Europe-globe

The EU, it’s fair to say, has its fair share of critics. Those that oppose it now talk about leaving out in the open, and even its former proponents now admit that that the EU is in need of reform.

One of the main perceived shortcomings of the EU is its lack of democracy, the so called democratic deficit and the EU is attacked for this both from the left, in the EU being an authoritarian austerity enforcer, and from the right for being a hegemonic, anti-state bureaucracy.

There is a truth to those that decry the lack of democracy in the EU, and it is no surprise that such negative images have formed in parts of society’s consciousness in relation to the EU. However, the EUʼs democratic deficit is not purely the result of its own actions, though at heart the EU is an elite driven, top-down establishment, the nature of Europe itself, as well as the national governments that make up its political landscape.

The EU is an elite driven institution. The process for expansion, both horizontally in terms of accepting greater numbers of European countries to the fold, and vertically, in terms of deepening the body’s influence in various policy areas does not come from a general demand from the populace of the continent. Thus it is no surprise that it can at times seem reluctant to leave the final decision to the population.

The commission, the so called executive of the EU is made up of politicians who have since left their national office. Similarly the relatively new positions of President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, were both selected not by a popular vote, but by being the candidates that various committees felt would least upset the various interested parties of the EU. In fact there is only one elected body within the EU, the European parliament, an institution plagued by ever decreasing turnout, and a relatively limited remit of power.

Thus the EU has some of the blame in Europe’s democratic deficit. It has run itself as an unashamedly elitist system, and has failed to implicate elections into many of its more powerful bodies. But the EU does not act in a vacuum, it has the impossible job of trying to move forward with reform whilst at the same time keeping nearly 30 separate countries, all with their own well defined national goals, desires and insecurities.

In fact it is trying to balance the expectations and requests of the EU 27 that has resulted in the EU falling short of many people’s expectations. The most powerful body within the EU, by some degree, is the European Council, which is made of the elected heads of state of each member country. Thus, in a way, the EUʼs most powerful body is directly elected, however it is not directed specifically for the task. Also, the Council of Europe is one of the main reasons why the European parliament remains relatively weak in terms of the decision making process in the EU. The European Council, and the national leaders who head it, are reluctant to delegate decision making power that they presently command, to a separate elected body almost completely separate from themselves.

The EU often has its hands tied by the countries that ultimately make it up, and though in some cases it can overrule the governments of the member states, if a country is dead set against something, there is little the body can do. Similarly, many of the parties in European states share some of the blame when it comes to the declining turnout and perceived lack of importance of the European parliament elections. For most countries the European elections receive very limited media coverage, only a very small campaign on behalf of the most powerful political parties, and thus encouraging the notion.

Staying on the topic of individual European states, most of them suffer from their own democratic deficits themselves. In the UK 2010 general election, 71.2% of the votes cast were not counted, leaving on eight and a half million people, of a population of nearly 70 million, who decided who would lead the country, and even then the government was one that no one voted for, but was simply a marriage of convenience, much like many of the decisions and compromises the EU makes every day in order to maintain the supranational organization.