Democratic Deficit in the European Union


The European Union (EU) is one of the most successful economic and political integration where many different nation-states come together. Institutions and conditions have been developed to ensure that this multi-minded unity remains together. The most important of these is the conditionality of the democratic regime. Apart from the democratic order expected from member and candidate countries, the European Parliament is seen as the greatest representation of democracy within the Union. However, the increase in the distance between the European Union structures and the European Union people brings the idea of a “democracy deficit” to the agenda lately. Decisions that the elites did not take transparently since its establishment and the inability of European citizens to be sufficiently involved in social and political life created obstacles in the integration process. This article will first give information about the development and basic structure of EU democracy and then analyze the democratic deficit that has emerged in the Union.

Keywords: European Union, Democratic deficit, European Parliament, Democracy,  


The European integration movement, which was initiated in the economic field in order to facilitate the development of the countries and provide peace in the European continent after the Second World War, has become one of the biggest social and political projects of the 20th century. Numerous agreements have shaped these processes, and the economic institution that started out first has developed with including political and democratic issues. The Union has taken a unique form as a result of the enlargement and deepening processes that follow each other. The political structure, which increased the number of its members from six to twenty-seven, succeeded in expanding its jurisdiction from monetary Union to social issues, common foreign and security policies, and environmental issues. The European Union has a complex structure and set of rules. In fact, the institutional order of the mechanisms that the Union has in terms of its powers and decision-making is similar to the order of nation-states. The established order and decisions are taken under the umbrella of the EU cover both the governments of the member states and the peoples of the member states. Since it is not an easy thing to keep and control such a large group of people, and the EU has not been able to show its full influence recently, it has led to the questioning of the democratic values of the EU. Along with all this, the question of whether the decisions taken by the EU institutions and organizations are fully understood and reflected in the interests of the citizens of the member states has come to the fore. However, there are some circles within the EU who think that there is a “democratic deficit” despite a deeper and closer understanding of integration that the EU has advocated from the very beginning. The main reasons for such a democratic problem are the supranational position of the European Commission, which is the main political institution in the body of the EU, the work of the Council of Ministers, which is not clearly realized, and the lack of representation powers of the European Parliament, the only body in which the citizens of the EU member states are represented and also, the directly elected legislative body around the world at the supranational level. The shift of powers to the EU over time and the lack of clarity in the transparency and accountability of the decisions taken by the elites also led to a general decrease in interest in the European elections. This situation has led to a decrease in the influence of institutions and mechanisms that are representative of democratic rights. In addition to all these, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the application of post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe for membership caused the deficiencies in the political structure of the Union to come to the fore, and this situation increased the concerns that the democratic deficit would increase even more. Then, the extreme inequalities caused by the Eurozone crisis paved the way for the increase of extreme right parties within the Union. This situation has increased the extra pressures on democracy on the institutions of all EU member states. In the first part of this article, it will be evaluated how the EU’s understanding of democracy is and how it is reflected in its functioning, then, in the second part, what the democratic deficit means and how it is embodied in the Union will be examined.



The concept of democracy is a word formed by combining the Greek words demos, which means people, and Kratos, which is used to mean the strong (Schimitter and Karl, 1991). Democracy is one of the most basic forms of the political regime used to run the modern state; however, it is possible to come across different applications of democracy in today’s political arena. Robert Dahl stated at least five criteria for the establishment of democracy; these are effective participation, voting equality, enlightened understanding, the exercise of final control over political agenda, and the inclusion of all adults (Dahl, 1971). These criteria are a useful starting point for our understanding within the framework of representative democracy in the European Union. Then, Dahl articulated the best conditions to implementing democracy by highlighting elected officials, free and fair elections, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship (Dahl, 2000 pp. 86). The processes and institutions that depend on these conditions specified by Dahl can be used both in the examination of democratic states and in the evaluation of the European Union, which is a supranational institution. Discussions on the democratic structure of the European Union have been on the agenda since the Union was founded. After the Second World War, it took some time for the perception of democracy to settle and develop in Europe. First of all, it was aimed to eliminate the social and economic inequalities that emerged after the two great wars. In the following years, integrators such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman set goals for progress with the dream of a united and democratic Europe.

        2.1) Democracy in EU Institutions and Treaties 

According to Article 10 in the Treaty on the European Union, the EU “shall be founded on representative democracy” (TEU, 2010). Representative democracy was not the focus because issues of peace and economic cooperation were seen as more critical than the functioning democratic legitimacy with the national parliament. Thus, the pressures on the establishment of representative democracy within the EU resulted in direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. These elections are one of the most important events in the history of the parliament, as it provides direct legitimacy and strengthens its democratic identity. After the initiatives made with the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the European Parliament (EP) has settled into the position of co-legislator with the Council of Europe, so it is on par with the Council in most powers. In this context, the EP continues to exist as an institution that prioritizes the independence of its actions, as well as the conditions of openness, transparency, and accountability (Stie, 2013).

In particular, democratic ideals began to be included more in the agreements made after a certain period of time. Accordingly, democracy has become an indispensable part of EU membership. Candidate countries have to fulfill the acquis communautaire and Copenhagen criteria before becoming full members. In short, nation-states willing to join the EU must adopt a democratic regime and ensure its continuity. The Maastricht Treaty also brought changes in the powers and responsibilities of the Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the Parliament. The Maastricht Treaty has brought about a major change in the decision-making process by implementing the co-decision procedure. In this procedure, the parliament has been one of the joint decision-makers with the Council of Ministers in the legislative process (Bache et al., 2016). Despite all these developments, the Maastricht agreement, which aims to make the EU more democratic, has not been very successful. Nearby, with the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2007, some progress has been made in the democratization of the EU and the protection of the fundamental rights of the Union. This treaty aimed to expand and give more voice to the European Parliament and create a more democratic and transparent union (Kim and Jung, 2010).

Since the Single European Act was put into practice in 1986, the EU has tried to get the views of interest groups by including them in the policy-making process. Thus, in addition to the specialized institutions of the EU, trade unions and various interest groups were given consultancy status, aiming to include the opinions of the public in the EU’s decision-making process. In addition, attempts to ensure that European citizens have supranational citizenship rights on the basis of democratic identity formation are arguably the biggest and most effective innovations. The term “European Citizenship” is not only mentioned in the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties but it is also emphasized in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, just 65% of 

Europeans are conscious of what “citizenship of the European Union” means (European Commission, 2020). As a result, within the framework of these developments in Europe, it is seen that the conditions determined by Dahl on democracy, which was mentioned at the beginning, have been supported, protected, and developed by the European Union institutions over time.


Democratic deficit means that the level of democracy is insufficient within the framework of political institutions and procedures, according to an ideal democratic government (Crombez, 2003). The European Union continued to think that economic unity is more important in ensuring peace and stable relations until the 1990s because the countries that had a say in the establishment of the Union already had an adopted and effective understanding of democracy. However, after a certain period of time, the increase in countries that want to become a member of the European Union and the emergence of regime differences have led to the rise of consideration about the political and democratic factors. In this context, we can see that the EU has clearly fulfilled the criteria stated by Dahl in the agreements it has made in order to be accepted as democratic and to become a representative in this regard. However, the indifference that arose due to the inclusion of citizens in the functioning mechanism of the Union, the absence of any place in the national parliaments in the system, and the inability of the institutions within the European Union to carry out a sufficiently transparent process led to the emergence of the concept of democracy deficit (Moravcsik, 2002). 

      3.1) A democratic deficit in the EU 

As stated at the beginning, the concept of democracy has great importance in the European Union. The Union stipulates the existence of a democratic regime depending on the Copenhagen Criteria within the scope of membership. However, the European Union, especially recently, has been questioning democracy due to the low involvement of citizens in decision-making processes. According to some scholars, the fact that the EU does not have a certain demos so democratization cannot be mentioned in such an institution, while others support the construction of democracy by arguing the existence of a people at the European level. Considering the efforts of EU bureaucrats in the process up to the Lisbon Treaty, it can be said that they are willing to democratize. However, the existence of institutional gaps in the European Union and the questioning of how much the citizens of the member states feel they belong to this Union have led to the questioning of democracy within the Union.

It is possible to address the problem of democracy deficit from different aspects. Along with the economic crisis, the debates in the European public opinion that the EU is not sufficiently democratic and its inadequacy about transparency are increasing. When we examine the institutions, in particular, it is seen that the Parliament, the Council, and the Commission are not sufficient in terms of accountability and transparency, which are the basic building blocks of the democratic regime (Crombez, 2003). In particular, the EP is the most important body that is the direct representative of the people of Europe. Despite this important position, it has only functioned as an advisory body since the early years of the Union’s establishment. As the number of members increased and the extent of integration moved to the political arena, the powers given to the EP were tried to be increased over time. However, despite these powers, the EP does not have the authority to initiate the legislative process like national parliaments, and its limited powers cause the problem of lack of democracy. Apart from the powers of the EP, the inability of the Union to be included in the internal dynamics of the member states and their participation in their national parliaments is another factor that can create a democracy deficit (Neunreither, 2005). In addition to institutions, it can be said that the waves of enlargement also have an impact on the emergence of the democracy deficit problem. In particular, it has been argued that the membership of Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which joined the Union after the second enlargement wave, and the subsequent post-communist states of Hungary and Poland, created problems related to democracy. Accordingly, Fritz Scharpf (1997) argued that it is not sufficient to examine this problem only supranationally, and the fact that most of the member states have deficiencies in democracy also affects the effectiveness of the Union in terms of democracy. This situation also paves the way for a decrease in the trust and reputation of the European public in terms of global relations. In democracies, transparency between institutions should be ensured, and citizens should feel themselves a part of the system. However, these institutional and social problems in the European Union have hindered the development of democracy.


The phenomenon of democracy deficit, which emerged within the political integration of the European Union, has deepened with the waves of enlargement and has led to the growth of this problem in the last economic, social and political crises. The integration process, which started as disconnected from the people, is now in an effort to include the citizens in the system. The reason for such a change in the mentality since those days is the expansion of the jurisdiction of the European institutions. The increase in the powers of these institutions has made democratic control and social participation more important issues. Nevertheless, the debate that the EU is unable to meet the democratization conditions required for membership, which it has made mandatory for the countries’ application, has created the problem of democracy deficit. Increasing the powers of the European Parliament is the most important step aimed at solving the democratic deficit by including citizens in the decision-making mechanism because the parliament is the only institution in which the Union represents the people. Especially after the first steps were taken on the changes in this issue with the Maastricht Treaty, the parliament further strengthened its role in the legislative activity with the expansion of the application area of the co-decision procedure with the Lisbon Treaty. Apart from the agreements, the European Union should include social policies that can strengthen its relations with the public directly because the mutual trust and joint decision-making phenomenon that cannot be achieved with the public will continue to cause the trust in the EU to decrease both in the member states and in the international platform in the future.

Ecem Gacener 

European Studies Intern


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