In or accountable to, the nations and the

In Brussels in 1976, The Decision Act was signed agreeing to
replace appointments of Members of the European Parliament by member state national
parliaments, with direct elections. This adoption of direct Universal Suffrage
was ratified by all member states and subsequently, the first elections of MEPs
were held in 1979. Since this decision was made, the powers of the European
Parliament have grown incrementally. With the European Parliament being the
only directly elected institution in the European Union, its growth in power is
often justified by its ability to bolster democracy. However, this essay will
prove that the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ faced by the European Union has not
actually been reduced by the pseudo-solution of increasing the influence of the
European Parliament.  A more powerful
democratic institution within a largely illegitimate body is a logical
resolution to the ‘democratic deficit’. However, this attempted legitimisation has
not reduced the ‘deficit’ and Eurosceptism is in fact on the rise (Scully 2005:
71). The ‘democratic deficit’ is an inherent structural issue, therefore only a
structural solution can hope to solve problems faced by the European Union
today. My essay will define the ‘democratic deficit’, explore the increases in
power seen by the European Parliament, suggest reasons for their failures and
present solutions to the increasing issue of legitimacy within the European
Union.

The ‘democratic deficit’ has been
described as an institution which is “insufficiently representative of, or accountable
to, the nations and the people of Europe” (Lord 2001: 165). It is believed that
devolving power from previously independent nations (member states) to a
supranational level is the cause of the normative concern that democracy and
legitimacy are in decline in the EU. This then creates demand for a more
accountable European Union. Although the ‘democratic deficit’ is an innate
feature of the EU, the ‘scope of EU competence’ is on the rise and therefore
the problem has been increasingly debated (Lodge 1996: 191).  People have become worried as the EU’s
legitimacy has ‘always been problematic, but it was accepted… as long as the
community’s functions were limited and major decisions were still taken at the
national level by the parliaments of the member states’ (Grande 2000: 118.). However,
recent extensions of power have led to a reversal of this acceptance. Scrutiny
has ensued and the EU has faced the challenge of raising accountability, but to
do so in an institution ‘which is neither federal nor intergovernmental’ is
challenging (Anderson and Eliassen 1996: 1). An oft-cited solution to the
‘democratic deficit’ had been ‘simple institutional reforms to expand the
European Parliament’s competencies’ as the empowerment of a directly elected
body should eliminate concerns of legitimacy (Grande 2000: 119). However, we
have seen very little increase in the popularity or acceptance of the EU; in fact,
faith seems to have diminished and sits at an all-time low.

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                The European
Parliament’s role changed substantially after the first direct elections in
1979 due to the legitimate supremacy it now had over the rest of the European
Union. This power was demonstrated when the EP blocked the 1980 budget as a
protest against the Council. What followed was ‘unending disputes between the
institutions on what were relatively small amounts of money’ (Laffan 1997a:
77).  Another change in power was the EPs
involvement in the appointment of the new Commission. At Maastricht, it was
decided that the EP were to be granted the power to consent to appointments of
the College of Commissioners. Furthermore, the Amsterdam Treaty extended the EPs
powers further as it gave parliament the right to approve the EU’s President
nominee. These were some of the first addresses by the EU of the ‘democratic
deficit’ and a recognition of the need to increase accountability and interest
in the EU (Smith 1999: 68). Furthermore, these powers took centre stage after
the ‘informal’ victory of having the whole Commission resign in March 1999 and
‘in the autumn of 2004, the credible threat of a parliamentary veto forced
several changes to the Barroso Commission’ (Scully 2005: 25). One recent
pivotal moment for the EP was the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. The
Treaty of Lisbon instilled significant change in the EU; namely the concretion
of the “Institutional Architecture” of the European Union (Bache, 2011). One of
the changes introduced was regarding the Commission President; “The President
of the Commission must now be nominated by the European Council (…) the nominee
is then ‘elected by the European Parliament by a majority (…)’ rather than (…),
‘approved by the European Parliament” (Nugent, 2010). In our argument
explaining the ‘democratic deficit’ this policy is significant as it represents
the EU’s attempt to achieve an effective equilibrium. Additionally, the treaty
enshrined the ‘co-decision procedure’ or the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ between
the EP and the Council in EU law-making. 
This meant that the EP became far more significant in legislation
creation; “Under the OLP, the EP is able to block legislation altogether …
making it difficult for the Council to ignore amendments proposed by the EP.”
(Bache et al. 2011: 234.). In addition to this, this ‘co-decision’ procedure
also gave MEPs the ‘right to negotiate face-to-face with members of the
Council’ (Burns 2002: 67).  These
increases in power have not only enshrined the importance of the EP, they have
also led to the growth in MEP’s confidence to use these new-found powers (Burns
2002: 67-68). 

                When
examining the popularity of the European Union, the European Parliament must be
considered a main factor as it has acted as the championed solution to the
‘democratic deficit’. However, problems with ‘democratising the EU’ have
followed; ‘despite the significant and growing role of the EP, turnout in
European elections has remained low, and even declined to less than half the
electorate in the 2004 election’ (Corbett, Jacobs, and Shackleton 2005:
10).  The main issue we face, which
cannot be solved by increasing the EPs power, is a lack of a strong European
identity. Voters focus on national issues; not European issues, when it comes
to elections and due to the EU having very little authority when it comes to
national authorities, turn- out and general interest is very low. Already there
is the issue of five year terms which results in low visibility. This is then
combined with poor media coverage which means MEPs are not recognised by the
public (Pedersen 1996: 35). Furthermore, the differences between national
elections and European elections mean the voter feels disillusioned due to the
foreign nature of the system; for example, the UK has a first-pass-the-post
voting system for national elections and a closed list system for European elections.
Moreover, the nationalised nature of MEP elections, with a focus on the European
issue’s relation to national agendas, has resulted in de-legitimising the EP
elections with them appearing as a “national by-elections” (Greven 2000: 37).
In an MEP survey carried out in 2000, it was found that ‘more than four-fifths
(of MEPs) have contacts with national parliamentarians on at least a monthly
basis, and over 70% have that degree of regular interaction with figures from
the leadership of their national party’ (Scully 2005: 73). This evidences how
citizens of member states do not feel European and without this, the amount of
power granted the EP does not matter because the people do not believe it to be
legitimate (Fella 2000: 82-83); without a cohesive body of ‘Europeans’, ‘no
direct democratic legitimacy can be claimed’ (Wessels 1996: 62).  And so, ‘the transfer of competencies can
only be limited and must always be linked to the real sources of legitimacy,
namely, national politicians and especially national parliaments,’ (Wessels
1996: 63).

When examining the power increases
allotted to the European Parliament since 1979, we can confirm that it is ‘no
longer a marginal institution’ rather a ‘mainstream part of the EU’s governing
system’ (Scully 2005: 24). However, despite successive growth in control, the
popular legitimacy of the European Parliament has not increased. This high
level of institutionalism shown by the European Parliament and the increased
delegation of power to this supranational institution has not lessened the
‘democratic deficit’ in the way it intended to. König, along with many others
contest that the power given to the European Parliament was, solely, an effort
to alleviate effects of the ‘democratic deficit’ and increase accountability of
the EU; it’s clear that neither issues have been solved. This enforces the idea
that structural problems of the EU are to blame for these issues. Furthermore, van
der Eijk and Franklin (1996: 7) stated; “it is true that the European
Parliament lacks certain powers in comparison with modern day national
parliaments – what it lacks most is not power but a mandate to use that power”.
Therefore, continuing to increase the EP’s power to reduce the ‘democratic
deficit’ is futile. Also, Andrew Moravcsik (2002) sees the ‘democratic deficit’
as a ‘non-problem’ due to inappropriate comparisons being drawn between the EU
and ideal democracy; “the use of idealistic standards no modern government can
meet obscures the social context of contemporary European policy-making”
(Moravscik 2002: 605).  To conclude, we
can confirm that despite the growth in power of the EP, the ‘democratic
deficit’ has not been reduced. This is due to a lack of ‘Europeanisation’,
which has led to a disinterest in the European Union as a whole. Increasing one
of its main institution’s power will only exacerbate this problem. Finally, it
is the structure of the European Union which holds the inherent issue of a
‘democratic deficit’. Therefore, if we were to solve this issue a major
reformation would be required, undermining the institution in its entirety.
Consequently, we should sojourn our criticisms of the European Union’s
legitimacy as a supranational body, and instead accept its contemporary and
unique nature.

               

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