All along the existence of the European Union -and its predecessor organisations- the question has been raised whether the EU decision making suffers from a democratic deficit. In fact without a lot of debate this question was always answered in the affirmative.
These days there are good reasons to argue that the decision making process at the European level is a democratic one.
Up to the eighties of the last century the European Parliament was referred to as an ‘assembly’, not as a parliament. In that period the parliament essentially possessed the right to deliver opinions in a certain number of policy areas. Since the end of the seventies, however, developments have gone fast. In 1979 the first direct election of the European Parliament members took place. The European Single Act (entry into force in 1987) introduced the cooperation procedure. The Maastricht Treaty (1993) improved the working of the cooperation procedure and added the co-decision procedure. The Amsterdam Treaty (1999) (abolished the cooperation procedure and) transformed the co-decision procedure into a properly speaking co-legislative instrument: without agreement between Council and European Parliament a decision cannot be adopted.
Finally but not least, the Lisbon Treaty (2009) widened the scope of application of the co-decision procedure and reinforced the competences of the parliament in the external domain (the competence to give consent). Furthermore, the treaty introduced the institutional innovation according to which the European Council, when proposing a candidate for President of the Commission, has to take into account the elections to the European Parliament. The candidate is then elected by the European Parliament. The Lisbon Treaty also produced two protocols on the role of national parliaments, one of which concerned the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Even if one takes into account the innovations brought by the Lisbon Treaty, still certain issues have to be settled regarding the working of the European Parliament. The first issue concerns the objection that, in the absence of a European ‘demos’, the parliament cannot pretend to represent the European citizens. Secondly there is the argument that the scope of the co-decision procedure –referred to in the treaties as the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’- is not as yet an absolute one. Furthermore criticism –expressed in practice by the highest constitutional judge in Germany, the Bundesverfassungsgericht- can be made regarding the composition of the parliament in view of the fact that during the elections once in five years the principle ‘one man one vote’ is not respected. The next point is related to the fact that the European Parliament, differently from an ordinary parliament, does not dispose of a -formal- right of initiative regarding policy making. And, additionally concerns are expressed regarding the lack of visibility of the members of the parliament (people hardly know members of the parliament) respectively the lack of transparency of their work.
Now, certainly it is true that -at least for the moment- a European demos does not exist. However, is that a real problem? In the context of the European Union cooperation the focus is more on Member States and the peoples of the Member States (Article 1 TEU refers to the ‘peoples of Europe’). That being the case it is difficult to criticize the existence of a parliament which operates in the interest of all these peoples. Then, indeed the scope of application of the co-decision procedure is not as yet an absolute one: a few policy domains, such as the common foreign and security policy, are not covered by this ‘ordinary’ decision making procedure. However, it may be expected –in conformity with the gradual character of the integration process- that this defect will be solved in the future, for example at the occasion of a next treaty amending procedure. As to the composition of the European Parliament, it is fair to say that the working of an international organisation (which the EU essentially is) cannot be fully compared with the functioning of a state. In that context there does exist a justification that, at the European level, the (federal) principle of equality of states has been preferred over the one regarding complete equality of their citizens, for example with regard to voting power. More particular it is the principle of ‘degressive’ proportionality which is of application -between the Member States- during the European elections.
Furthermore, it is true that the European Parliament does not possess a proper right of initiative regarding policy making. In view of the supranational characteristics of the EU cooperation the responsibility concerning the initiation of policies essentially rests with the Commission. The choice to make the Commission, the institution taking care of the general interest of the Union, responsible for the initiation of EU policy making, is an original one –in fact it is one of the foundations of the Schuman philosophy- which so far has proven to be effective. That being said, according to Article 225 TFEU the Parliament may request the Commission to submit an appropriate proposal on which it considers that a Union act is required. However, as is well known, the Commission is not obliged to give a positive follow-up to such a proposal. Finally, the observations regarding the lack of transparency and visibility concern more the legitimacy of the work of the parliament than that they demonstrate a problem regarding the democratic character of that work. That being said, of course something has to be done to overcome these objections. Here we touch upon the responsibility of a number of parties, such as the members of the European Parliament themselves, national politicians (members of national governments and members of national parliaments), but also the citizen him/herself who indeed can find easily numerous sources of information about EU activities on the internet.
So, as to all the objections and observations expressed an adequate answer can be provided.
If one then further analyses the working of the integration process globally speaking, one can establish that the Member States still play an essential role in policy making, as the architects of the treaties (‘Die Herren der Verträge’) and members of the European Council and the Council. On the other hand the Commission, in the interest of the European Union as a whole, performs the single and unique role as exclusive and independent policy initiator.
The directly elected European Parliament does represent the citizens of all Member States when being involved in the legislative process, the development of the EU external policies and the establishment of the EU budget. During the exercise of these responsibilities the European Parliament acts on equal footing with the Council, which means that without the agreement of the parliament no decision can be taken in these areas.
Finally but not least, national parliaments are in a position to control the activities of their ministers at the European level while also being able to survey the application, by the EU legislator, of the subsidiarity principle.
All in all it appears that the EU decision making process is composed of elements representing a careful balance between the interests of the European Union and the Member States on the one hand, and the interests of the citizens of the Member States on the other. In this process the European Parliament exercises important and typically parliamentary prerogatives.
The way this overall process functions in practice can be qualified as democratic, efficient and effective. At least hardly arguments are available to convincingly demonstrate that the process is undemocratic in character.
For all those reasons one only can hope that during the European elections of 22 to 25 May a high turnout will be achieved. The parliament deserves our vote!
Jaap W. de Zwaan