CUPRINS nr. 114


How Democratic Is The European Union?*


“Thus, if we still have democracy in a political sense, we cannot expect of the large scale cumbersome political democracy what we can expect of microdemocracies ... it is highly dubious whether our political macrodemocracies can be correctly conceived and understood as an enlargement of some microprototype, of some primary democracy”
Giovanni Sartori (1987: 15)

If one carefully thinks at the implications and possible consequences of the “applied” motto1 on the very forefront of the European Constitutional Treaty, one may be astonished. The quotation belongs to Thucydides, the famous ancient general and historian. However, the real problem is that the quotation invites, more or less, to one of the most famous threats to any democratic arrangement: the tyranny of majority2. More than two centuries ago Benjamin Constant taught us that there are significant differences between ancient and modern freedom. Consequently, there are significant differences between ancient and modern democracy, between homonymy and homology.

On the other hand, for the last ten years many policy-makers and researchers have been debating the so-called “democratic deficit” of the European Union. The questions abound: is there any democratic deficit at all; what is “the democratic deficit"?; is there any democracy at all, as long as there is no clear notion of a European state, or a European political system, or a European demos?; and so on. Thus, in the attempt to assess a relationship between the European Union and the concept of democracy one should probably bear in mind that “Among the conditions of democracy, the one recalled least is that wrong ideas about democracy make a democracy go wrong” (Sartori 1987: 3).

This essay is a modest attempt to clarifying whether the European Union is a relatively integrated system, namely whether or not the very concept of political integration can be successfully applied to the European Union. The primary goal for such an enterprise is to avoid the classical theoretical trap of the so-called “state-centered” and “non-state-centered” approaches to European integration and democratic deficit. Thus, for some researchers the EU “is a multilogical system of governance which is neither national nor international in character” (Chryssochoou 2000: 10), “is stuck between sovereignty and integration” (William Wallace 1982: 67), “institutionalized intergovernmentalism in a supranational organization” (Cameron 1992: 66), “neither state nor an international organization” (Sbragia 1992: 257), “less than a federation, more than a regime” (W. Wallace 1983: 403), “not an ordinary international organization, neither it si a state” (Eriksen and Fossum 2000), or even “governed without a government” (Koch 1999). In this wood of labels, more or less precise, it is very difficult to think at least about opening up a discussion on democracy or democratic deficit.

Secondly, the essay will evaluate whether or not some of the main concepts developed within the democratic theory are useful in analysing the so-called democratic deficit of the Union. The argument the essay puts forward is that, despite considerable changes that have taken place in the governing systems of the West European states, especially after the end of the Second World War, there is still room to assess these structural transformations relative to the basics of democratic theory. The approach to democracy this essay uses is not a radical normative one. It is not a descriptive, empirical, Wertfrei one, either, but it is the approach advanced by Giovanni Sartori in The Theory of Democracy Revisted. In other words, ...we must keep in mind, then, that: (a) the democratic ideal does not define the democratic reality and, vice versa, a real democracy is not, and cannot be, the same as an ideal one; ant that (b) democracy results from, and is shaped by, the interactions between its ideals and its reality, the pull of an ought and the resistance of an is. (Sartori 1987: 8).

The reason to rely on Giovanni Sartori’s approach towards democracy in relationship to the European Union is twofold. On one hand, Sartori provides a strong conceptual base for his analysis rather than just arguing and struggling with the so-called “tyranny of concepts” (Eriksen and Fossum 2000: 6-9)3. On the other hand, more important, he does not deal with peculiar nation-state entities, but with the very basic requirements for a “democratic” label of an institutional arrangement. However, Sartori’s approach on democratic theory will be supplemented by insights put forward by other famous scholars of democratic theory such as Robert A. Dahl and Seymour Martin Lipset.

Clarifying concepts for a (non-)democratic EU: integration

Depending on the affiliation to one of the integration theories, the European Union is considered either an international regime, or a unique governance mechanism, or a political system, or an emerging polity. The main theories of European integration may be typologized according to the theoretical sub-discipline they emerge, such as international relations and comparative politics (Hix 1994). Others divide the integration theories on the rational/constructivist scale (Pollack 2001, Tsebelis 2002). In a recent attempt to typologise the theoretical approaches to the EU, Markus Jachtenfuchs identify two distinct mainstreams: the classical integration theory and the governance approach4 (Jachtenfuchs 2001).

Thus, according to intergovernmentalism, for instance, there would be no obvious need either for a European state, or a European democracy, or a European demos. The developments of the last 50 years should be rather understood as proofs of “a series of rational choices made by national leaders” (Moravcsik 1998: 18). Despite this opinion, one of the pioneering scholars of intergovernmentalism discusses the democratic deficit of the European Union by defending a democratic institutional set-up at supranational level, in comparative perspective (Moravcsik 2002). In addition, Thomassen and Schmitt, relatively to the capacity of integovernmentalism in assessing the degree of democracy at supranational level, note that “The European Parliament in particular would be a total anomaly in the institutional framework of the European Union if it could not be seen as part of an institutional structure that goes beyond the co-operation of sovereign states” (Schmitt and Thomassen 1999: 6-7). In other words, there is a vertical, or structural institutional democratic set-up in place, but is this enough for assessing the EU as being democratic?

On the other hand, new theories of governance underlie the fact that European integration represents a dynamic project, a unique and original development that cannot be analyzed by the classical approaches of political science on democratic theory. According to this approach, the EU has to be perceived and studied as an evolutionary process, with its own logic of development, that produces a unique institutional setting, and requires even a different lexicon (Schuppert 1995: 345-6). It is a challenging approach indeed, but there is a considerable risk of “bordering the metaphysical” here (Hine 2001: 121). Moreover, in logical terms, there is a risk of conceptual regressum ad infinitum. Relatively to the issue of “new lexicon”, Giovanni Sartori sent an alert more than ten years ago: “To begin with, a pervasive change has occurred in the vocabulary of politics ... This development has been legitimized by the brave new thought that words have arbitrary meanings” (Sartori 1987: ix).

Following Giovanni Sartori’s appeal to a careful use of the research concepts5, instead of focusing on what different integration theories say about the way EU is or it ought to be, we should probably look more closely to what exactly integration per se means politically. It seems interesting to see that “The term «integration» appeared after World War II and its popularity in the social sciences has since rise and fallen ... Despite nearly 30 years of usage it is difficult to identify what particular advances have been made conceptually” (Teune 1984: 235).

Teune traces the origins of the concept of “integration” back to Durkheim and Herbert Spencer’ sociological writings. Before addressing its meaning as a political concept, he maintains that, generally speaking, integration “directly involves the age old problem “can the whole be more than the sum of its parts?”” (Teune 1984: 237). This is a very important insight for our analysis of the European Union in its current setting.

However, Teune argues that integration represents an important property of the systems (mechanic, biological, social, economical, and political). In this regard, systems may be more or less integrated. The opposition of integration is then entropy (for mechanical or biological systems) and anarchy (for social and political systems). An important feature of a highly integrated system is the presence of clear boundaries. Moreover, there are dimensions to measure the degree of integration: strength (which would be the probability that a change in one of the integrated system’s components will lead to change in other components), inclusiveness (to what extent every component of the integrated system has an equal probability of changing as a change in one component), and extensiveness (how much the properties of a component are being affected as part of the system), and responsiveness (how rapid is the reaction to a change in any component).

Applying Teune’s framework to the EU’ framework it is obvious there is a relatively high degree of economic integration. If we consider, for instance, the evolution of terminology used to describe the economic developments within Europe for the last 50 years the argument becomes more clear: Common Market, European Communities, European Community, European Union.

What about political integration? In this regard, Teune asserts there are several problems (Teune 1984: 255-6), but the most important one in this context is the blurring of distinction between behavior and structure. It is then important to stress the fact that when analyzing the integration of political systems we should look first at the structures and then at the behavior they create and not the other way around. Thus, the main characteristics of integrated political systems are: subordination and superordination, alternate goal states, cognitive awareness, differently valued goal states, decision structures, means of implementation (from persuasive symbols to coercive organizations), and costs of withdrawal (Teune, 1984: 256-7).

When we apply the characteristics of integrated political systems to the institutional setting of the European Union, it is obvious that our label varies significantly with the allocated or expected threshold for each of the characteristics. For instance, relative to “the means of implementation” one may be satisfied with regulatory policies, whereas another may reassert that the Weberian definition regarding the “monopoly over the use of coercive force” must be in place in order to talk about a European state (Menon 2003: 425). What is important, in the end, is to have at least a conceptual framework (the existence of a political integrated system according to some criteria) in order to evaluate whether or not the EU is democratic on the vertical dimension.

A democratic framework for the EU: the “vertical” dimension

Once it is obvious that the European Union is more or less (depending on the chosen threshold) an integrated political entity, we may ask further: how democratic is this entity? Where should we look in order to assert the degree of democracy? Is there any framework beyond the classical referents (city-state, nation-state, multinational or transnational settings) that may help us to evaluate whether or not the EU is democratic?

One of the classical approaches in the comparative study of modernization and development shows there is a high corelation between the achievements of a market economy and democracy. Thus, the development of a market economy leads to democratic institutional achievements and vice versa. As Seymour Martin Lipset puts the argument, “In discussing the social requisites of democracy, I have repeatedly stressed the relationship between the level of economic development and the presence of democratic government” (Lipset 1993).

The European Union represents a success story in achieving economic development for the last 50 (from Common Market to the European Monetary Union). In other words, from an economic policy standpoint, the EU proved to be highly efficient in terms of delivering outcomes. Should we expect then, following Lipset argument, a high degree of democracy standards as well?

The answer is no. First, Lipset analysis is exclusively focused on developments of modernizing states. Secondly, despite the statistical relevance of the correlations, we should remember that democracy is exclusively a political concept rather than a social or economic one. The reason is that when we assess concepts such as representation, institutions or legitimacy the reference should be only to political democracy. The argument for this approach is offered again by Giovanni Sartori: “First things must come first; and political democracy as a method, or as a procedure, must precede whatever substantive achievement we may demand from a democracy” (Sartori 1987: 11).

Thus, in order to assess the democratic performance of an integrated political system, as defined by Teune, we have to find first the appropriate framework for analysis. Second, when we talk about the democratic deficit of the European Union we should ask: What exactly the democratic deficit means? What dimension we should look at?

Sartori has again a useful framework in this regard. He asserts that, as politics in general, democracy has two basic dimensions: a horizontal and a vertical one. The vertical dimension is common to many political and institutional arrangements, for the simple reason it deals with such concepts as subordination, superordination, coordination, delegation and representation. On the other hand, the horizontal dimension becomes “salient only in democracies and shares, historically, their destiny” (Sartori 1987: 131). The horizontal dimension of politics deals with such concepts as public opinion, demos, electoral democracy, referendums, citizenship, civil society, and so on.

When we try to apply this basic framework to the democratic deficit of the European Union the analysis may easily advance. As Chryssochoou shows, for instance, the democratic deficit of the Union has two important dimensions: a structural deficit, regarding both how the power is allocated among (and within) the main institutions of the EU, and the loss of democratic autonomy by national legislatures, and a socio-psychological deficit, “reflecting an apparent lack of a sense of community among the member publics” (2000: 15). In other words, the democratic deficit of the EU has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The fundamental question then becomes: which of the levels needs democratic change in order to produce change in the other?

There are many analyses that focus on the issue of democratic deficit of the European institutions. For instance, Crombez focuses on the output of the legislative process and measure it, by using a formal model, against the median voter ideal preference. He even proposes two suggestions for further democratization: open Council meetings and a different procedure for the appointment of the Commission against the excessive delegation concerns. Anyways, his main conclusion is that “the institutional setup is not fundamentally undemocratic” (Crombez 2003). At the same conclusion comes Moravcsik (2001), when he asserts that constitutional checks and balances, indirect democratic control via national governments and the increasing powers of the European Parliament6 (co-decision procedure) are sufficient conditions for a democratic EU.

A more sophisticated analysis of the vertical dimension provides Christopher Lord. He rightly asserts that first we need criteria and benchmarks for evaluating democratic performance (2001). He identifies four necessary steps: distinguish competing models of Euro-democracy (competitive, consensual, participatory), identify indices of democratic performance for each model, specify the units of assessment, and set standards of evidence.

The main problem with all the above analyses is their exclusive focus on the supranational level. One may still remember that the European Union has a much more complicated vertical dimension. Thus, the vertical dimension of democratic performance should be measured at the national, the supranational and especially at the linkage between these levels. As Chryssochoou (2001) asserts, the democratic deficit of the Union can be seen partly as an extension of both national parliamentary deficiencies and institutional problems transferred from national to European structures of government. In the same vein, Menon points out that “the potential problems of democratic accountability at the EU level mirror, if in more extreme form, those to be found within the member states” (Menon 2003: 427). In other words, the framework is similar with the “the logic of two-level games” (Putnam 1987), namely there is an interdependence between democratic performance (deficit) at national, supranational, and linkage levels7.

A democratic framework for the EU: the “horizontal” dimension

The discussion regarding the horizontal dimension of democracy and democratic deficit is much more complicated because the concepts are fuzzy and original, whereas the space is very limited. Basically, the “horizontal” concepts tend to bring back either city-state democratic terminology such as demos (Cryssochoou 2000), res-publica (Chryssochoou 2001), or concepts normally associated to the nation-state such as legitimacy (Christiansen 1997, Harlow 1999, Newman 2001), European people, and allegiance (Newman 2001). The assessment of the degree of EU democratic performance (or deficit) on the “horizontal axis” is much more complicated for at least two reasons. First, there is a strong normative input in any possible evaluation, much more “ought to be” than “is". Secondly, compared to the “vertical” approach, the “horizontal” one confronts difficulties in setting up a conceptual framework to capture developments at supranational level. Anyways, there are important contributions in this field. For instance, based on a model developed by David Easton, Fritz Scharpf (2000) advances the idea that EU cannot develop an “input legitimacy", but only an “output” one. In other words, the EU cannot establish a proper balance between democratic accountability and efficiency.

Finally, we should ask what does the “European people” or European “demos” mean? Without this basic clarification it would be very difficult to develop any analysis of the horizontal dimension of EU democracy. As Sartori shows, there are at least six possible meanings of the “people": everybody, a great many, the “lower class’, an organic whole, the absolute majority, and a limited majority (Sartori 1987: 22). Unfortunately, as the motto of the Convention shows, the idea is to develop an “absolute majority". If this motto has anything to say, is that the horizontal dimension of EU democracy will not be democratic at all. In the end, the main task remains to develop a vertical democratic articulation, although the most important dimension of democracy remains the horizontal one.


The main goals of the essay were the following. First, I tried to argue that any discussion regarding the democratic issue or the famous “democratic deficit” within the European Union is doomed to failure without having clear concepts of the analyzed unit and its adjective. The academic literature on EU democratic deficit deals with too many issues and probably advances too rapidly, without revisions of the concepts advanced. In this regard, the essay relies upon the very basic framework Henry Teune advances in order to delineate the political meaning of integration. Then the proof that the European Union may be evaluated as a political integrated system depending on the threshold used is advanced.

Second, after this necessary evaluation the essay proceeded in presenting a basic, minimal framework for what democracy means when applied to the EU, as an integrated political entity. The “vertical and horizontal” dimensions’ approach proposed by Giovanni Sartori has been used in order to prove the complexities one may confront when evaluating the democratic deficit.

Thus, the most important conclusion is that rather than searching for a democratic deficit of the European Union, we should first look at the democratic deficit of the Western democracies, for the simple reason the EU remains their creation. It would be thus easier to analyze what is the real direction of democratic deficit flow.

A secondary, purely academic conclusion is that, once the size of the democratic unit increases, the issues that must be taken into account in order to measure the democratic variable multiply geometrically. The very lesson the analysis taught by the vertical dimension, is that the democratic adjective cannot be applied by surveying just one feature of the “verticality” (supranational or national). Rather, a complex framework of both of them and their linkage is necessary. It is obvious that the horizontal dimension deserves a special treatment as well. Then a complex horizontal-vertical nexus with its linkages should be necessary for a complete analytical picture regarding the degree of democracy of the EU.

* Articolul este bazat pe una din lucrarile de cercetare elaborate in cadrul Programului Chevening de la European Research Institute, University of Birmingham, 2004.
1 “Our Constitution ... is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the greatest number". Thucydides II, 37. Especially when we are refering to the case of European Union, implicit questions arise: the greatest number of whom? Of the European people? If yes, what exactly “European people” means? Or we should probably talk about European peoples instead of European people? In any case, the motto may reveal a rather naive attempt to make-up the percieved “democratic deficitit” of the Union.
2 Tyranny of majority is a tricky concept in itself. For instance Sartori identifies three meanings and forms, context-embedded: constitutional, electoral (voting) and societal (Sartori 1987: 133-7). In he constitutional context, which is important in this context, “the concern is about minorities, not majorities” (133). In other words, any democratic constitutional arrangements should contain provisions on how majorities may be converted in minorities and vice-versa. On the other hand, in order to identify majorities and minorities, one may have a clear idea of what the “people” means. Unfortunately, as the essay will show, this is not the case with the EU.
3 For instance Eriksen and Fossum argue that “The “tyranny” of the concepts and principles associated with the nation-state, relate to how sovereignty, identity, community, citizenship and democracy have all been tied to the notion of nation-state and made subject to the territorial logic of the state” (2000: 7). There are two main problems with this statement. First, Eriksen and Fossum do not trace the distinction between concepts that relate to the horizontal dimension of politics (identity, community), the vertical dimension (sovereignty), or with both of them (citizenship). Second, as Robert Dahl showed, there are three important historical transformations of democracy, the nation-state dimension being only one of them. Thus, historically and analitically speaking, we cannot mix all kind of concepts in order to assert a “tyranny” derived from their strict appliance to the nation-state. Democratic theory has already produced arguments that may pass historical pllitical frameworks such as city-state and nation-state (Sartori 1987).
4 As Jachtenfuchs shows: “Classical integration theory and the governance approach ask two different but complementary questions, the former on the causes and outcomes of polity development, the later on forms, outcomes, problems and development paths of governance in the Euro-polity” (Jachtenfuchs 2001: 256).
5 For another evaluation of the conceptual confusion regarding the European Union and its relationship to democracy, see Newman 1996.
6 It is interesting to note that one of the most important contributions to the study of European Parliament as an emergent locus for a supranational party system does not even mention the issue of EU democracy or democratic deficit, see Kreppel 2002.
7 One may add here the sub-national dimesnion, according to the multilevel governance approach. In this regard, Borxel notes “The major challenge for the European Union is the weak role of legislature at all levels of government. Highly decentralized states face problems of executive dominance ... The participation of the regions in European policy/making exacerbates rather solves the problem. The regions have their place in Europe, but a ‘Europe of the Regions” is not necesarilly a “Europe of the citizens” (Borzel 2002: 233)

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- Master in Politici si Politici Economice ale Societatilor Post-Comuniste (Universitatea Central Europeana, Budapesta), Master in Relatii Internationale (Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, SUA). A absolvit programul Cheneving Fellowship in Studii Europene (Universitatea Birmingham) in 2004.




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