Why there is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: a Response to Majone and Moravcsik
University of Oslo
London School of Economics
Giandomenico Majone and Andrew Moravcsik have argued that the EU does not suffer a „democratic deficit‟. This article differs on one key element: whether a democratic polity requires contestation for political leadership and over policy. This aspect is an essential element of even the „thinnest‟ theories of democracy, yet is conspicuously absent in the EU.
The fate of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe after the French and Dutch referendums will no doubt prompt further volumes of academic books and articles on the „democratic deficit‟ in the European Union (EU). The topic already receives huge attention, with ever-more convoluted opinions as to the symptoms, diagnoses, cures and even side-effects of any medication. However, two major figures in the study of the European Union, Giandomenico Majone and Andrew Moravcsik, have recently focused the debate, by disentangling the various forms of dissatisfaction authors have expressed. Not only have these intellectual heavy-weights entered the fray, they have attempted to argue against much of the current received wisdom on the subject – and argue, in a nutshell, that the EU is in fact as democratic as it could, or should, be.
This article assesses some of the contributions of Majone and Moravcsik together. Sections I and II articulate a contemporary „standard version‟ of the democratic deficit, before
reviewing how far these two scholars are able to refute the various elements of the received wisdom. Sections III and IV highlight our points of agreement and disagreement with the
positions of Majone and Moravcsik as expressed in some of their articles. Specifically, this articles differs on one key element: whether a democratic polity requires contestation for political leadership and argument over the direction of the policy agenda. This aspect, which is ultimately the difference between a democracy and an enlightened form of benevolent authoritarianism, is an essential element of even the „thinnest‟ theories of democracy, yet is conspicuously absent in the EU. Section V discusses what can be done to reduce the democratic deficit in the EU, and whether the Constitutional Treaty would go some way to achieving this goal. Other issues that Majone or Moravcsik raise also merit attention, but must await later occasions. These include the status and implications of federal or multi-level elements of the EU, and of various non-majoritarian democratic procedures (Majone, 1998; Moravcsik, 1998b, 2001).
I. The ‘Standard Version’ of the Democratic Deficit, circa 2005
There is no single meaning of the „democratic deficit‟. Definitions are as varied as the
nationality, intellectual positions and preferred solutions of the scholars or commentators who write on the subject. Making a similar observation in the mid-1990s, Joseph Weiler and his colleagues set out what they called a „standard version‟ of the democratic deficit. This, they said, was not attributable to a single figure or group of scholars, but was rather a set of widely-used arguments by academics, practitioners, media commentators and ordinary citizens (Weiler et al., 1995).
Weiler‟s contribution did not lay the debate on the democratic deficit to rest – in due
course it become ever more diverse. An upgraded „standard version‟ of the democratic deficit,
supplemented by a more substantive yet „thin‟ normative theory of democracy helps assess
the valuable contributions of Moravcsik and Majone, and indicate remaining issues of contestation for further research. The democratic deficit could be defined as involving the following five main claims.
First, and foremost, European integration has meant an increase in executive power and a decrease in national parliamentary control (Andersen and Burns, 1996; Raunio, 1999). At the domestic level in Europe, the central structure of representative government in all EU Member States is that the government is accountable to the voters via the parliament. European parliaments may have few formal powers of legislative amendment (unlike the US Congress). But, the executive is held to account by the parliament that can hire and fire the cabinet, and by parliament scrutiny of the behaviour of government ministers. The design of the EU means that policy-making at the European level is dominated by executive actors: national ministers in the Council, and government appointees in the Commission. This, by itself, is not a problem. However, the actions of these executive agents at the European level are beyond the control of national parliaments. Even with the establishment of European Affairs Committees in all national parliaments, ministers when speaking and voting in the Council, national bureaucrats when making policies in Coreper or Council working groups, and officials in the Commission when drafting or implementing legislation, are much more isolated from national parliamentary scrutiny and control than are national cabinet ministers or bureaucrats in the domestic policy-making process. As a result, governments can effectively ignore their parliaments when making decisions in Brussels. Hence, European integration has meant a decrease in the power of national parliaments and an increase in the power of executives.
Second, and related to the first element, most analysts of the democratic deficit argue that the European Parliament is too weak. In the 1980s, some commentators argued that there was a direct trade-off between the powers of the European Parliament and the powers of national parliaments, where any increase in the powers of the European Parliament would mean a concomitant decrease in the powers of national parliaments (Holland, 1980). However, by the 1990s, this position disappeared as scholars started to see European integration as a decline in the power of parliamentary institutions at the domestic level
relative to executive institutions. The solution, many argued, was to increase the power of the European Parliament relative to the governments in the Council and the Commission (Williams, 1991; Lodge, 1994).
Successive reforms of the EU Treaties since the mid-1980s have dramatically increased the powers of the European Parliament, exactly as many of the democratic deficit scholars had advocated. Nevertheless, one can still claim that the European Parliament is weak compared to the governments in the Council. Although the European Parliament has equal legislative power with the Council under the co-decision procedure, a majority of EU legislation is still passed under the consultation procedure, where the Parliament only has a limited power of delay. The Parliament can still only amend those lines in the EU budget that the governments categorize as „non-compulsory expenditure‟. And, although the European
Parliament now has the power to veto the governments‟ choice for the Commission President and the team of the Commissioners, the governments are still the agenda-setters in the appointment of the Commission. In no sense is the EU‟s executive „elected‟ by the European Parliament.
Third, despite the growing power of the European Parliament, there are no „European‟
elections. EU citizens elect their governments, who sit in the Council and nominate Commissioners. EU citizens also elect the European Parliament. However, neither national elections nor European Parliament elections are really „European‟ elections: they are not about the personalities and parties at the European level or the direction of the EU policy agenda. National elections are fought on domestic rather than European issues, and parties collude to keep the issue of Europe off the domestic agenda (Hix, 1999; Marks et al., 2002).
European Parliament elections are also not about Europe, as parties and the media treat them as mid-term national contests. Protest votes against parties in government and steadily declining participation at European elections indicate that Reif and Schmitt‟s famous description of the first European Parliament elections – as „second-order national contests‟ –
is as true of the sixth European elections in June 2004 as it was of the first elections in 1979 (Reif and Schmitt, 1980; van der Eijk and Franklin, 1996; Marsh, 1998). Blondel, Sinnott and Svensson (1998) provide some evidence that at the individual level participation in European elections is related to citizens‟ attitudes towards the EU. However, this effect is substantively very small, and more recent research has shown that, if anything, the main second-order
whereby governing parties and large parties lose while effects of European elections –
opposition and small parties win irrespective of these parties‟ EU policies – have increased
rather than decreased (Mattila, 2003; Kousser, 2004; Hix and Marsh, 2005).
The absence of a „European‟ element in national and European elections means that EU citizens‟ preferences on issues on the EU policy agenda at best only have an indirect influence on EU policy outcomes. In comparison, if the EU were a system with a genuine electoral contest to determine the make-up of „government‟ at the European level, the
outcome of this election would have a direct influence on what EU „leaders‟ do, and whether they can continue to do these things or are forced to change the direction of policy.
Fourth, even if the European Parliament‟s power were increased and genuine
European elections were able to be held, another problem is that the EU is simply „too distant‟ from voters. There is an institutional and a psychological version of this claim. Paradoxically, both may have given rise to the frustration vented in the referendums on the Constitutional Treaty. Institutionally, electoral control over the Council and the Commission is too removed, as discussed. Psychologically, the EU is too different from the domestic democratic institutions that citizens are used to. As a result, citizens cannot understand the EU, and so will never be able to assess and regard it as a democratic system writ large, nor to identify with it. For example, the Commission is neither a government nor a bureaucracy, and is appointed through an obscure procedure rather than elected by one electorate directly or indirectly (see, for example, Magnette, 2001). The Council is part legislature, part executive, and when acting as a legislature makes most of its decisions in secret. The European
Parliament can not be a properly deliberative assembly because of the multi-lingual nature of debates in committees and the plenary without a common political backdrop culture. And, the policy process is fundamentally technocratic rather than political (Wallace and Smith, 1995).
Fifth, European integration produces „policy drift‟ from voters‟ ideal policy preferences. Partially as a result of the four previous factors, the EU adopts policies that are not supported by a majority of citizens in many or even most Member States. Governments are able to undertake policies at the European level that they cannot pursue at the domestic level, where they are constrained by parliaments, courts and corporatist interest group structures. These policy outcomes include a neo-liberal regulatory framework for the single market, a monetarist framework for EMU and massive subsidies to farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy. Because the policy outcomes of the EU decision-making process are usually to the right of domestic policy status quos, this „policy drift‟ critique is usually developed by social democratic scholars (Scharpf, 1997, 1999).
A variant of this „social democratic‟ critique focuses on the role of private interests in
EU decision-making. Since a classic representative chamber, such as the European Parliament, is not the dominant institution in EU governance, private interest groups do not have to compete with democratic party politics in the EU policy-making process. Concentrated interests such as business interests and multinational firms have a greater incentive to organize at the European level than diffuse interests, such as consumer groups or trade unions, and the EU policy process is pluralist rather than corporatist. These features skew EU policy outcomes more towards the interests of the owners of capital than is the case for policy compromises at the domestic level in Europe (e.g. Streeck and Schmitter, 1991).
II. Defence of the Titans: Majone and Moravcsik
Giandomenico Majone and Andrew Moravcsik, two of the most prominent scholars of European integration, have recently struck back at the flood of articles, pamphlets and books promoting one or more of the elements of the standard-version of the democratic deficit.
Majone: Credibility Crisis Not Democratic Deficit
Majone‟s starting point is his theoretical and normative claim that the EU is essentially a „regulatory state‟ (Majone, 1994, 1996). In Majone‟s thinking, „regulation‟ is about addressing market failures, and so by definition is about producing policy outcomes that are Pareto-efficient (where some benefit and no one is made worse off) rather than redistributive or value-allocative (where there are both winners and losers). The EU governments have delegated regulatory policy competences to the European level – such as the creation of the
single market, the harmonization of product standards and health and safety rules and even the making of monetary policy by the European Central Bank – to deliberately isolate these
policies from domestic majoritarian government. From this perspective, the EU is as a glorified regulatory agency, a „fourth branch of government‟, much like regulatory agencies at the domestic level in Europe, such as telecoms agencies, competition authorities, central banks, or even courts (Majone, 1993a).
Following from this interpretation, Majone asserts that EU policy-making should not
be „democratic‟ in the usual meaning of the term. If EU policies were made by what Majone
calls „majoritarian‟ institutions, EU policies would cease to be Pareto-efficient, insofar as the
political majority would select EU policy outcomes closer to their ideal short-term policy preferences and counter to the preferences of the political minority and against the majority‟s
own long-term interests.
In this view, an EU dominated by the European Parliament or a directly elected Commission would inevitably lead to a politicization of regulatory policy-making. Politicization would result in redistributive rather than Pareto-efficient outcomes, and so in fact undermine rather than increase the legitimacy of the EU (Majone, 1998, 2000, 2002a, b; Dehousse, 1995). For example, EU social policies would be used to compensate losers or supplement the market rather than only correct its failures (Majone, 1993b).
For Majone, then, the problem for the EU is less a democratic deficit than a „credibility crisis‟ (Majone, 2000). The solution, he believes, is procedural rather than more
fundamental change. What the EU needs is more transparent decision-making, ex post review
by courts and ombudsmen, greater professionalism and technical expertise, rules that protect the rights of minority interests, and better scrutiny by private actors, the media, and parliamentarians at both the EU and national levels. In this view, the European Parliament should focus on scrutinising the European Commission and EU expenditure, and perhaps increasing the „quality‟ of EU legislation. It should not try to move EU legislation beyond the
preferences of the elected governments or trying to influence the policy positions of the Commission through the investiture and censure procedures.
Majone consequently holds that if the EU could increase the credibility of its policy-making by introducing such procedural mechanisms, then the public would or should accept the EU as legitimate and concerns about the democratic deficit would disappear.
Moravcsik: Checks-and-Balances Limit Policy Drift
Moravcsik (2002, 2003, 2004) goes further than Majone, and presents an extensive critique of all main democratic deficit claims. Moravcsik objects to four different positions in his writings on this subject: libertarian, pluralist, social democratic and deliberative. Rather than repeat his arguments as they relate to these four viewpoints, let us reconstruct his arguments
against the five standard claims identified, above. Moravcsik has explicit answers to four of the five standard claims.
First, against the argument that power has shifted to the executive, Moravcsik points out that national governments are the most directly accountable politicians in Europe. As he states (???, p. 612):
… if European elections were the only form of democratic accountability to which
the EU were subject, scepticism would surely be warranted. Yet, a more important
channel lies in the democratically elected governments of the Member States,
which dominate the still largely territorial and intergovernmental structure of the
He goes on to argue that national parliaments and the national media increasingly scrutinize national government ministers‟ actions in Brussels. Hence, while the EU remains a
largely intergovernmental organization, decisions in the European Council and the Council of Ministers are as accountable to national citizens as decisions of national cabinets. In other words, his argument that the EU „strengthens the state‟ (meaning national executives) also challenges claims of a democratic deficit, since the democratically controlled national executives play dominant roles in the EU institutions – underscoring the democratic
accountability of the EU.
Second, against the critique that the executives are beyond the control of representative institutions, and hence that the European Parliament needs to be strengthened, Moravcsik points out that the most significant institutional development in the EU in the past two decades has been the increased powers of the European Parliament in the legislative process and in the selection of the Commission. In other words, he might grant that national governments no longer dominate outcomes where significant independent agenda-setting
power has been delegated to the Commission, for example under the co-decision procedure and qualified majority voting in the Council. Hence, indirect accountability via national executives in the Council is weak under these „supranational‟ policy mechanisms, as particular national governments can be on the losing side on an issue-by-issue basis. However, the EU has addressed this potential problem by significantly increasing the powers of the European Parliament in exactly these areas.
The European Parliament now has veto-power over the selection of the Commission and is increasingly willing to use this power against heavy lobbying from national governments, as was seen with the Parliament‟s veto of the first proposed line-up of the
Barroso Commission in October 2004. Also, the reform of the co-decision procedure in the Amsterdam Treaty means that legislation cannot be passed under the co-decision procedure without majority support in both the Council and the European Parliament. So, if a party in government is on the losing side of a qualified majority vote in the Council it has a chance of „winning it back‟ in the Parliament – as Germany has done on several occasions (such as the
Takeover‟s Directive in July 2001).
Third, against the view that the EU is too distant and opaque, Moravcsik argues that the EU policy-making process is now more transparent than most domestic systems of government. The growing paranoia inside the EU institutions about their isolation from citizens and the new internal rules in response to public and media accusations, have made it much easier for interest groups, the media, national politicians, and even private citizens to access documents or information about EU policy-making – easier indeed than access to
information from national policy processes. Furthermore, EU technocrats are increasingly forced to listen to multiple societal interests. Both the European Court of Justice and national courts exercise extensive judicial review of EU actions, and the European Parliament and national parliaments have increased scrutiny powers (as in the European Parliament‟s censure of the Santer Commission in May 1999). Also, the introduction of an „early warning