Europe’s ‘Democratic Deficit’: The Question of Standards



Arguments about Europe’s democratic deficit are really arguments about the nature and ultimate goals of the integration process. Those who assume that economic integration must lead to political integration tend to apply to European institutions standards of legitimacy derived from the theory and practice of parliamentary democracies. We argue that such standards are largely irrelevant at present. As long as the majority of voters and their elected representatives oppose the idea of a European federation, while supporting far-reaching economic integration, we cannot expect parliamentary democracy to flourish in the Union. Economic integration without political integration is possible only if politics and economics are kept as separate as possible. The depoliticisation of European policy-making is the price we pay in order to preserve national sovereignty largely intact. These being the preferences of the voters, we conclude that Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ is democratically justified.

The expression ‘democratic deficit,’ however, is also used to refer to the legitimacy problems of non-majoritarian institutions, and this second meaning is much more relevant to a system of limited competences such as the EC. Now the key issues for democratic theory are about the tasks which may be legitimately delegated to institutions insulated from the political process, and how to design such institutions so as to make independence and accountability complementary and mutually supporting, rather than antithetical. If one accepts the ‘regulatory model’ of the EC, then, as long as the tasks delegated to the European level are precisely and narrowly defined, non-majoritarian standards of legitimacy should be sufficient to justify the delegation of the necessary powers.