as we can do now. So here’s my guide to the EU…

Before attempting to consider to what extent the so called 'democratic deficit' has actually penetrated European Union procedures, it is probably a good idea to understand what exactly this democratic deficit is. Well, it has repeatedly been argued that the EU suffers from deficiencies in representation, accountability and legitimacy (the essential qualities for any democratic government) and these, in turn, have merited their own umbrella-like label: the democratic deficit. So it appears that this democratic deficit is a real and tangible phenomenon; it’s just like Globalisation then- you may not be able to see it in action but it does exist. The means to resolve this deficit should be, one would assume, pretty easy and straightforward then. Wrong. Just like the tendentious manifestations and varying degrees of impact that Globalisation seems to subsume, resolving this European democratic deficit is also highly contested. 

The term democratic deficit first became a fashionable European buzzword just a few years ago; used by politicians, scholars and the press, yet somehow it has failed, like most  EU initiatives, to really make an impact at European grassroots level. This isn't due to the exceptive and obnoxious European citizens, but just like most directives, laws and policies that are a product of the EU, it is simply too complex a process for ordinary citizens to comprehend or indeed care about. Not only is the term democratic deficit alluding to the depth at which democracy persists within European Union norms but it is also highlighting the apparent disparities within the notion of democracy itself; something that has only exasperated and complicated the argument over the European Union's democratic deficit even more.

The European Union is, in all honesty, unique. At present the EU is neither an international organisation as the phrase is best understood (no other international organisations have a publicly elected assembly) nor is the Union a state that possesses all the legislative and parliamentary powers that true nation states acquire. The European Union symbolises the new globalising world and reflects the fragmentation and disjointed characteristics of a post-modern society. Society has become abstract, each city diversely made up of foreign cultures and nationalities which in turn emulates the arrangement of the Union; a polity comprising of 582 million people from 27 countries united together under the umbrella of a single international institution.

The way in which the union operates is eminently democratic. The mannerisms of policy making are clean, efficient and democratically legitimate. The union does not threaten the existence of the individual member states but in fact promotes the idea of agreement between states. The Treaty of Amsterdam highlights such a move, for it extended co-decision making between community nations. At various levels the EU tries to ensure that democracy is maintained once countries become member states of the union. There is no lack of representative bodies in the EU; the EP and the Executive; here decision making is divided between these institutions in order to create a fair and democratic process at European level. With such multiple levels of decision making, the EU clearly legislates in favour of broad public interests.

However, the European Union without doubt lacks certain fundamental elements that are important for any democratic state. In order for the Union to be truly democratic it is necessary for the presence of a European demos. The demos is indispensable as it represents the idea of a political community of shared identities and values. Many infer that there is a lack of common identity amongst Europeans. Indeed the bitter sweat history, agitated cultures, diverse languages and social values continue to separate the European people despite a willingness to integrate into the European Union. The prospect in the immediate future of a European fraternity as Churchill once proclaimed is very slim. For democracy to be legitimate within the EU there needs to be a common consensus and political identity in order to deliberate, which at present the Union certainly lacks. Without the development of a European demos the democratic deficit cannot be refuted.

Many feel that the EU is an elite driven project, detached from the needs and wishes of ordinary citizens that live within it. The constitution itself symbolised explicitly this elitist idea; consisting of hundreds of pages, impenetrable to all but the most advanced of technocrats, in which no ordinary citizen would be able to make neither head nor tail of. This strong sense of distance between the EU policy makers and European citizens inhibits the ability of the Europeans to see how impeccably democratic the EU actually is.