European Union: a drifting Democracy

Justine Rodier, translated by Solweig Ogereau
24 Août 2015

Since the beginning of the European Union, but even more nowadays because of the economic crisis, the vast majority of European citizens feels confused about the community. European democracy is constantly questioned and new procedures have been created to encourage citizen involvement in the European space. The European population shows an obvious lack of confidence, of understanding, of knowledge of the institutions… What if a new internet platform was to reconcile Europe and its citizens?

Credits : Rights Reserved
Credits : Rights Reserved
OpenPetition, is the name of the new internet platform that was put in place by young German citizens. The aim is to create online petitions to alert Europeans of what is happening in Europe. The main idea is above all to give citizens the tools to express their disagreement concerning the policy carried out in Europe, which is getting less and less popular.

Without any political orientation, either left-wing or right-wing, the platform’s slogan is clearer than ever: “Let’s create a more alive democracy in Europe” After significant success in Germany, ideally, its creators would now find volunteers to translate the platform in every language and spread it more widely. Indeed, European democracy affects the 28 countries of the Union and does not end with its German cradle.

Even if it still has to spread, according to its creators’ desires, OpenPetition is now expanding, which is a very positive point for democracy. This is due to Europeans’ growing will to re-engage in the political stakes of the Union, from which they often feel excluded.

Before speaking about any form of democracy in Europe, it is important to know the four institutions on which the European Union is based. First of all, we have the Commission, which proposes bills and is the central organ of the community: it represents the general interest. The Council of Ministers is the second one, which votes the bills proposed by the Commission in co-decision with the Parliament, the third institution. The fourth one is the Court of Justice of the European Union, which does not have a role in the decision process of bills, unlike the three other institutions previously mentioned, but watches the member states to make sure they respect the laws voted by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament.

Parliament is the only institution composed of elected representatives. It is the only one representing the popular interest. Parliamentarians are elected during the European elections which take place every five years by direct universal suffrage. Each of the citizens from the 28 countries are called to vote during these elections and to express their political preference at the European level. Citizens however do not choose the representatives of the Commission or the Council, who are appointed according to their strong technical skills.

Even though Parliament seems to be the only democratic instance at the core of the European Union, the growing abstention and the resorts of parliamentarians to external agents make us question the real place granted to citizens in the European Union throughout the decision-making process.

The democratic deficit of the Parliament

The democratic deficit of the European Parliament is partly due to its low visibility. The media hardly talk about the European Parliament’s actions, and consequently citizens never really know what is really happening, nor do they know what the representative they voted for does. Media do not open debates either, through which citizens could express their impressions or give an opinion on Parliament. European citizens therefore find themselves very far away from the institution’s thought-process, which does not, in turn, help them to get interested in it.

This growing gap between parliamentarians and citizens provokes a decrease in trust of Europeans towards the institution. This defiance can notably be perceived during the European elections, with record abstention rates getting higher every time. During the elections of 2014, the abstention rate was higher than 56%. It is therefore true that parliamentarians come from a representative democracy process, but it is not unjust to doubt the term “representative democracy”. Is it really appropriate when abstention rates nearly reach 40 or even 60%? The European community is therefore questioning the true legitimacy of Parliament’s representatives.

Beyond the abstention issues, other elements contribute to feeding the democratic critics of Parliament. To vote knowingly, electors have to understand all the technical challenges of the proposed bill. If it is a bill on European agriculture for example, parliamentarians, before deciding and before voting, need to have a good understanding of the text. In this specific case, they will need to have agricultural knowledge.

However, parliamentarians are not specialists and do not have the necessary technical knowledge to understand some very specific issues. Therefore, they need to call upon experts, that is to say external agents, who master perfectly the area discussed. In the end, it is these experts who contribute to orientating parliamentarians’ decisions since they base themselves on the experts’ recommendations. A new source of democratic deficit can thus be seen here: those external agents contribute in a way to the decisions made by parliamentarians, and they are not democratic in any way, since nobody elected them.

A new step towards democracy with the European Citizens’ Initiative

The European Citizen Initiative, generally known as the ECI, was born with the Lisbon Treaty, which came into effect in 2009. The ECI compels the Commission to take into account any claim expressed via a petition which gathered at least one million signatures. These have to come from at least seven different countries. If the petition is met with enough success, the Commission then has to translate those citizen demands into legislation.

Although the ECI is very poorly mediatised at the moment, one has to admit its progress is one step more towards democracy in Europe. Despite its apparition in 2009, the procedure of the ECI has officially been effective since April 2012, and up to now 50 petitions have been launched. However, only three of them were able to answer all the criteria required to reach the European Commission’s desk.

In order for a petition to be acceptable for the Commission, it has to meet numerous conditions in addition to the one million signatures required. The petition needs, first, to be legally acceptable, that is to say it is necessary that the demands may be applied, and that they correspond to already existing legal rules. The claims cannot be “fanciful”, “abusive” or “vexing”. To reach the Commission, it is also imperative that the petition does not violate the fundamental values of the European Union.

Among the large number of invalidated petitions is one that called for the instauration of a European referendum for more direct citizen participation. One soliciting the democratic reorganisation of Europe’s institutions did not succeed either. According to the Commission, those two claims implied the modification of some of the founding treaties of the Union, which the institution could not perform, which was why it rejected those petitions.

Overall, although the large majority of citizen claims do not see the day, the ECI remains a substantial democratic progress. Indeed, even petitions which fail allow some themes that are chosen by the people to integrate in the space of European discussion. It thus encourages the institutions of the community to seize upon those themes.

What is more, the ECI nowadays attracts citizens since they are the ones launching the petitions but nothing prevents that maybe, in a few years’ time, some more important and influential actors will be the instigators of new citizen claims. These new agents could be NGOs for example, or trade unions which would be more powerful and could thus penetrate the European space more easily.

It seems, in conclusion, that the ECI is a substantial step in the progression towards democracy in Europe, although some progress could still be made, especially concerning the mediatisation of the ECI. Some talk of a “new revolution” which would be humanist and pacifist. The ECI would allow citizens to express their disagreements and fight for their interest without any violent confrontations within the community.