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date: 04 June 2020

Summary and Keywords

The debate on whether or not the European Union (EU) is suffering from a democratic deficit is “crowded territory.” The debate is not only far-reaching but has evolved along with the transformation of the system of European governance. In the 1990s the “standard version of the democratic deficit” was developed. This drives on the observation that EU member states have transferred powers to the supranational construction of the EU and as such these powers escape national parliamentary control. The fact that the European Parliament was a rather weak institution is seen as to further aggravate the situation.

While this is, since the early 2000s, no longer seen as an adequate standard of comparison and indicator for the democratic quality of the EU, the EU democratic system is still seen to fall short on different accounts, for example when it comes both to participatory and representative democracy. This might come as a surprise, as the EU has undertaken a number of reforms especially since and by way of the Maastricht Treaty to make the EU more “democratic.” For example, the (indirect) involvement of national parliaments into EU policymaking was strengthened or the tool of the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) was introduced. As such, the debate on the democratic deficit is not only academic but takes place within the political arena. It is consequential by being mirrored in treaty changes and thus also functional.

Overall these tools are seen to fall short however, at least so far. One reason seems to be expectation management. The terms used seem to be very “loaded”. For example, the notion is evoked that the Union is a representative democracy. Moreover piecemeal reform leads to different modes of representation. While some of these objectives have been achieved, for example, by providing access of certain groups to decision-making process, others are excluded, which can in fact exacerbate the democratic deficit. Overall the “traditional” debate on the democratic deficit has taken on a new quality: the context of emergence of the so-called illiberal democracies at the member state level.

It has been stated already almost 20 years ago that the EU will have to invent new forms of citizenship, representation, and decision-making if it is ever to democratize itself. It seems that the EU has tried to do so partially, but the use of far-reaching and normative notions and concepts is bound to fall short in a system that is in constant flux and very heterogeneous.

Keywords: European Union, European Union politics, democratic deficit, European Parliament, national parliaments, representative democracy

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