How Democratic Is The European Union?*
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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SEBASTIAN HULUBAN - 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.