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The EU's Struggle with Democratic Deficit and the Paradox of Rising Voter Engagement



The primary democratic deficit challenge facing the EU stems not only from its structure but from the political developments within its member states. A symbiotic relationship exists between the national and European levels, with the EU influencing domestic dynamics, and vice versa.

Rising Participation Rates Amidst Persistent Democratic Challenges: the 2019 European Parliament Elections

The 2019 European Parliament elections marked a significant moment in the EU's democratic history, with the highest voter turnout of 50.7% in over two decades. This surge in participation, following a historical declining trend since 1979, sparked optimism and was interpreted as a clear strengthening of the European Parliament, suggesting a boost in credibility and legitimacy for the institution.

Events such as Brexit, the migration crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic have undoubtedly heightened public awareness of the benefits of EU membership, potentially explaining the uptick in 2019. However, the underlying issue remains: despite the Parliament's expanded powers and increased relevance, many voters still perceive the European elections as less significant compared to national elections. Furthermore, the tendency for voters to mobilize on national issues rather than European ones, and the use of European elections as a means to send signals to national governments, further aggravate the democratic deficit.

Academics and observers caution against viewing the 2019 turnout as a definitive shift towards greater European democratic participation. The decline in turnout across multiple countries, particularly among younger, socially deprived, and less educated segments of the population, highlights persistent barriers to engagement.

The Complexities Within the Definition of Democratic Deficit

EurLex invokes the EU democratic deficit in the argument that the European Union’s bodies suffer from a lack of democracy and are perceived as inaccessible to ordinary citizens because of their complex modus operandi. Inherent to the concept, two primary issues can be identified: the concentration of executive power at the EU level and the perceived weakness of the European Parliament relative to the Council and the Commission.

The first aspect concerns the decreasing ability of national parliaments to influence EU policy-making, partly due to the isolation of executive actors at the European level. This allows governments to bypass parliamentary oversight, questioning the effectiveness of European Affairs Committees, established in national parliaments, in holding the EU executive organs accountable.

The second dimension focuses on the European Parliament's relative weakness. Despite treaty reforms enhancing its powers, it lags behind the Council and the Commission in terms of influence. A significant portion of EU legislation is adopted under the consultation procedure, limiting the Parliament's role to delaying rather than shaping legislation. Moreover, the EP's ability to amend the EU budget is restricted to non-compulsory expenditure and veto power in the appointment of the Commission President is overshadowed by the Council's agenda-setting power. The lack of a direct link between EU citizens' preferences and policy outcomes, due to treating European Parliament elections as second-order national contests by the media, further exacerbates this issue.

Additionally, the EU is perceived as both institutionally and psychologically distant. On the one hand, the EU's electoral control over the Council and the Commission is perceived as too remote, making it difficult for citizens to hold these bodies accountable. Psychologically, the EU is seen as significantly different from domestic democratic institutions, complicating citizens' understanding and identification.

Finally, the democratic deficit is also characterized by the fundamentally technocratic policy-making process rather than political and by EU's tendency to adopt policies diverging from the ideal preferences of a majority of citizens in its member states, potentially favoring concentrated interests over diffuse ones. This "policy drift" allows governments to pursue agendas at the EU level that they could not implement domestically. The absence of a dominant role for the European Parliament in EU governance means that private interest groups, including business and multinational firms, can exert disproportionate influence on policy-making.

Flipping the Democratic Deficit Debate

The quality of democracy within the EU is acutely responsive to changes in the democratic assets of the members. Thus, addressing the democratic deficit necessitates a bottom-up approach, focusing primarily on the democratic quality of its member states. Differently from the legitimacy deficit, which refers to political processes not compliant with norms, the democratic deficit relies on the questions relative to the definition of democracy per se. Although democracy in the EU area is understood as belonging to the liberal type, there is no standardized vision of what it precisely means, due to the EU's system of multilevel governance.

Since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has adhered to a minimalist definition of liberal democracy. However, a clear discrepancy emerges between the EU's commitment to democracy and the realities at the national level, as proved by the degradation of democratic values according to Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data since 2008, recognized as the year of the democratic decline. Countries transitioning towards autocracy, notably Hungary, exhibit alarming results. However, consolidated democracies are not immune to this trend, often opting for increased security and technocratic measures and shifting away from liberal roots.

On the one hand, there is a need for a clear definition of democracy within the EU context, as the absence of a standardized vision complicates assessments of its democratic quality. On the other, the EU's unique position, transcending intergovernmental systems and exercising political authority in common policy fields, requires a distinct approach to evaluating its democratic standards.

As Pierre Rosanvallon suggested, “the so-called democratic deficit in Europe is, in fact, only one symptom among others of an inner transformation in the history of democracy.”


Overall, beyond the apparent record-breaking voter turnout in the 2019 European Parliament elections, lies a complex narrative of the EU's democratic journey. In fact, the EU and its member states face a crossroads of crises, with the alteration of liberal democracy at the forefront of reflection. The 21st century has challenged the model of liberal democracy as the ultimate destination on the democratic road and the pathway of EU democracies has yet to offer more democratization, because "where liberal democracy and the rule of law cease to function, there Europe ends"

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