Democratic Legitimacy Deficits: The European Union and America

Peter Dunne

Having completed my primary law degree in Ireland and France, I have spent much of the last five years speaking about “democratic legitimacy deficits” – the perception that the European Union is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, controlled by shadowy bureaucrats in Brussels who have little or no interest in the will of the ordinary EU citizen. The need to make the European Union more accountable to the general public was a driving force behind the recent Treaty of Lisbon, and ironically, was one of the main reasons why politicians experienced such difficulty in getting the agreement ratified.

It is perhaps for this reason that I was so interested in “The Democratic Deficit in the States,” an article written by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips, two professors at Columbia University. In the article, they consider the extent to which policy decisions made in the fifty U.S. states reflect and promote the will of a majority of those states’ citizens. Their research concludes that while decisions are highly responsive to policy-specific opinion, they are “congruent with majority will only half the time.” This leads the authors to infer that there is a “democratic deficit.”

Reading the study by Professors Lax and Phillips, I was reminded of one of the key differences between the American and European conception of democracy – direct representation versus accountability. For many on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, the fact that a given policy decision does not represent the will of more than fifty percent of the citizens automatically renders that decision undemocratic. However, as a European, I am not surprised, nor indeed am I that concerned, that Government policy will not always enjoy majority support. For me, the results of national surveys on individual issues are not that important. Rather, what matters is that I have an opportunity to hold the Government accountable at election time. If I disagree with individual policy decisions, I can vote to remove the decision-maker from office when the time comes.

While this difference in how we understand democracy may not be substantively large, it is crucial in explaining the claims of a “democratic legitimacy deficit” in Europe.  For many Europeans, the problem is not that specific policy decisions taken within the Union fail to reflect majority will. Rather, it is the fact that where a controversial decision is taken, there is often no way of holding the decision-maker politically accountable. So much of the European legislative process is perceived (1) to take place behind closed doors; and (2) to be conducted by unelected bureaucrats. The Commission, a large Civil Service-type institution, proposes legislation and the Council of the European Union, made up of Member State ministers, votes on the laws. Where there is disagreement between the two, the unseen Committee of PErmanent Representatives works as an intermediary. None of these bodies, or their individual members, receive a direct mandate from the European people. It is this apparent lack of transparency which has fuelled public resentment. In response, the Treaty of Lisbon increases the number of issues on which the directly elected European Parliament must vote – not to ensure that EU policy always reflects the majority will, but rather to make clear that where there is a disagreement, the electorate can ultimately hold decision-makers accountable at the ballot box.


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