Citizenship and the Democratic Deficit of the European Union

By María Belén Silva Campos

The European integration began as an economic cooperation that evolved into a political entity after the foundation of the European Union, a sui generis organization that has developed into a new “type of political system by evolving from a horizontal system of interstate cooperation into a vertical and multi-layered policy-making polity.” [1] In this sense, traditional theories, such as federalism, confederalism, functionalism, neo-functionalism, intergovernmentalism or supranationalism, cannot be used to fully explain  nor improve it.

Its foundation brought important implications to its actors: States and peoples. In fact, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the concept of what it is known as European citizens, which according to Article 20.1 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, are those “holding the nationality of a Member State.” Thus, it gave its special nature as derivative, complementary, and additional to the citizenship of Member States, which still have the competence to define the conditions for acquisition (ius soli and/or ius sanguinis) and loss of nationality. [2]

European citizenship differs “from nationality in unitary States and from dual citizenship (…) in federal systems,” [3] since they are nationals of a Member State that enjoy the rights established in the EU treaties; their status is developed by combining such rights with the values of belonging and participation. [4] Yet, without a sense of belonging, such as the one developed within each Member State, neither all rights nor political participation prove to be sustainable. [5] In fact, only 65% of the population is familiar with the term “citizen of the EU” and knows what it means. [6] Thus, the lack of a sense of belonging by the citizens to the Union is a structural problem. There is no European demos in the sense that Member States have, and there is no clear idea of who the “Europeans” are. 

On the other hand, the EU is based “on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.” [7] Yet, some scholars argue that “democracy was not acknowledged (…) at the beginning of European integration,” as it was believed that “the participation and support of the peoples (…) would have been ensured with [its] positive results.” [8] Hence, politicians trusted the process of indirect representation in which citizens of each Member State elected their national representatives to the Parliament, which in turn elected their European representatives. [9]

However, an important disconnection between European citizens and the EU has emerged. The increasing impact of the Union and its decisions on the daily life of citizens has raised questions about the democratic nature of the integration. Thus, the phrase “democratic deficit of the EU” is now being used to indicate that European institutions and their decision-making procedures (…) seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen due to their complexity.” [10] Although several initiatives and policies have been implemented to strengthen democratic participation and empower all citizens, such as consultations and debates, the measures have been insufficient to overcome the problem. Most importantly, no initiative will be sufficiently effective until a sense of belonging and a European identity are truly developed. 

The lack of an European identity also creates a lack of a political identity, which is defined as the “sense of belonging to politically relevant human groups and political structures,” that can be “considered as the primary source of legitimization of a political community.” [11] Thus, the disconnect between the EU and European citizens is translated into a feeling that citizen’s opinions are not being heard in the decision-making process. A clear example was the rejection of the European constitution in 2005.

Not having a clear sense of belonging has contributed to the democratic deficit, which is explained by several theories within political science: for functionalism, it is caused “when [institutions] are unable to generate the legitimacy from the democratic sources they need to govern;” from a normative approach, it happens “when political arrangements fail the expectation that participation should elicit government responsiveness;” and from an empirical perspective, it is caused when citizens believe that “they cannot use their participatory opportunities and resources to achieve responsiveness.” [12]

The democratic deficit of the EU is not only caused by a social dimension but also by an institutional one. For instance, the European Parliament (EP) is the EU’s only directly elected body, but its powers are limited in comparison with the Commission and the Council, and it does not have parliamentary control over decision-making processes. [13] In addition, there is a lack of European political parties representing all citizens, including minorities.

On the other hand, one of the key elements of democracy is that the exercise of functions and power by government institutions need to emanate from and be demanded by the people, and at the same time, be justified to the people. [14] In the case of European integration, rights have been granted to all EU citizens despite never having been demanded by any of the peoples in the EU. Now that demands are being made, they are either not heard or the processes are too complex (e.g. the European Citizen’s Initiative).

In this sense, the EU faces a democratic deficit problem on its way to a better socio-political integration, which needs to be solved in order for the project to be sustainable in the future. The main issue is that since its foundation, EU institutions were not structured in democratic terms. As democracy is based on the existence of a demos, there cannot be a real democracy without a European demos.

The question is then how to build it, because the current one is only based on nationality, as the very definition of European citizenship indicates. It is clear that a European demos cannot be only created by procedural or legislative factors. It also requires promoting political and cultural recognition of European institutions as well as participation within them. There are two ways of building such transnational demos: top-down and bottom-up perspectives. The first one focuses on understanding “what unifies Europe and Europeans in terms of cultural heritage, values, etc. and how to characterize the ‘European’,” while the second one makes reference on “how to define, conceptually, a European identity.” [15] 

To build a European identity, it is necessary to promote a European public sphere in civil society, where all citizens can communicate, discuss, and practice the sense of belonging. Some initiatives that might be helpful on this include the promotion of grassroots, Erasmus Mundus programs,  open debates with a structure and follow-up to have an impact on future EU policies, and projects through the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values program. Also, it is important for the EU to embrace its motto “unity in diversity” by encouraging symbols. 

Additionally, the EU needs stronger democratic representation and transparency in policy- and decision-making with proper check and balances, which will make it more accountable and legitimate. 

Finally, taking into consideration the theories, the lack of a sense of belonging is not only one of the causes of the EU’s democratic deficit but is also having significant implications on its institutional problems. The non-existence of an identity is translated into a low participation in decision-making, no responsiveness to demands, no fulfillment of expectations, and a disconnection from the citizens.


Endnotes

[1] Cem Yalçin. Challenging the future: the democratic deficit of the EU from a federalist perspective. Poznań University of Economics Review, 2014, p. 24.
[2] Patricia Mundus. The Status of European Citizenship: An Overview. UK: Palgrave, 2017, p. 15.
[3] Ibid, p. 11.
[4] Richard Bellamy. Evaluating Union citizenship: belonging, rights and participation within the EU. University College London, 2008, p. 1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] European Commission. Flash Eurobarometer 485. 2020, p. 9.
[7] Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.
[8] Yalçin. Challenging the future: the democratic deficit of the EU from a federalist perspective, pp. 23-24.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Eur-lex. Democratic Deficit. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/democratic_deficit.html.
[11] Michael Bruter. Citizens of Europe? The Emergence of a Mass European Identity. UK: Palgrave, 2005, p. 1.
[12] Mark Warren. Citizen Participation and Democratic Deficits: Considerations from the Perspective of Democratic Theory. UK: Palgrave, 2009, p. 17.
[13] Yalçin. Challenging the future: the democratic deficit of the EU from a federalist perspective, p. 26-28.
[14] German Federal Constitutional Court. Judgment on the Maastricht Treaty. 1994, p. 17.
[15] Bruter. Citizens of Europe? The Emergence of a Mass European Identity, p. 5.


References

  • Bellamy, R. Evaluating Union citizenship: belonging, rights and participation within the EU. University College London, School of Public Policy, 12:6, 2008.
  • Bruhagen, A. European Identity-building and the Democratic Deficit – a Europe in search of its ‘Demos’. University of Jönköping, 2006.
  • Bruter, M. Citizens of Europe? The Emergence of a Mass European Identity. UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
  • Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, (2016/C 202/02).
  • Eur-lex. Democratic Deficit. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/democratic_deficit.html [Accessed: 10 January 2021].
  • European Commission. Flash Eurobarometer 485 – European Union Citizenship and Democracy. 2020.
  • German Federal Constitutional Court. Judgment on the Maastricht Treaty of October 12, 1993. 1994.
  • Mundus, P. The Status of European Citizenship: An Overview in European citizenship after Brexit, Freedom of Movement and Rights of Residence. UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.
  • Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
  • Warren, M. Citizen Participation and Democratic Deficits: Considerations from the Perspective of Democratic Theory in Activating the Citizen: Dilemmas of Participation in Europe and Canada. UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
  • Yalçin, C. Challenging the future: the democratic deficit of the EU from a federalist perspective. Poznań University of Economics Review, volume 14, number 3, 2014. 

Picture Credits: Son Tung Tran, Pexels

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