If the EU is to survive…, major steps forward are needed in recognizing that the Deficit has become one of the most important issues… that threatens to tear the EU apart, and in drastically addressing it by increasing both better understanding of, and participation in, the EU decision-making processes by citizens. Otherwise, the rise of anti-EU sentiment will continue to ravage the much-cherished accomplishment that the EU is, through claims of restoration of power from the EU bureaucrats to the people.
In late March 2017, the celebration for the 60 years from the signature of the Treaty of Rome – arguably what then constituted the starting point of what eventually became the EU – took place in Rome. However, the past few years have been filled with challenges for the EU and its Member States: the Eurozone crisis, the immigration crisis, the rise of the far-right and extremism and anti-EU sentiment, terrorism, and, perhaps most challenging of all, Brexit.
At the heart of most, if not all, of these challenges, and especially at the center of Brexit, lies a festering and increasingly growing problem of the EU: the EU Democratic Deficit. In the latest Eurobarometer survey 55% of EU citizens do not trust the EU, against 33% that do. This percentage underwent a substantial decrease since 2004 when it was 50%. In addition, only 34% of EU citizens have an overall positive image of the EU, against 38% who are neutral and 27% with a negative view, i.e. a total of 65% of EU citizens have a non-favorable image of the EU.
All the above are indicative of the increasing alienation that EU citizens in relation to the EU decision-making process; what is termed in the literature as the Democratic Deficit. The Deficit scholarship is broadly separated across three main views: Input, Output, Throughput. The main argument of the Input approach is that mechanisms that ensure citizen participation (whether direct or indirect) at the EU level need to be strengthened because supranational-level actors have acquired increased ability to influence key national policy areas. As such, national democratic mechanisms are no longer sufficient and the reinforcement of input by citizens at the supranational level (whether direct or indirect) is needed to ensure conformity with the basic democratic principle of representation.
Against these points, the Output approach’s principal argument is that EU has, in fact, not experienced an increase in its ability to affect key national policies, such as taxation or social security. Hence, increasing representative input is not only unnecessary, but may also harm the argued mostly regulatory (and not redistributive) nature of the EU. In either case, it is suggested that the democratic processes at the national level are both sufficient and effective in providing legitimacy and accountability to decisions of the supranational level. Finally, the Throughput approach suggests that the solution is neither at the input nor at the output stage, but rather it is within the institutional processes themselves (increase and ensure transparency, stakeholder participation, etc.).
The EU has, for the most part and especially after the Eurozone crisis (oversight of national budgets by the Eurogroup and institutionalization of the Troika within the EU through the Two-Pack, the Treaty on Stability, Governance and Coordination ‘debt break’, etc.) and the refugee crisis (e.g. the establishment of the common European Border and Coast Guard), assumed considerable decision-making ability in relation to the national level. This is also apparent from the case of Brexit, whereby the British Prime Minister, in her letter to the European Council President activating article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, draws a direct connection between the wish of the British people “to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination” and the outcome of the referendum for the UK to leave the EU. Ιt appears, then, that the Input (and perhaps Throughput) approach has gained ground.
Yet the EU and its institutions seem to largely underestimate or even be unaware of this phenomenon, something evident in two of the most important texts of the 60-year celebration: the White Paper on the Future of Europe by the President of the European Commission, and of course, the Rome Declaration by the 27 EU Member States leaders (except the UK), the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission. In the White Paper, it is established in the introductory section that “many Europeans consider the Union as either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives.” However, and while there is even a section on “questioning of trust and legitimacy,” there are actually no specific references to how the democratic processes within the EU could be improved, or even how the perception of these processes (or perception of lack thereof) has impacted opinion of citizens. Rather, there are only very vague references that mostly transfer the entire issue to the national level, such as that it is the Member States that fail to take “ownership of joint decisions and the habit of finger-pointing” and that social media, etc., “will only accelerate and continue to change the way democracy works.”
The Declaration of Rome also falls short of expectations. The devotion to democracy appears twice in the entire text in a very general way, and specific references concern the fact that the leaders are “aware of the concerns of our citizens,” that they will “respond to the concerns expressed by… citizens,” and, finally, that they will “promote a democratic, effective and transparent decision-making process and better delivery.” These references definitely do not address the major commitments and improvements necessary in the area of democratic process within the EU (they even fall short in terms of recognizing this issue as a major concern for European unity), especially considering the recurrent attacks sustained during the last few years and the primary role that this issue assumes in terms of the citizens’ perception of the EU.
It is undoubted that people are increasingly losing faith in the democratic process and system, not just at the supranational but also at the national level. For example, 62% of EU citizens do not trust their national parliaments and 64% do not trust their national government. This is an alarmingly large percentage. However, in the hierarchy of necessity, both government and parliament take precedence over the EU; in simple terms, the EU is the first one to go. If the EU is to survive and in order to gain the much-needed support from its citizens, major steps forward are needed in recognizing that the Deficit has become one of the most important issues, and perhaps even the primary one, that threatens to tear the EU apart, and in drastically addressing it by increasing both better understanding of, and participation in, the EU decision-making processes by citizens. Otherwise, the rise of anti-EU sentiment will continue to ravage the much-cherished accomplishment that the EU is, through claims of restoration of power from the EU bureaucrats to the people.